GOP Deadline Management: Dynamite in March, Dud in October


I've received a fair amount of pushback from commenters here about my contention, which I have repeated during TV appearances, that the Republican Party has squandered what should have been a good hand in extracting conditions to a debt-ceiling increase, in keeping near-term federal spending flat, and in using the Obamacare rollout as a galvanizing moment for reform-and-replace. While I do not think a government shutdown in itself is a horrible thing, and may in fact produce positive side-effects, I think it self-inflicts unnecessary damage to otherwise achievable Republican efforts to constrain government. 

This conclusion rests in part on the sharp contrast between how the House leadership handled a bundle of similar deadlines back in March, and its behavior here in Blocktober.

In mid-January of this year, after having blundered their way to a "fiscal cliff" deal that jacked up taxes without cutting government or dealing with the looming entitlements tidal wave, battered House Republicans faced three more deadlines that seemed destined to further irritate a crisis-fatigued public. These were:

1) Late February/early March: When a new debt-ceiling increased was estimated to be needed.

2) March 1: When the sequestration budget cuts were scheduled to take effect unless negotiated away.

3) March 27: When a new continuing resolution would be required to finance the federal government.

Faced with this unpromising hand, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did something almost shockingly shrewd: He kicked the debt-ceiling deadline down the road to May 18, while attaching to this delay a provision requiring the Senate to finally pass a budget by April 15, something Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) had flagrantly failed to accomplish for more than three years. This had the benefit of spacing out and diffusing the man-made March crises into three distinct events, while putting Democrats on the defensive and creating political pressure to re-introduce some basic adult responsibility to the budgeting process.

As third-ranking House Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said at the time:

The Senate has never even passed a budget. It is the rule and the law that by April 15 you have to, so what we're saying is, we will extend the debt limit until the timeline when you have a budget, a roadmap….We think it's only right that both [chambers] lay out their roadmap to put on a path to a balanced budget. […]

If individuals cannot pass a budget, why should taxpayers pay their salary?…I mean, that's the most fundamental thing you do, and how do you ever stop digging yourself in the hole if you don't pass a budget?

A reasonable-sounding observation.

Left to stand on its own, the March 1 sequester took place, marking the first year-over-year cut in military spending in a generation, keeping federal spending flat, and providing what Grover Norquist recently described as tremendous leverage in a possible long-term entitlements deal. (I think Norquist is wrong about that, but he is considerably better informed.)

Then on March 6, the House passed a continuing resolution funding the federal government—at essentially flat levels—for the rest of the fiscal year (through Sept. 30). After some Senate and House tweaking, President Barack Obama signed the CR into law later that month. Two up, two down.

And then lo! The Senate actually passed a budget, on March 23, no less. It was for $3.7 trillion, included tax hikes, and was passed without a single Republican vote, but here you finally had the Democratic Party's values attached to concrete numbers. Two days earlier, the House had passed its own budget without a single Democratic vote, lowering taxes, cutting benefits (especially from Medicare), and costing $3.5 trillion.

It's worth pausing to remember how much Republicans managed to accomplish with their flimsy House majority in just two short months. Federal spending for fiscal 2013 was flattened (at around $3.5 trillion) and locked into law. The budget for 2014 was honing in on just $3.6 trillion—an appalling number, to be sure, but also basically flat. Voter-alienating deadline-brinksmanship was mostly tabled, and there were concrete hopes that the irresponsible era of continuing resolutions might finally get dragged in the direction of responsibility. 

When you don't control the Senate or the White House, your possibilities for big policy victories are limited. The GOP House managed, in this comparatively weakened position, to do what unified Republican rule during the George W. Bush era never even contemplated: restraining the growth in government. Which is only a beginning, to be sure, but a decent starting point for making the 2014 elections about starting to finally cut government, with concrete proposals about what goes or shrinks first.

So how on earth did that promising template lead to a government shutdown over not an annual budget, but yet another goddamned continuing resolution?

In part, because the chaotic Republican conference on Capitol Hill failed to heed one of the political lessons from March: That unbundling is your friend.

With both a new fiscal year and Obamacare starting on Oct. 1, plus a new debt ceiling deadline penciled in for Oct. 17, Republicans conflated all three, instead of separating them out. The 2014 budget, or post-Sept. 30 continuing resolution, became about the Quixotic mission to defund Obamacare. The shutdown is now morphing into the debt ceiling. Americans may have agreed with the GOP about Obamacare, and really agreed with them about attaching spending cuts to a debt-ceiling increase, but they reject shutting down the government for those ends. Now the headlines are all about the thing voters hate, which will conceivably mute their appetite for insisting on the things they support as part of a big, bundled settlement.

The original tactical sin here, in my view, happened just after those budgetary votes last March. Republicans in both chambers, at the instigation of their Tea Party minority, simply refused to appoint a conference committee to hash out the differences between the $3.5 trillion and $3.7 trillion budgets. Over and over again.

Remember those epic CSPAN battles between Angry Birds and Wacko Birds earlier this year? Many of them were over the issue of appointing budget conferees:

"What are we on my side of the aisle doing?" McCain snapped Tuesday.

"We don't want a budget, unless, we put requirements on the conferees that are absolutely out of line and unprecedented. We are not helping ourselves with the American people at all," he said. […]

McCain has had remarkable exchanges on the Senate floor this week with several Republican senators who come from the Tea Party wing of the party: Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. All oppose allowing for a budget conference and McCain has assailed their arguments.

McCain Thursday accused Lee of either not understanding the congressional budget process or of making deliberately misleading comments.

Lee responded by saying that fears Republicans will get drawn into a budget negotiation that will result in a "backroom deal" that violates GOP values.

"We are fully aware that Washington and the establishment in both parties don't like what we're saying," Lee said. "In case no one's noticed, the way Washington works stinks."

The Wacko Birds have been among the few genuinely interesting blocs of politicians to emerge on Capitol Hill in my lifetime. But if there was evidence of a plausible Plan B here, I have yet to see it. After successfully foisting a budgetary process onto an intransigent Senate, the insurgents decided they were just too radical for all that governing stuff.

The federal government right now could be operating with a $3.6 trillion budget, Republicans could be throwing I-told-you-so parties about the Obamacare rollout while popularizing their concrete plans for near-term reform and post-2014 overhaul, and the then-standalone debt-ceiling increase debate could have ended up in a rout, with a public-backed GOP extracting long-term spending concessions from a stubborn but outnumbered president.

Instead of any of that, Americans are focusing on a shutdown they overwhelmingly dislike, which they blame more on Republicans than Democrats. It is extremely difficult to see how prolonging this stalemate will enhance either the GOP's negotiating position today or its electoral prospects a year from now. (That includes the electoral prospects for Liberty Movement types in primary fights.) It would be both ironic and unfortunate if the healthy and long-overdue push to make the Republican Party even a little bit fiscally conservative produced a political result that handcuffs its ability to apply fiscal conservatism on government. As ever, I will be happy to be proven wrong.