Crash and Burn

by John Lawrence

The kindest interpretation of the embarrassing defeat suffered by House Republicans in their effort to destroy the federal government, Obamacare, or at least our nation’s credit is that Speaker John Boehner proved  to his irresponsible nihilists that their strategy was dangerous and self-defeating. 

Despite the ominous cable TV graphics of the past two weeks, it was fairly self-evident how this latest Continuing Resolution/Debt Ceiling stare down was going to end.  Assuming President Obama was adamant about not caving in to Republican legislative blackmail, House Republican leaders were going to accept a Senate-passed bill.  It was only a question of how much humiliation and damage Boehner and his House colleagues were prepared to endure before humbling themselves before Nancy Pelosi and asking for Democratic votes to save the country from a totally manufactured financial calamity.

The answer, evidently, is that Republicans were willing to order up a pretty impressive portion of humble pie, and they are likely to have a pretty impressive case of political indigestion as a result.  The Republicans didn’t fail because they didn’t have the votes; they failed because they didn’t have the smarts to devise a game plan that stood a remote chance of success from the get go. 

Senate Republicans inevitably were destined to abandon Ted Cruz and his loony act of self-destruction.  First, senators don’t like newbies who unilaterally decide they should be designing their party’s strategy.  Opposition to Cruz from experienced hands like John McCain and Lindsay Graham had nothing to do with opposing his goals, but everything to do with doubting his likelihood of success.  Rule #1 of a legislative firefight: don’t paint yourself into a corner without allies or a way out, unless you are prepared to look foolish and extreme, and lose.

GOP senators were likely sensitive to the growing concerns from the financial services and business communities that the House GOP had foolishly bought a one way ticket on the express train to meltdown.  Lots of Republican senators have a good sized personal worth; more important, they hang out with, and solicit contributions from, people with even fatter wallets.  It’s one thing to cost a GS-4 a paycheck, or ruin the season of a motel owner near a national park, but default ensures a market collapse that costs the fat cats serious money.  That’s what happened in October, 2008 when Republican diehards ignored Boehner’s pleas and voted down the TARP bill in the House, causing the Dow Jones to plummet by nearly 800 points in a matter of minutes.   That wasn’t going to happen again, which is why Boehner and Mitch McConnell made it abundantly clear days ago we weren’t going to default. 

Speaker Boehner has not been skilled at securing the Republican votes to do the things he wants or needs to do.  He couldn’t round up 218 Republican votes to pass the 2011 and 2012 CRs or the Budget Control Act that extended the debt ceiling and created the super committee and sequester framework in August, 2011.  He fell short in 2013 with the extension of middle income tax cuts, Hurricane Sandy Relief, and the Violence Against Women Act earlier this year.  When he was unable to attract large numbers of Democrats, as with the Farm Bill, he was ineffectual in passing anything at all.  Ditto, so far, on immigration reform.  He even has had to pull some of his treasured bills to defund Obamacare.  Wednesday night, despite the merciless drubbing his Conference was taking in the press and the polls, nearly two-thirds of House Republicans defied the Speaker and Majority Leader Cantor to oppose the Senate-passed bill to end the shutdown and lift the debt ceiling.

Apologists point to the belligerent Tea Party faction to explain Boehner’s predicament, a challenge Boehner confided he knew he faced even before he was sworn in as Speaker.  But gaining control over a fractious Conference is the job of any Speaker.   Nancy Pelosi had to work constantly to secure enough Democratic votes to pass major legislation like TARP, the Stimulus, Health Care, and Wall Street Reform, major priorities that passed by a few votes.  Boehner has shied away from cracking a whip on recalcitrant Republicans, except for the clumsy removal of a few dissidents from committees following their “no” votes in his Speakership re-election last January.  Boehner’s ineffectuality has been the hallmark of his Speakership because he has not developed any strategy for corralling the dissidents and bending them to his will.  Independent sources of money from wealthy donors encourage dissident Tea Partiers, and an absence of traditional inducements like earmarks are unavailable to Leadership, weakening Boehner’s hand.  But again, his job is to find another way, not complain about how challenging the job is.

His Senate counterpart has been more successful at marginalizing his (admittedly smaller) Tea Party faction and not only delivering votes to pass bills but making sure there was a little sugar in them to salve his own political wounds.   McConnell is being lauded as the “grown-up in the room” for abandoning Ted Cruz and agreeing to let the shutdown/debt ceiling bill pass.  It is worth noting, however, that his action wasn’t completely magnanimous since he managed to include a non-debated (or disclosed) rider to tripled (to $3 billion) funding for the Olmsted Locks and Dam navigation project – commonly known as an earmark.  The Olmsted project is on the Ohio River and benefits, and here’s the surprise, Kentucky!  Its connection to the shutdown/debt ceiling bill is … nothing.   

Oh, sure, Reid, McConnell and others claim the provision – already infamous as “the Kentucky kick-back” — was included at the request of the White House to prevent end of the year cost increases.  Right.  If it is so non-controversial, it probably could have made it through as a Unanimous Consent or Suspension bill before December 31 instead of being the lone rider on this freight train —  but McConnell wasn’t taking any chances, especially when he is under fire in his primary for cozying up to Reid too often. 

To be fair, there is a long tradition of giving such gifts to key legislators, often in the form of water projects or highways.   FDR famously stuck the costly Bonneville Dam into an unrelated rivers and harbors bill at the request of Senate Republican Leader Charles McNary (R-OR) because, “I’ve got to give Charlie his dam!”  (McNary, a supporter of much New Deal legislation, then ran against Roosevelt as Wendell Wilkie’s vice presidential candidate in 1940.)

The inclusion of the Olmsted project also benefits Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander who, like McConnell, is already under attack by Tea Party activists who condemn “compromise and bipartisanship, two traits for which you have become famous.”  Like McConnell, Alexander overcame his hostility to federal spending and earmarks to bring home a project that will hopefully offset anger at his support for the overall legislation.  Which is sort of the lesson, to some extent, of this entire brouhaha: you can’t take politics out of politics, and pragmatism will overcome ideology when politicians’ self-interest is satisfied. 

From time to time, Boehner will show signs of such pragmatism, and hopefully like President Obama, he has learned you probably can’t convert the zealots who implacably view you as the enemy.   And yet, in this case, he followed his zany minority of the majority down the road to perdition.  When the inevitable humiliation dawned on Wednesday, Boehner was quick to honor his troops.  “We fought the good fight,” he asserted,  “We just didn’t win.”

Didn’t win?  A few more fights like this and the Republican Party will be competing with the Whigs and Know-Nothings as political anachronisms.  According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, a majority of Americans blame Boehner and Republicans (53%) more than President Obama (31%) for the government shutdown.  Meanwhile the GOP’s party popularity rating has dropped to its lowest level ever, 24%, which is significantly below the number of people who call themselves Republicans.  Seven out of 10 American think Republicans in Congress put their own policies ahead of what is good for the country; among Republicans, 40% share that jaundiced view. 

So Republicans didn’t end up accomplished anything legislatively: they didn’t defund Obamacare, they didn’t constrain the Executive Branch from using extraordinary means for preventing the kinds of irresponsible actions the Republicans have ginned up; they didn’t even block the federal government (i.e., employers) from paying a share of government employees health plan – a phony, cynical issue if there ever was one.   (Let’s see how many Republicans voluntarily pay the government’s share, about $10,000 a year, since they thought that was such a brilliant idea.)  They got Mitch McConnell the earmark he needed to defend himself from charges of capitulation.  Well done!

But even out this debacle comes something of value: instead of convincing Americans that government is a profligate bureaucracy that vacuums up taxes and offers little in return, the shutdown may well have achieved precisely the opposite.  The two week shuttering of national parks, the suspension of important medical trials, the difficulty of small businesses and homebuyers securing needed assistance, the denial of services to veterans and a host of other functions – all well-reported by the media throughout the standoff – served to educate the public about the array of essential services and benefits the government provides. Inadvertently, the anarchic Tea Party zealots may have done more to educate the public about the need for an active government than a dozen civic lectures.

They may also have roused the cowed business community to engage in the resuscitation of the sane caucus of the Republican Party.  Dan Danner of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, recently mused that Tea Partiers “don’t really care what the NFIB thinks, and don’t care what the Chamber [of Commerce] thinks, and probably don’t care what the Business Roundtable thinks.”  David Cote, Honeywell’s chief executive, was not shy about pointing his finger at the ultra-conservatives running rings around Boehner and other House leaders.  “It’s really this faction within the Republican Party that’s causing the issue right now,” he concluded.

The Tea Party, by its irresponsible action, may have actually planted the seeds of its own eventual destruction, by provoking more moderate, deal-inclined, business-oriented interests to challenge the GOP hardliners who dislike Wall Street as much as they dislike the federal government.  But make no mistake: Cruz and his compatriots do not think they were defeated.  They do not measure their success by the bills they pass but by the policies they obstruct.  In fact, by inflating public cynicism and disdain for government, they surely believe they ably served their larger purposes.  And they live to fight another day.

A few days ago, as the Republican Conference sought divine inspiration to point a way out of the self-destructive maelstrom into which they had giddily leapt, they strangely decided to sing the funeral song, “Amazing Grace,” probably not a good sign.  The chorus of that timeless tune concludes

      I once was lost, but now I’m found

     Was blind, but now I see.

Hopefully, the House Republicans were paying attention to the lyrics they were singing.  They could use a little vision right about now.