Change We (Just Might Be Able to) Believe In

by John Lawrence

Three important developments in Washington this week deserve recognition because, individually and collectively, they provide a hint that we might be beginning to stagger our way out of the obstructionism, stalemate and partisanship that has been frustrating both the American public and most elected officials.

In some ways, the fairly modest agreement in Congress to pass a budget plan that replaces the next two years of the sequester is the least significant.  Of course, it is important to legislate pro-actively instead of letting the government careen from crisis to crisis.  And the deal fashioned by the respective Budget chairs retained an essential balance in the 2011 budget deal that requires equivalent savings from domestic discretionary spending and military spending.   Significantly, the agreement establishes, contrary to some public opinion, that the parties are capable of acting in the national interest when it is absolutely essential to do so (as it did when the FAA was exempted from sequestration, or when an agreement was found to prevent a debt ceiling default).  In Washington these days, that counts as  progress!

It should be noted, however, that as with almost every significant budgetary vote over the past three years of Republican rule, including a series of Continuing Resolutions in 2011-2012, the mid-2011 budget agreement (which created the select committee and the sequester fallback) and the 2013 tax bill, a substantial contingent of the House Republican Conference refused to acquiesce in the agreement fashioned by its leaders.  In most of those earlier votes, fewer than 180 Republicans voted “yea,” forcing Speaker Boehner to rely repeatedly on Democrats (who often played no role in fashioning the agreement and were not thrilled with the bill) to make up the difference to reach the 218 votes needed for passage.  Boehner’s continued reliance on Democratic votes in the 112th Congress is one reason he came within just three votes of losing the Speakership last January.

The syndrome repeated itself this week as the House voted overwhelmingly, 332-94, for the Murray-Ryan budget bill.  But it is important to read deeper into the numbers.  Of the 332 “yea” votes, only 169 were Republicans.  That means that 30% of the Republican Caucus – over 70 Republicans – voted “no,” which happens to comport with the generally accepted number of Tea Party acolytes in the Chamber.  (Democrats, by contrast, voted 85% for the budget deal.)  For all the work that went into writing and marketing a bipartisan budget plan to avert another government shutdown and relieve the pressures of sequestration, it appears the Hoping-for-Doomsday Caucus remained unmoved and, therefore, a continuing thorn in Speaker Boehner’s side.

Which is why the second major development of the week merits careful attention.  Coincidentally, earlier in the week, I was giving a talk at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, focusing on the current state of stasis affecting the Congress.  Noting the notable achievements of Congress just a few years ago (which counters the frequent assertion that the institution is incapable of functioning), I placed blame mainly on a minority of the majority for whom failure is success, a band of nihilists who are enthused, not demoralized, by any evidence of government’s incompetence – even if they are happily the source of the dysfunction.  The current situation would change, I noted, not when Congress implements some extravagant internal reforms (which its inaction makes it pretty clear it won’t), but when Republican leaders tire of allowing the Tea Party minority to dictate strategy and policy.

“Politics isn’t going to become more efficient until politicians become more invested in effectiveness rather than obstruction,” I said at Princeton.  “And, frankly, that means Republicans are going to have to rescue the Grand Old Party from the Tea Party.  There is still too much deference to those who are dedicated to gumming up the works.  Serving in the majority carries with it an obligation to govern responsibly, to address serious challenges, and to find common ground, and that simply has not been happening.”

In past blogs, I have criticized Boehner for “cuddling up to the nullifiers” and predicted, last March, that we would eventually arrive at a “moment when Speaker Boehner will have to decide whether he is leading a cycle that marks the rise of Republican reasonableness, or if he is content to be a partisan obstructionist happy to continue the cycle of Republican electoral losses.” (Boehner: Embracing the Cycle or Fighting It?, March 2013)

Seemingly on cue (maybe a little late, actually), Speaker Boehner rose up this week against the conservative advocacy groups (and by implication, their funders) that have been whipping the Right into a destructive fury since they won back control of the House in 2010.  Elected leaders who serve in the majority tend to be deferential to those whose victories elevated their party into the majority – Nancy Pelosi termed the wave of incoming Democrats the “majority makers” in 2006, but the group that played the crucial role in 2010 for Boehner was largely the product of grassroots activism with little deference, before or after the election, to the party establishment.  Repeatedly over the last few years, this faction (and the groups egging them on) have rejected compromises fashioned by Boehner (a devoted dealmaker for most of his congressional career), plunging the country into manufactured crisis after crisis.

“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Boehner told his Republican Conference on Wednesday.  “They are not fighting for conservative policy.  They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it.  It’s ridiculous.”

Boehner’s outburst was provoked no doubt not only by the opposition to the budget deal and the loony rhetoric of his eccentric colleagues, but by a growing frustration with outside interests – who never have to produce 218 votes for anything – who are threatening incumbent Republicans with primary challenges from the Right. Such threats not only make his role as Speaker more challenging, forcing him to rely on Democratic votes to govern (thereby further infuriating the Right), but simultaneously force him to spend more of his time raising vast sums to protect his loyal Republican Members from special interest, right wing spend-a-thons.  In the last few weeks, traditional pro-business groups have also issued a challenge to the Tea Party right, threatening to raise money to protect operational conservatives who do not equate good faith deal-making with abandonment of moral principles.  The business groups scored an early victory in last month’s Alabama primary for an open House seat.

The obvious question is how Boehner’s challenge to the Right plays out both legislatively over the next year on such crucial issues as immigration and the farm bill, and in January, 2015.  Should Democrats regain the majority next November, Boehner probably doesn’t need to worry much about his fate as Republican Leader because his colleagues likely would look for someone new (especially since the seats he would lose would be more centrist, leaving the Tea Party activists in even stronger position within the Conference). However, should Republicans retain the House majority, some of those GOP House Members who grudgingly gave Boehner a vote earlier this year might, in light of his str9ng condemnation of the hard right, be less likely to be generous a year from now.  And when you win the speakership by a 2 vote margin, you obviously don’t have a lot of votes to give away.  So, good for Boehner for looking beyond his own self-interest and wrapping a few knuckles that deserved to be hammered.
The last important development of the week was the overdue decision by the White House to shake up the President’s insular crew by bringing in some seasoned hands to right the badly listing ship of state.  The always constructive Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell characterized the staff change as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” but that’s a little strong. 

Congressional players will welcome the return of longtime senior House strategist Phil Schiliro, who also worked for Sen. Tom Daschle and served as director of the White House legislative office during the first term of the Obama Administration.  Schiliro will help with House and Senate communications, which has not been a strong suit for the White House.  Schiliro also is a policy powerhouse who played a key role in the development and sale of the Affordable Care Act, and bringing him back, belatedly, will undoubtedly help with the formidable task of reversing public skepticism about the law and erasing the black marks against its flawed rollout.  Tellingly, Obama this week also replaced the director of congressional relations, Miguel Rodriguez, whose tenure was not well received on the Hill, with Katie Fallon, an aide to Sen. Charles Schumer. 

In addition to adding Schiliro and Fallon, Obama will benefit from the recruitment of John Podesta as counselor.  Podesta, highly-regarded as the founder of the Center for American Progress think tank, will add some mature and experienced presence to a staff that could profit from some outside mature and experienced presence.  Podesta managed Bill Clinton through the Lewinsky disaster and helped him improbably emerge as a highly regarded President only a couple of years after impeachment.  Both Schiliro and Podesta have the chops to perform a vital staff function for any elected official: tell the boss when he’s wrong, when he is being led adrift by the acolytes, and when he needs to be more engaged in explaining policies and priorities to the American people.

So on three counts, an important, consequential week that might – might – signify one of those sometimes-imperceptible shifts in Washington politics.  Since much of the press this week seemed more obsessed with the President taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, I thought it made some sense to point out the more consequential changes that might be in the offing.