The Burdens of Governing

by John Lawrence

Now that the Republican majorities in the Senate and the House are settling into their new responsibilities of governing, it seems timely to look at a few indications of how successfully they have made the transition from a nagging, haggling, finger-pointing minority to mature legislators.

Speaker John Boehner declared he was “trying to get off to a fast start here.” Well, actually, not so much; but the session is young, so we can hope. There are a few early indications that the burden of actually governing (not necessarily an objective for some of the GOP) is beginning to encourage the emergence of factions as leadership presses for pragmatism (the burden of leadership) but the fringe (which in this case is a substantial one) clings to the old game plan of gumming up the works.

Rep. Charlie Dent (PA) is one of those middle level Republicans who might actually be interested in responsible governance. It didn’t take him long to criticize the chaos that enveloped the GOP conference in January. “Week one, we had a speaker election that did not go well,” said Dent, recalling the 25 GOP votes against John Boehner’s re-election as Speaker, a modern record. “Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors. I just can’t wait for week four.”

C’mon Charlie: you know what had to happen in Week 4: Repeal the Affordable Care Act, #56! This time, they did include the Republican “alternative”: a mandate that committees go back and work on finding alternatives. It took Democrats a few decades to get to that point, so, good luck. Now that the law is in effect, of course, there are real consequences to repeal without replacement: 19 million of them, by the end of the year, according to the Congressional Budget Office – American who have gained health care from the ACA.

By the way, it was reported this week that despite all the bluster and bravado that they would never – never! – acquiesce in the ACA, Republican governors are lining up to participate in the Medicaid expansion program, which will bring health coverage to millions of lower income Americans. And we aren’t talking moderate Republicans: GOP governors in Tennessee, Indiana, Wyoming, Utah, Alaska and Montana are all negotiating with the Obama Administration, in some cases receiving waivers to allow states to charge some beneficiaries copayments (which isn’t the end of the world as long as they do not create a barrier to service). Who’s next: Idaho? Oh, yes, Idaho is negotiating, too. It was always difficult to believe that states would allow the 100% federal funding (declining down the road to a still-generous to 90%) for expanded Medicaid to slip through their fingers. Frankly, it is surprising it took them so long, since those sick poor people do not just disappear if the state refuses to participate. They keep arriving at the emergency rooms, pushing up the costs of care and insurance premiums for everyone in the state.

Not everyone has decided to put aside campaign rhetoric and concentrate on serious governing, however, which is good because the irreconcilably taciturn provide great copy for blogs. Hands down, so to speak, Sen. Thom Tillis, the NC freshman Republicans, wins the foot-in-mouth award for January for his bold opposition to intrusive government mandates that interfere with the sacred rights of free enterprise. Tillis declared that one business regulation we could dispense with is the mandate that restaurant employees be required to wash their hands before leaving the restroom. “As long as they post a sign that says ‘we don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom’,” Tillis said, no problem! “The market will take care of that.” Wait minute!! So, it is wrong to require restaurant workers to wash their hands, but it is OK to require restaurant owners to post un-sanitation notices?

And speaking of the Senate, Mitch McConnell is having his own problems as Majority Leader lining up votes on the Department of Homeland Security bill. Lacking sufficient votes, McConnell has decided to force senators to vote repeatedly, hoping to shake loose a few and reach the 60 votes he needs. But according to Fox News, some Republican senators aren’t any too pleased at being manipulated by their new leader, who is being pulled “every which way.” Sen. John McCain counsels, “No one has a strategy yet. We’re going to have to build consensus.”

Back in the House, they can pass bills all day long that are doomed in the Senate or invite a veto (that will always be sustained), but small numbers of Republicans are making it clear they have problems with the symbolic votes Speaker Boehner is throwing to the Tea Party to show he hears their grumbling. A number of Southwestern Republicans voted against the provisions to roll back President Obama’s executive order on immigration; unhappy Republican women forced Boehner to pull an anti-abortion bill.   And three Republicans even voted against the ACA repeal. These are small numbers, but they illustrate the dilemma that afflicts all House majorities: as the Conference (or Caucus) gets bigger as a result of winning marginal seats, factions develop because those marginal Members understand they did not get elected to march in lock step with the hard-core base. Those divisions will become even more pronounced as we get further into the year and Boehner has to start rounding up votes for appropriations bills, continuing resolutions, a debt ceiling increase or realistic legislative objectives.

One group that won’t be going out of its way to be helpful to Boehner, however, is the newly formed House Freedom Caucus which is on guard to ensure that no one – not a left-wing President or a suspect Speaker — sells out American freedom. The HFC looks like a group that will challenge Boehner regularly and prepare alternative leadership choices down the road. The HFC, which one Republican staffer “the craziest of the crazy,” sports leadership from the likes of Rep. Jim Jordan and Raúl R. Labrador, neither of whom is likely to make Boehner’s life any easier. “They’re not legislators, they’re just assholes,” Roll Call quotes a high-ranking Republican staff person as saying. “These guys have such a minority mindset that the prospect of getting something done just scares them away, or pisses them off.” Those kinds of comments are reminiscent of the searing analysis of former longtime GOP Senate staffer Mike Lofgren who warned a few years back that the Republican Party “is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult.”

And it isn’t even President’s Day yet!

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