The debt ceiling fight raises uncomfortable questions about the Republicans ability to govern. The fast pace of events has probably caused most people to forget about the failure of the Boehner Plan, but the GOP would be well advised to draw lessons from its failure.
The entire Republican and conservative establishment united behind the plan. As David Frum put it, they were all telling the same damn lie. Yet Speaker Boehner could not even get 90% of his caucus to support his plan. In order to avoid the embarrassment, he had to shelve it. Since he desperately wanted to pass something he tacked on the balanced-budget amendment and that was enough to satisfy some of the holdouts, but 9% of the caucus still voted against the Speaker!
(That addition also fundamentally altered the substance of the plan, so it was not really another version of the Boehner Plan but another version of the previously passed Cut, Cap and Balance.)
What’s really astonishing here is that the establishment lost control of the party not over some highly controversial legislation (like a grand bargain on the entitlements and taxes) but over what had always been a routine pro forma vote, which always easily passed after a little grandstanding by the opposition party. The last election should not have changed anything; 235 House Republicans had no qualms voting for the Ryan Plan which in the near future would require even larger debt ceiling increase than the one requested by President Obama.
Fairly or not, the Bush Administration (supplemented with Republican control of Congress) did not inspire much confidence among independent voters in the Republican Party’s ability to govern. The party lost all power in 2008. Last year, seriously unhappy with the situation in the country, the independents gave the Republicans control of one half of one of the branches of federal government and put the GOP on probation. The most important task for the Republicans is to demonstrate that they can govern. Otherwise they will not be trusted with power in 2012.
So how are they doing? Not very well. Sure, with much fanfare they passed quite a few high-profile resolutions – the Obamacare repeal, the Ryan Plan, two different versions of the debt ceiling increase coupled with some strict Cut, Cap and Balance requirement… but all these resolutions have absolutely no relation to governing the country. None of them were ever intended to serve as the basis of any actual legislation. They were all just political declarations expressing certain sentiments. House Republicans could have expressed them much more succinctly if instead they had just passed the following resolution on the first day: “It is a sense of the House that Obama is a bad, bad, bad, bad president and the Democrats are a bad, bad, bad, bad party.” They would have saved a lot of time on the legislative schedule. They also would have one more House seat now.
The actual governing record is dismal. There are two kinds of governing tasks in Congress. The first is routine governing. Keeping the governing running – approving funding, authorizing necessary borrowing, confirming presidential appointments (in the Senate). House Republicans have managed that, but only barely. They have been chronically late – and will again be late with the FY2012 budget. They have engaged in constant brinkmanship, threatening not only a government shutdown, but even a sovereign default! And in the end they have been unable to pass anything important (like the budget or the debt ceiling increase) on their own - Speaker Boehner always had to rely on dozens of Democratic votes. The House operates almost as if Nancy Pelosi were a co-Speaker. It looks like nothing of substance can happen without at least her tacit approval. The Republicans not so much control the House as merely prevent the Democratic control of it. This is especially troubling given that Republicans actually have their biggest majority in the House since the first half of the last century.
Things still get even worse when we look at the non-routine part of governing. Besides keeping the government running, the Congress needs to address major issues of the day. We have plenty of those – bad economy, high unemployment, really high long-term unemployment, the looming entitlements crisis, skyrocketing medical costs, rapidly rising education costs, irrational immigration policies, etc. What have House Republicans done on these issues? Nothing!
They have wasted inordinate amounts of time in arduous fights over the most trivial and inconsequential budget cuts in the current fiscal year. They have wasted a lot of time passing political statements masquerading as legislation. They will still spend who knows how much time passing the next year’s budget (incidentally, due already next month – not that it will be anywhere near ready by that time). And it is unlikely that anything substantive will be done during the presidential election campaign. All this means that the current Congress will probably end without a single legislative achievement to its name. Sure, they will have passed some backloaded budget cuts – which will then be promptly undone by the next Congress. It is clear that House Republicans have no intention to achieve any meaningful lasting bipartisan reform.
The plan seems to be to wait till the next election and bet the farm on its outcome. This is wrong on so many levels. To begin with, it’s a huge gamble. A unified Democratic government is actually a likelier outcome than a unified Republican government. Some of the current problems are really acute – the unemployed cannot just wait for the next election! Other problems will get harder to solve – e.g. every day ten thousand retiring Baby Boomers are applying for benefits. And divided government is actually more conducive for a genuine bipartisan compromise than a unified one.
The GOP needs to prove that it is able (and willing!) to govern before the election – unless it wants to risk losing it. House Republicans need to work with the Democrats on real solutions to some of the most important problems. Showing actual results to the independent voters is much more important than demonstrating ideological purity to the Tea Partiers. The Republican leadership also needs to reassert control over the party. After all, why should the president negotiate with Boehner when he cannot even deliver his own caucus?
Some ruthlessness will be necessary. After all, the disproportionate influence of the Tea Party is based on the fear that it inspires in the hearts of Republicans by mounting primary challenges with no regard to the consequences. This fear can be seen, for example, in Sen. Hatch who now acts as if his body was snatched by Rep. Chaffetz. It is time Republican politicians started fearing the leadership too. If it is too impractical to punish all the insurgents in the House, then at least the ringleaders should be punished. Conveniently, one Republican seat will have to be cut in Ohio before the next election. The leadership needs to ensure it will be Rep. Jordan’s seat. If anybody other than him is redistricted out of the House in Ohio, the leadership will have even harder time controlling the Republican caucus in the next Congress.
The RNC, NRSC and NRCC should also declare that any candidate signing any pledge to any organization outside the official Republican Party will be automatically ineligible for party funding. After all, if politicians pledge allegiance to some external entities, is not it fair to expect those entities to fund them?