How Budget Brinkmanship Hurts the GOP

by Reihan Salam

There is still a chance that we can avert a government shutdown. Peter Suderman reports that there is growing interest in attaching the Vitter amendment (which prevents the Office of Personnel Management from allowing members of Congress and their staffers to use their current employer contributions towards purchasing insurance on the new state-based exchanges) to the CR. The Vitter amendment has a political logic to it — the public has no qualms about what amounts to cutting the compensation of legislators and staffers but the political economy logic — that legislators and staffers will be more inclined to delay implementation of the ACA if they have to pay more for health insurance — strikes me as flawed, for reasons Peter explains:

[T]he obvious comeback is that, if it’s just a pay cut, then legislators could give their staffers (who are the most vulnerable here) raises to compensate for the lost incomes. Maybe Congress would be criticized for doing so, but it might not be as visible as a grand uniform salary raise for everyone on the Hill. A big part of the fear is “brain drain”—the early exodus of high-quality staffers as a result of benefits reductions. As those folks leave, Hill offices could simply begin hiring at higher salary rates that make up for what’s been lost.

Moreover, Hill staffers aren’t in it for the money, or at least they’re not in it for the money in an obvious, short-term sense. Many staffers go on to more lucrative government relations roles in the private sector, leveraging the expertise and the networks they’ve built over time. This opportunity won’t suddenly evaporate, particularly for Hill staffers who can rely on other sources of income, e.g., a working spouse or other family resources. The Vitter amendment might contribute to a narrowing of the talent pool of Hill staffers, which is a bad thing. But it seems like a reasonable price to pay for averting a shutdown.

I agree with Jim Geraghty and Matt Welch, among many others: the looming shutdown represents a lost political opportunity for Republicans. The same is true of the upcoming debt limit fight. A minority of congressional Republicans are addicted to these impossible-to-win cosmic battles, which keep rescuing the president and his allies from taking responsibility for a lackluster domestic policy agenda.

Conservatives are on the cusp of developing an attractive reform agenda that represents a serious, affordable alternative to the Democratic vision of a federal government much larger in scale but more importantly in scope. But every time we have a new round of budget brinkmanship, this still-developing agenda gets derailed. This is a much bigger problem for Republicans than for Democrats, and more importantly, it is huge problem for the country.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.