You Don’t Get Everything You Want in Divided Government

by Reihan Salam

Last night, I had a brief opportunity to discuss the new budget deal struck by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, and I’ve been amused by some of the reactions. We’ve been led to understand that the Obama administration is delighted by the deal, and perhaps that is true. But if the deal goes through, and there is no guarantee that it will, the president and his allies will find themselves in a difficult position. The government shutdown appears to have damaged the U.S. economy to a nontrivial degree, and the OMB (not an entirely unbiased source, but staffed by serious professionals) estimated that it cost the federal government, and thus taxpayers, roughly $2 billion in lost productivity. It was, however, a tremendous political boon to President Obama and a huge hit to the GOP brand, despite the fact that some Republican lawmakers appear to have benefited from it as individuals. Things have changed since, thanks largely (one assumes) to unfavorable news coverage surrounding Obamacare implementation.   

And now the new Quinnipiac survey suggests that the other shoe is dropping for President Obama, i.e., self-identified Democrats are jumping ship:

President Barack Obama’s job approval among American voters drops to a new low, a negative 38 – 57 percent, as the outlook for Democrats running for Congress and the U.S. Senate fades also, according to a national poll released today. He even gets a negative 41 – 49 percent among voters 18 to 29 years old and a lackluster 50 – 43 percent approval among Hispanic voters.

The president’s job approval compares to a negative 39 – 54 percent score in a November 12 survey by the independent Quinnipiac (KWIN-uh-pe-ack) University.

Today, Obama gets negative scores of 6 – 92 percent among Republicans, 30 – 62 percent among independent voters, 31 – 64 percent among men, 44 – 49 percent among women and 29 – 65 among white voters. Approval is 76 – 18 percent among Democrats and 85 – 9 percent among black voters.

The president’s performance among African Americans is impressive, and it closely mirrors his 93-6-1 showing among black voters in the 2012 election. But in 2012, the white electorate split its vote 39-59-2 and the Latino electorate split its vote 71-27-2. Approval ratings don’t necessarily map onto electoral outcomes, but it certainly looks as though the president’s position has eroded in recent months. One consequence of this erosion is that House Republicans, the gang that can’t shoot straight, are in much better shape:

American voters say 41 – 38 percent that they would vote for a Republican over a Democrat for the U.S. House of Representatives, the first time this year the Democrats come up on the short end of this generic ballot. Independent voters back Republican candidates 41 – 28 percent. Voters also say 47 – 42 percent that they would like to see Republicans gain control of the U.S. Senate and the House. Independent voters go Republican 50 – 35 percent for each.

Congressional Republicans fare particularly well among white voters (48-31), a constituency that tends to be overrepresented in the midterm electorate. So it’s hard to disagree with Jim Geraghty’s assessment of the budget deal:

This, or any other long-term deal, avoids a government shutdown for the next two years. And you have to figure Barack Obama and Harry Reid are itching to have another government shutdown, as it provided the Democrats their one most optimistic political moment, just before Obamacare the Destructor appeared on the horizon.

Shrewdly, the Obama administration is praising the deal, as this feeds a dynamic in which congressional Republicans looking to improve their standing among conservative primary voters attack the deal. (This doesn’t apply to Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, but I feel comfortable putting some of the other GOP critics in this box.) Some of these Republicans will actively seek to derail it.

So let’s keep a few facts in mind. Per the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget,

The package would provide $45 billion of sequester relief in FY2014 and $23 billion in FY2015, split evenly between defense and non-defense. This $63 billion of costs would be offset with $85 billion of cuts and user fees over ten years, including from:

  • Increasing airline security fees (Read our discussion of this policy here)
  • Increasing PBGC premiums (Read our discussion of this policy here)
  • Reform federal civilian and military pension benefits (Read our discussion of this policy here)
  • Extend Medicare and other mandatory spending sequester cuts into 2022 and 2023
  • Reduce overpayments and other fraud
  • Other spending cuts and user fees, including extending customs fees, ending the ability of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to accept oil, reforming some mineral leases, among many others

As more details become available, we will continue to study and analyze the proposal. At face, the package appears to replace some of the abrupt mindless sequester cuts with more gradual and targeted reform while reducing deficits by $23 billion over the next decade and more in the following decade.

These measures are modest, but they represent real reforms. If we don’t raise Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation premiums, for example, there is good reason to believe that taxpayers will have to finance a bailout in the not-too-distant future. Increasing airline security fees is not ideal, and my preference would be that we rethink the government’s role in this domain more broadly. But as Ryan and Murray have both emphasized, the nature of divided government is that you don’t get everything you want.

The biggest and most important aspect of this package is that it spares the military from poorly-designed front-loaded cuts that might severely degrade U.S. capabilities. These is a reasonable long-run case for defense austerity, but sequestration actually protects the spending that needs to be reformed most (virtually all costs associated with personnel) while targeting important capital investments. It’s amazing that congressional conservatives need to be reminded of this, but rival powers are making substantial investments in precision-guided munitions and other technologies that are designed to counter the U.S. military’s traditional approach to projecting power. If we do not make investments of our own, our ability to defend our interests will deteriorate much faster than you might think. This is not a joke. One gets the strong impression that Paul Ryan understands that this is not a joke.

To put this as polemically possible, Paul Ryan’s critics are (a) playing into the hands of President Obama and congressional Democrats, who see Republican infighting and a shutdown fight redux as the bailout they badly need to stay in the game this coming year, and (b) they don’t seem particularly vexed about the fact that defense sequestration is a huge win for the People’s Liberation Army’s efforts to make the Western Pacific a more dangerous environment for the U.S. and its allies. For the record, I care more about (b) than (a), but others will disagree and you’re welcome to pick your poison. I have plenty of disagreements with Ryan, but he is absolutely in the right here.