McCarthy vs. Stiles

by Daniel Foster

Andy, Stiles is in the trenches at the Capitol covering spending issues, and does a damned fine job of it if you ask me. I know he can defend himself as or more ably, but I thought I’d note a few things in response to what you’ve written.

1) I’d love to live in a country where “responsible leadership is not always on the look-out for a ‘fail-safe’ strategy, nor is it paralyzed by polls,” where, “Because they are in the right (i.e., because this is a real crisis, not one they have manufactured for political purposes), they are also confident that they will be able to move the polls in their direction by boldly explaining why their actions are not extreme but, in fact, are the only rational response to the straits we are in.” Tell me where to find it. Tell me where to find it in a democracy. Tell me where to find it with a time machine. Truly great conservative leaders — Reagan, Thatcher — in their best moments adhered to this standard, but they were heads of state with the attendant bully pulpits, and the rhetorical chops to use them. I have great admiration for John Boehner — I think I’ve even underestimated him — but he has neither the gifts nor the institutional power of the above-mentioned. (More on this shortly).

2) You could have zeroed out non-defense discretionary spending in the C.R. and eliminated only roughly half of our current-year deficit. What would you have cut to get us the rest of the way?

3) Relatedly, you frequently refer to the “budget” deal, but in fact this was a continuing resolution in the absence of a budget. Budgeting is done, ostensibly, in the light of committee rooms and is meant to employ the full deliberative and policy-making apparatus of the Congress. It’s a long process, with a number of competing interests and veto players, and it functionally establishes the “baseline” for future spending. That’s the “continuing” part of “continuing resolution.” C.R.s take procedural shortcuts because they have the last passed budget as their starting point. Now whether that’s valid or not it’s reality, and trying to message away that reality is why it takes 20 minutes to explain to someone why the wonks, the House Republicans, and the Senate Democrats all have different numbers attached to the very same spending cuts. Though I think — I think — it’s structurally possible, a six-month C.R. is not the ideal vehicle for addressing entitlements (which is what you’d have to do to get us the other half of the way toward zeroing out the current-year deficit), not just for the above reasons, but because any changes they instituted would have a six-month expiration date. That’s why so many of us thought that the policy riders the GOP were fighting for — while nice — were not indispensable. In the deal, we won a battle on funding the hiring of new IRS agents to enforce Obamacare. But we’ll have to have that battle again in six months. And so on. I just don’t think it’s wise or even plausible to try to fundamentally reform the size and scope of the social safety net in that context. 

4) There are other ways in which institutions matter to this argument. The Constitution says revenue bills originate in the House, yes. But I’ve never really understood why this is supposed to give that body any great leverage. Like the English tradition whence it comes, the origination clause is mostly symbolic — meant to ensure that the “power of the purse” resides in the chamber closest to the people. But the 17th Amendment surely took a lot out of both the substance and the symbolism of that principle. And of course, spending bills don’t bypass the Senate or the president’s desk. They’re vetoable. They’re amendable. They enjoy no further procedural privilege whatsoever. In practice, the Senate routinely skirts the clause by the wholesale substitution of revenue/spending language in unrelated bills that have already passed the House. The upper chamber is in murky enough constitutional waters here that I’d rather they didn’t do this, and the House can and does “blue slip” such bills on constitutional grounds, but it’s hard for me to think of a case in which the origination clause materially affected a macro-level spending outcome. It’s even less consequential when one considers the full scope of the extra-constitutional practices that have come to define the Congress. For good and for ill, the legislative branch is run by leadership, appropriators, and conference committees. Origination is mostly or wholly irrelevant to that dynamic.

5) But let’s say you’re right, that the origination clause imbues the House with a kind of spending supremacy, a duty to fully dictate the budget to the other branches — even if that means holding the functioning of the government hostage. That’s terrifying. It’s abstractly terrifying because it runs counter to what I always thought set the American legislative system apart — its deliberateness. It turns the House into a kind of British parliament, able to jerk the ship of state willy-nilly. It’s materially terrifying because Democrats have controlled the House for 70 of the last 100 years. And this is instructive. It took liberals every one of those 70 years — often over opposition from fellow Democrats  — to build the bloated, inefficient, over-extended welfare state. We can’t undo it in a week. I have higher hopes for the debt ceiling and 2012 budget fights than you do. But I’m sure those won’t be pure, clean victories for “constitutionally valid objective[s] in line with the political realities and appetites of the moment” either. (Not least because the big entitlements are wildly popular — dependency’s a bitch — and we have an almost incomprehensibly large public-education task ahead of us to change that.)

All of this is to say, Andy, that I share your frustration that more was not possible. But I also believe that more was not possible. Not now. Not yet.

PS — Though I doubt it will slow down the indefatigable boo-hiss-RINO section of the commentariot, I’d also like to vigorously associate myself with Derb’s excellent take. And you can’t get to the right of Derb on government spending.

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