by Yuval Levin
Perhaps because it doesn’t fit the “House Republicans are crazy yahoos” narrative favored by most of the political press, the move the House GOP has put together in the past few weeks and finalized today on the debt ceiling has not gotten the coverage and analysis it deserves. To the extent that it has been discussed, it has been so (not surprisingly) in the terms preferred by the White House—that the House GOP is giving up and conceding the president’s leverage and power. But in fact, a look at the actual five-page bill they passed leaves me thinking that this is a very shrewd move, and a real strategic turn for congressional Republicans—finally leaving behind what was a plausible strategy in the leadup to a presidential election for what is a plausible strategy in the wake of a bad president’s reelection.
As I’ve argued around here before, a divided congress is an unusual situation that creates unusual political dynamics. A particularly adept chief executive could use those to strengthen his position (in this case making the Democratic senate less relevant by working directly with the Republican House), but President Obama’s track record in dealing with congress suggests he can’t. Instead, the politics of our divided congress is more likely to weaken the president’s position by making it so difficult to get anything out of the congress that anything agreed to by both houses is almost certain to get signed by the president—making the House-Senate relationship the crucial one.
Since taking over the Congress in 2011, House Republicans have sought to contrast themselves with the president, to put some pressure on him and make his re-election less likely, and so they have tended to lock themselves in combat (especially on fiscal issues) with the White House rather than the Senate, giving the president more leverage if also more trouble. They gained some modest spending cuts out of that effort in 2011 and kept the fiscal-cliff tax increase after the election lower than it might have been, but the president did get reelected. Now that he has, Republicans need to think anew about their strategic situation and their goals.
Those goals, given the reality of being the minority party in Washington, are I think roughly four: obtain whatever modest spending and deficit reduction is possible, prevent the Democrats from pushing further left, keep the House, and take the Senate. The basic strategic disposition of the past two years would not well serve those ends—especially the last two, since a politics of constant crisis (which is naturally what happens when a House majority and a president from opposite parties try to legislate together directly) allows the Democrats to argue that Washington is dysfunctional because of House Republicans.
What should the Republicans’ basic approach be then, given their goals? I think the answer is regular order—that is, they should push to run the government in the way laid out by the Constitution and our political tradition: If you want to enact a law, have one house of congress pass legislation and have the other house pass or amend or reject it; if they’ve passed different versions, have them conference and agree on a final bill to be voted on by both; and then send the bill to the president and see if he’ll sign or veto it. This process has barely existed in the last two years, and it hasn’t existed at all when it comes to significant legislation.
Both because House Republicans have wanted to fight the president and because Senate Democrats have wanted to hide their party’s views from voters, the Senate has basically not done its day-to-day work since the 2010 elections. The Senate has not passed a budget since 2009, it did not lead the way in any of the fiscal battles of the last congress, it has taken up no major bills, and its Democratic members have done their best to leave behind no voting record. When Republicans succeeded in getting a Senate vote on President Obama’s budget last year, for instance, Democratic senators all voted against it, and it received zero votes. The senate has been absent from governing, at least until the very final stages of various fiscal showdowns, when there is no regular order but only leadership bills already negotiated with the House or the president.
It would make sense for the Democrats to continue this pattern, since that would frustrate all four of the Republicans’ post-election goals: By strengthening the president and isolating House Republicans it would weaken the GOP’s ability to limit spending and would give the Democrats a better shot at shaping fiscal agreements. By yielding a set of chaotic confrontations in which the president, as a unitary figure, inevitably looks better than the House, it gives the Democrats an argument against the Republican House in 2014. And by shielding vulnerable Democratic senators from hard votes, it helps the Democrats protect their Senate majority.
For the same reason, now that the presidential election is over it would make sense for Republicans to try to change how things are done in Washington. A return to some regular order legislating would give them a chance to advance their agenda and restrain the Democrats because more decisions might be made in the one forum in which the two parties are evenly matched—the House-Senate conference committee—while the president would be kept at arm’s length from the legislative process and would be left a little weaker and less relevant. If the House were to force that return to regular order by doing its job and shaming the Senate into doing its own, it could more easily answer the charge that the House is chaotic and crazy. And if the Senate is forced to actually legislate, vulnerable Democrats could not so easily escape their party’s unpopular policy agenda.
The fiscal-cliff fight, in no small part because it came so soon on the heels of the election, followed the pattern of the last congress, and at first it looked as though the debt ceiling fight might too. But over the last few weeks, Republicans have clearly thought through their situation and their goals and have decided to use the limited power they have to change the structure of our fiscal debates to far better serve their goals.
The bill the House passed today basically trades a bad fight (on the debt ceiling) for a better one for Republicans (on the sequester and budget), and in the trade also may well manage to significantly reduce the president’s role in the coming fiscal fights and shame Senate Democrats into producing a politically painful budget resolution.
The bill effectively redefines the debt limit to go into effect on a specific date (in this case May 19) rather than when a specific level of debt is reached, while prohibiting the administration from borrowing more than is required by law until then. This lets the House control the timing of the next debt-ceiling fight, and makes sure that it comes after the debate about how to handle the sequester and the expiration of the continuing resolution currently authorizing federal spending.
At this point, especially given the Hagel nomination and the signal it sends about the administration’s lack of interest in the military’s future capacity, I suspect Republicans are inclined to just allow the sequester to take effect and see if the Democrats are concerned enough about its domestic-discretionary cuts to offer other spending cuts in its place. And because the House Republican bill pressures Senate Democrats to propose a budget (by making an issue of their failure to do so) the budget debate that must come when the CR expires will more likely be a House-Senate budget fight rather than a House-Obama one.
So in effect, rather than try to wield the prospect of default for leverage and walk into another pointless process with the president, Republicans have moved to take control of the timing, the subjects, the form, and the setting of the coming fiscal fights, changing each a bit in their own favor, making the president less relevant, and setting Senate Democrats up for some politically difficult votes. It’s what you would do if you started by asking what you’re realistically trying to achieve and then designed a strategy, rather than by just flailing about.
Will it work? We won’t know for some time, but the early indications will have to do with whether the Democrats allow the change of subject and whether the Senate permits itself to be pushed into considering a budget. It seems both will indeed happen. Both the Senate leadership and the White House have said they will approve the House Republican bill, and Senator Patty Murray (who now chairs the Senate Budget Committee) put out a statement today saying that “the Senate will once again return to regular order and move a budget resolution through the Budget Committee and to the Senate floor” this year.
The House will surely do the same, offering up a budget that will restrain spending, reform our entitlement and tax systems, and reach balance within a decade. It now seems likely that the coming fiscal fights will involve a specific House Republican fiscal framework and a specific Senate Democratic fiscal framework, and that they will be fought at a time and place and in a manner of the House Republicans’ choosing.
That doesn’t mean that this process will end with huge spending cuts or a balanced budget. Republicans still are the minority party, their leverage is still very limited, and not much will be achieved in Washington in the next two years. What it does mean, though, is that Republicans will be about as well positioned as possible to advance their substantive and political goals a bit, that the president’s leverage will be diminished, and that Senate Democrats can no longer so easily hide from their own party’s views in the next election.
Not bad for five pages.