The Corner

Re: Some Early Lame-Duck Lessons

Yuval Levin is rightly worried about what the experience of this year’s lame-duck session of Congress means for the prospects of a successful, reform-oriented Republican Congress next year. Yuval argues that if the mistakes of the past Congress were ones of hyperaggression, the mistakes of 2015 will be of under-activity and failure to define the narrative. This he points out would be a missed opportunity:

The struggle to rebalance our constitutional system will require congressional Republicans to make and keep the president’s power grabs controversial, and to assert Congress’s will wherever possible. That doesn’t mean they win every fight. It means that by fighting in ways that clarify their views and force the president to be more explicit about his ambitions, they raise the political cost of further overreach. Passivity is a very real danger in this effort; indeed, it is how we got here over decades. 

The effort to define and advance the conservative agenda, meanwhile, will require Republicans to see the value of championing policy proposals even when they cannot get enacted (given a Democratic president and enough Senate Democrats to sustain a filibuster). That is how you put your agenda before the public, how you get used to articulating it, and how you force your opponents to defend unpopular positions. 

Sign me up as agreeing with Yuval that if we don’t use tactics next year that define and advance a bold agenda — even if it causes conflicts that we don’t win every time — we miss a critical opportunity to define the center-right as fighting for opportunity for all Americans and favoritism to none.

But he may be too generous in assuming the Republican congressional leadership just has an overly cautious tactical approach to achieving conservatives’ reform dreams. Indeed, it’s tough to look at over four years of tactical disagreements and not conclude there is a difference in desired destination.

Looking back at 2013 turns out to be illustrative. At the start of 2013, coming off President Obama’s reelection, the Congress faced a debt limit, start of the budget sequester, and a continuing resolution which expired at the end of March. Many conservatives believed coming off the election loss, the party needed to get off the mat and start fighting with the February debt limit.

An alternative plan was put together by leadership and pitched as follows: “We all agree on the same goals and want to get as much achieved this year as possible, but the sequencing of these various fiscal fights sets us up for failure. If we re-sequence them, we will be in a strong position to fight as a united party for policy changes in the second half of the year.”

This concept became known as the “Williamsburg Accords,” as conservative members signed off on it at the GOP January retreat in Williamsburg, Va. Many were skeptical that leadership wasn’t actually laying out a plan to ultimately win a debate with the president, but rather a hamster wheel to get through as much of the fiscal year as possible without fighting only to jam conservatives at the end of the sequence.

But nonetheless, conservatives went along with a plausible plan trusting their leadership’s claim that we are fighting for the same ends. So the Republican party voted to raise the debt limit in February with nothing attached that would protect our children from the crushing Obama debts. Conservatives went along with their establishment colleagues to “lock-in” the sequester with a clean CR in March.

And so now the entire center-right, united in not fighting on the debt limit . . . united in having passed a clean CR, was ready to stand together and take that strong stand against the president, and . . . crickets.

Indeed, while conservatives were working to create momentum with the Defund effort to slow down Obamacare, the House leadership’s only suggested tactic for the year end staredown with the president was “enactment of a CR at sequester levels” — defining victory as locking in the same policy they argued was locked in six months prior. 

Remember, the promise of the “Williamsburg Accord” was that by acquiescing to the leadership strategy in January through June, conservatives would create the unanimity on the right necessary for a successful policy debate with the president in the fall. Yet, throughout June, July, August, and September of that year, any number of arguments were made as to why defunding was the wrong path, but neither an argument for a more plausible path on Obamacare nor a different conservative priority to fight on was ever presented. 

Maybe then, like now, House GOP leadership was being tactically overly cautious. Another option is that — in both 2013 and now in this lame-duck session — the GOP leadership’s objective is to make the trains run on time for a big-business donor community frustrated that the gravy train runs marginally slower than it used to and the that GOP’s conservative base has different objectives: reining in a lawless president, cutting unsustainable spending, providing opportunity for struggling working Americans, and attacking the unfair cronyism of Washington, D.C.

If there are, indeed, different objectives being sought by the leadership and their base, nobody should be surprised that we keep having these disagreements over tactics.

— Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.

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