The Agenda

The Disarray, Dysfunction, and Legislative Blundering of the Congressional GOP

Peter Suderman has a clear explanation of “the disarray, dysfunction, and legislative blundering” that is plaguing the congressional GOP. He observes that Republicans have nothing like a workable legislative strategy, because a determined group of GOP lawmakers refuses to acknowledge that a legislative minority can only do so much:

The trick will be to work effectively within those limits, exploiting clear opposition weak points and pushing for narrow victories that stand some change of being accomplished. …

But what Cruz and many of his allies in the defunding fight have done is just the opposite. They have gone big—on rhetoric, on theatrics, on policy requests. And they have stoked demand for grand showdowns amongst many of their supporters, making it harder for those who might prefer more targeted battles to proceed. They’re getting the showdowns. But they’re not getting much else.

Right now the GOP has no strategic or tactical savvy. Instead, the party has a surfeit of bluster.

The left-of-center Bloomberg Businessweek correspondent Joshua Green, meanwhile, is rooting for a government shutdown, in part because it will clarify whether or not the U.S. public approves of the Republicans’ efforts:

One powerful driver of Washington dysfunction is the certainty among partisans of both camps that Americans secretly agree with them and would rally to their side during a shutdown. In April 2011, when Republicans first demanded concessions to pass a continuing resolution, many hoped for a shutdown because they thought the Tea Party movement that had rebuked Democrats in the midterm elections would rise up once again. Today, many Democrats want a shutdown because polls show Republicans would be blamed. Some Republicans disagree. “I think Americans would side with the people who are fighting against a law they know is unfair,” says Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, the godfather of the “defund Obamacare” movement. A shutdown would make clear who is right and who is wrong, removing the temptation for another showdown.

But Green also speculates that a shutdown might demonstrate that what he calls “the current system of negotiation-by-public-threat” is politically toxic, and that congressional Republicans might step back from the brink. 

To state the obvious, Republicans are facing a collective action problem. Successive rounds of budget brinkmanship are redounding to the benefit of a small number of Republican lawmakers, who are building their profile and fundraising on the strength of their theatrics. At the same time, successive rounds of budget brinkmanship risk undermining the political prospects of Republican candidates in competitive districts, and they might undermine the GOP brand more broadly.

My sense is that the disarray and dysfunction currently on display in Congress flows from campaign finance regulations that have weakened broad-based, national political parties while strengthening solo political entrepreneurs. Many of us hope that some future Republican presidential nominee will be able to impose order on the GOP’s congressional wing. But it is just as easy for me to imagine a popular Republican president facing ferocious attacks from a minority of opportunistic legislators aided by allied independent expenditure groups. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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