The legislative machinations of the US Congress’ most recent efforts to keep the American government funded for another… oh, month or two, are unfolding so quickly it’s hard to offer a useful summary of what’s been happening, let alone what’s going to.
As I write this, the head of the White House budgetary office (who is apparently in charge of such things) has just released an official decree declaring all non-essential services of the United States federal government shut down until further notice. Panic sweeps a sleepy nation! But how’d we get here?
Basically, every so often Congress needs to pass some kind of funding bill, ideally a year-long budget, but these days usually a short-term “Continuing Resolution” (CR) stopgap, in order for the United States government to be legally able to finance itself. If Congress can’t pass such a thing, the multitude of federal agencies that rely on Congressionally-approved funding — everything from NASA to the passport office — have to temporarily suspend operations until the pipeline of cash they need to pay their employees and spend money on whatever it is they do starts flowing freely once more. The New Republic has a nice little FAQ with more details about CRs and shutdowns, and how they wound up as Washington’s only two options.
Anyway, since in the year 2013 the US legislature is split between two parties and two chambers, the crux of Congress’ current inability to get a CR through the tube has centred around the Republicans and Democrats’ vastly different ideas of what such legislation should look like.
The Dems, for their part, favor the so-called “clean” option, a CR that does nothing more than authorize the funding necessary to keep the federal government chugging till mid-December. The GOP, in contrast… well, the fact that the answer to that question is even ambiguous is where all the problems arise.
Broadly speaking, the Republicans want a trade. They’ll give the Democrats approval for their CR, sure, but conservatives have to get something they want, too (avoidance of a billion-dollar-a-day government shutdown apparently not being sufficient). The current preference is taking some sort of large bite out of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act — a “gutting” of it, in the President’s words.
On Sunday, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a CR bill that also delayed implementation of Obamacare’s so-called “individual mandate” (the rule that says all Americans must own health insurance or face a fine) for a year, and repealed an obscure but unpopular 2% tax on medical devices. The Democrat-controlled Senate rejected it. Then on Monday, the House passed basically the exact same bill a second time — only this time it also stripped federal health care subsidies for the staffers of elected officials — and the Senate once again rejected that, too.
The Senate has no interest in playing along. “We are not going to do anything other than wait for them to pass our CR,” said Senate boss Harry Reid. There will be no negotiations with Republican “anarchists,” he said. Ditto, echoed the President. “Voting to pay America’s bills is not a concession to me. That’s not doing me a favor,” he said.
Greetings from standoff city.
I’ve commented in the past that American politics seem to be moving away from their unique (exceptional?) constitutional traditions and getting more and more blandly parliamentary these days, in the sense that the power of party leaders seems to be growing, the tolerance for ideological freedom among individual lawmakers seems to be lessening, and the transfer of executive power from the White House to Congress seems to be quickening.
The irony is that this breakdown of Congressional tradition is almost entirely the result of the Tea Party, the faction of the GOP legislative caucus supposedly most dogmatic in its allegiance to the norms of the Constitution. In the case of the CR battle, TP behavior seems to be informed by a few particularly dubious presumptions about how the United States should be run:
1) Congress (in fact, just the House of Representatives) is a more legitimate body than the presidency, therefore the House should always seek to undermine the powers of the Oval Office and increase their own.
Since approving the CR is literally just about, as Obama himself has said, Congress “paying its bills” for spending they’ve previously authorized, much of the Tea Party’s willingness to fight the CR is simply part of their larger quest to achieve legislative goals by blackmailing the executive branch. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in Slate, it’s a mindset that reflects a throwback to pre-Revolutionary days — in England – when Parliament had to bully the king with threats of budget vetoes and whatnot in order to get him to approve various unrelated things the common people wanted. This “conflict theory” approach to governance, needless to say, loses a lot of its legitimacy when the modern-day equivalent of the King has just been re-elected with 65 million votes.
2) The two parties should always vote opposite ways on all issues. There is no such thing as “good of the country” legislation around which both parties should naturally coalesce. Republicans who vote with Democrats are always sell-outs, and have indeed abdicated their primary responsibility as the opposition party, which is to oppose, period.
There’s little doubt that a CR could have been passed ages ago if Speaker Boehner had just allowed what we in Canada sometimes call a “free vote” in the House, in which all members of the legislature are free to vote however they want. Had such a free vote been called on the CR, it’s clear there would probably be enough moderate Republicans and Democratic votes to form a workable majority, and then quickly pass the approved funding bill on to the Senate and White House.
In this current era, alas, the House Republican leadership has come to embrace the obstructionist “Hastert Rule” doctrine that only when legislation meets the approval of the “majority of the majority” — that is, the majority of Republican Congressmen within the Republican caucus — can bills be brought to the floor for a vote. Anything less is to allow the possibility of bipartisan legislation, which, of course, would never do. Only three times in the 113th Congress, in fact, has Speaker Boehner tolerated free votes: authorizing aid for Hurricane Sandy victims, approving the Violence Against Women Act, and — perhaps most portentously? — attempting to resolve the 2012 “fiscal cliff” crisis.
3) Members of the Republican caucus should be discouraged from holding independent or idiosyncratic opinions, and instead conform blindly to a certain finite “party ideology” and the various party “leaders” that decree it.
One of the biggest sideshows in the CR fight was last week’s kinda-sorta filibuster by Senator Ted Cruz, in which the man spoke for 21 hours straight about the need to defund Obamacare. As many wags noted at the time, this was an entirely pointless exercise since no one in the Senate was even debating that issue. It only really makes sense in the context of Cruz’s personal ambition; namely, that he sees himself as some sort of de facto leader of the Tea Party faction of the GOP, and thus a man entitled to set his party’s agenda from the top down.
There was an interesting story in National Review about how Cruz, as de facto leader, successfully convinced a significant bloc of House Republicans to reject the authority of John Boehner and the Republican Speaker’s plan to quickly approve the CR in favor of Cruz’s pet project of making everything conditional on weakening Obamacare in some way. This backstabbing has apparently made Cruz enormously unpopular with basically everyone in his party who matters, but consolidated his power over everyone else. Future coverage of tight Congressional votes will thus care a great deal about Ted Cruz’s opinion.
Amid all these structural changes to politics as usual, a notable demand the Tea Party is decidedly not making is any call for a true three-party system. Even though the evidence has been steadily mounting that the TP does not have the Republican Party’s best interests as even a tertiary motivation (the CR shenanigans are polling terribly), and indeed, enjoys warring with the “Republican establishment” almost as much as with the Democrats, its leaders ultimately understand that the road to establishing a genuine third party in America would be dauntingly uphill. So instead they’ll happily go on exploiting the present generosities of America’s current two-party regime — particularly the ability of highly-motivated outside groups to use open primaries as a means to practice what poli-sci people sometimes call “entryism,” and install extremist candidates — to get what they want.
The much-hated “establishment Republicans,” in contrast, have virtually no recourse. Simply operating as many would prefer, ie; a fairly stridently conservative party that nevertheless is willing to compromise with Democrats now and then, is today an open invitation for an entryist Tea Party primary challenge, so such natural inclinations must now be avoided at all costs. Boehner’s ability to survive a TP leadership challenge as speaker is often said to be hanging by a thread, and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell is already being primaried back in Kentucky. Against such attacks, the establishmenters have no counter, and can only glumly buckle down and tack to the right (or at least the TP’s eccentric definition of “the right”), even on extraordinarily delicate issues threatening the very faith and credit of the United States itself.
From where I sit, it seems clear that America’s perennial legislative gridlock — which, regardless of what happens with the shutdown standoff, is only going to get worse come mid-October when the debt ceiling is scheduled for another raising — does require a three party regime to solve. I’m reminded of a famous quote from Canadian history warning against the destructive power of “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” It’s a worry no less valid for two movements feuding within a single party.
Republicans clearly need liberation from the tyranny of the Tea Party. There is a difference between right-wing dogmatism and pragmatic conservatism, and it’s impossible to pursue the latter while subject to the veto of the former. But so too does the Tea Party deserve freedom from a Republican leadership that clearly hates and fears them. Two independent parties that sometimes vote together and sometimes don’t — but always respect each others’ sovereignty — is a common-sense plan to restore legislative sanity at such a critical time.
An economic crisis is bad enough. The country doesn’t need a constitutional one, too.