Political Impasses: 2013 and 1936
Arnold Birenbaum has come up with a creative solution for getting through the budget and debt ceiling impasses, both of which become scarier by the hour as Republicans of ten tonight, are holding firm on their view that only trading off important parts of the Affordable Care Act will allow them to reopen the government, much less not go into default. No one knows what the tipping point for the default on the national debt will be. Jack Lew says Oct. 17th, but it may be some days or a week before then. It is whenever world financial markets start a rush on selling dollars.
The Birenbaum proposal is to have Boehner resign and then get reelected with both Democratic and Republican votes and so serve as a “caretaker” Speaker until the next election. Only essential legislation for keeping government going will be enacted. Everything else is put on the table until the results of the 2014 elections, which are a year away, decide which way the country wants to go. This is a bit of a move to a parliamentary rather than a congressional model, but maybe its time to do that.
I don't think Arnie’s solution will work. If Boehner resigns, he is gone forever; no Republicans will support him, and if Democrats can elect a Speaker with the aid of some Republicans it will be Nancy. Maybe Boehner should resign on principle, the ground being that he has failed to knock any sense into his party and all he gets is abused by both sides. But I think he is too craven to do that. If Boehner wanted to abandon them, he could do so just by not invoking the Hassert rule. An open floor vote on a clean continuing resolution would pass. And then, in a day or two, he would be voted out as Speaker, and he can't face that. For reasons I cannot explain, he wants to hold onto the office of Speaker just for the sake of holding the office. He surely can’t believe that he is the steady voice of moderation, though that is what snippets of conversation he has with other people would indicate.
Moreover, the Tea Party people are not going to be swayed from their impulses to shut down the government just because Boehner resigns or is reelected with an alternative mandate. They can surely find legislative maneuvers that will allow them to impede whatever a “reconstituted” House tries to do. I know that the Tea Party people are irrational because of the nature of the arguments they make. They get all furious over who should agree to negotiate, as if that were an issue, given that both sides at one time or another have thought it to their tactical advantage to delay or not to have negotiations. That is the nature of negotiations, so there is no use getting all hot and bothered by it. Second, Tea Party people argue that it is unfair not to make Congressional staffers subject to the same rules as the general population. The truth of the matter is that Congress exempts itself from its own legislation all the time. Anti Discrimination Laws don't apply to Congress. The Tea Party types pick up on this unfairness issue just because they are looking around for a reason, any reason, to justify their opposition to Obamacare, when the real reason is, as Chris Matthews observes, they hate Obama for being Black.
I have a different proposal, one since broached by Chris Matthews. Make a grand package. Open the government until the next Congressional election, no crisis over the debt ceiling until then, and in exchange Obama gives up the medical device tax, even though that is a bit fiscally irresponsible. Peter King and other northern Republicans have said that they are likely to buy that and they are the ones afraid of not being reelected if they are too closely associated with the Tea Party. It gives them a face saving solution around which to rally Republican support with the additional threat that they will side with Democrats and unseat the Speaker if he doesn't allow an open vote.
Reshuffling political factions will resolve this legislative impasse, as it does so many others, and that is what the Birenbaum solution was trying to do. That is the way legislative impasse problem, which is the way these kinds of problems get resolved. It will not resolve the political impasse which is created by the fact that there were a number of Southern Republicans elected from solid Conservative districts, and that, for reasons unknown to me, the Northern Republican Congress people, who are vulnerable to being kicked out by Democratic challengers, are not willing to take on their leadership. After all, there are more of them than there are Tea Party Congress people. Why don’t they tell Boehner that they can unseat him too, and so attention should be paid to what they want? They remain awfully loyal to their party even though it does not serve their particular interests. Do they think a substitute for Boehner would be any better? Maybe it is time for the Republicans to be over as a party.
We have been through this fight between the legislative and the national Republicans before, even though the ideological sides were reversed. A majority of Republicans in the House and a majority of Republicans in the Senate voted for passage of the Social Security Act in 1935. When the election rolled around in 1936, however, Alf Landon made a big deal about the payroll deduction of one percent on employee wages that was to set in that fall to partly offset the cost of Social Security. Landon said that the government might never give the money back to you and, strictly speaking, he was right, in that it was a tax like any other tax and so would become part of the general revenue the government could use as it liked even though it had pledged to pay the money back in benefits, which it has. Landon also claimed that the feds would require people to wear steel dogtags so that they could be identified.
So the Congressional Republican Party was then more liberal than the national party. The national party went liberal from 1940 to 1980, if you accept the Goldwater debacle as an exception rather than a prophecy of where the party was headed. It was Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation, not Goldwater, which handed Reagan his victory. Now the national party nominates centrists who are undermined by the base, and we don’t know if that will last into 2016. Meanwhile, the Republican base and its Tea Party representatives in Congress use the 1936 playbook. A social program will rob us of our liberties and will take money out of our pockets and be badly run, all of which turned out to be spectacularly untrue of Social Security. But there is no drawback in repeating the past if you don’t have to learn from it.
The bigger issue is 2014, when the Democrats can win back Congress on the basis of Tea Party obstruction of the normal governmental functions. The key logjams in American politics are settled at the ballot box, whether in 1860. That is better than merely reshuffling the Congressional factions. An even more pivotal event will be the Republican primary campaigns of 2016, which is when the Party has to decide whether some Tea Party states and districts are going to be the tail that wags the party. I assume that real Republican money will come in so that Bachmann and the pizza man don't get off the ground and that an Establishment Republican has a chance at the nomination without doing the pandering that was required of Mitt Romney, who turned out not to have been pandering but really to believe most of the the population was a bunch of moochers because that is what he said in private when he could be expected to be telling the truth. We shall see. The Republicans will decide their own fate as a party.