It’s one thing to be conservative when it comes to government spending, it’s another to be totally incompetent at governing.
An interesting thing happened in the House of Representatives a few days ago when the Republican leadership decided to pull its own $44.1 billion dollar THUD bill covering funding for housing and transportation from consideration on the floor. To answer your first question: no, I don’t pick the names of the bills and to answer your second, yes, this is in fact a big deal. In fact I’d go so far as to say it is an indicator of profound dysfunction at the heart of “The People’s House.”
The story of how this happened is pretty basic. House Republicans decided after the 2012 election to attempt to pass budgets on discretionary spending, that is spending on everything but entitlement spending on things like Social Security and Medicare, in accordance with Paul Ryan’s controversial budget targets. Because House Republicans refuse to cut defense spending in general and entitlement spending unless it’s part of a bipartisan “Grand Bargain” they are forced to enact huge cuts to a variety popular domestic programs to hit their self-imposed targets. As Slate’s Matthew Yglesias put it, “But as long as the debate stayed at the level of the budget, those cuts were entirely abstract, vague, and general. It’s when you get down into the weeds of the appropriations process that you have to say “so much less for this program, so much less for that program” that things get thorny.”
And things did get very thorny. According to Politico a number of moderate House Republicans balked at the idea of massive cuts to popular programs they support like community development block grants. They were joined by a group of hard line conservative Republicans who felt the bill didn’t cut enough and basically the entire Democratic caucus in opposing the THUD bill. To save face and avoid a humiliating public defeat, House Speaker John Boehner and his deputies pulled the bill from consideration at the last second.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a typical Washington screw up, but it’s really not. Congress regularly passes these big bills every year. And since the House of Representatives is a top down hierarchical chamber where the majority gets to call the shots, typically one of these big bills is only brought to the floor if the majority’s leadership is sure they can pass it. When a bill like this is pulled at the last second to avoid a defeat it’s a clear signal to other players in Washington (interest groups, the White House, the Senate) that the House leadership can’t be relied on in negotiations. Which in turn makes it that much harder for Republicans to get the cuts the presumably want.
In fact when things break down the House, Republican leadership is increasingly often forced to use the strategy that some have taken to call the “Boehner Rule.” Under the “Boehner Rule” strategy House Republicans sit out the major negotiations and instead the Democratically controlled Senate and President Obama cut a deal that can pass the Senate and won’t be vetoed by Obama and then the bill is sent to the House, where it is passed by the Democratic minority and a handful of Republican cross over votes. Sound confusing? Well that’s the Federal appropriations process for you, but what it basically means is that by refusing sit at the table and negotiate in a regular way with the White House, Republicans are diluting their power to do things like cut spending on programs they don’t like. Or to put it another way, even though Nancy Pelosi and her Democrats are in the minority in the House, since they are the ones that do the heavy lifting when it comes to passing things like the THUD bill, they get to behave like they’re in the majority and do things like fight to stop cuts to programs they like.
The bad news for Republicans and the country is that this could be just the tip of the iceberg. When Congress gets back from its traditional August break its due to take up a $24 billion dollar bill covering natural resource management and then a $122 billion dollar bill to cover labor, health and educational issues. Unless John Boehner finds a way of taming his caucus we could easily see the same dynamic play out with these bills. In the long term this isn’t good for the country. In order for the government to function properly these bills need to pass or bad things will happen. Bad things like billions of dollars in federal funds that don’t go to schools that depend on them or much needed infrastructure repairs being left undone.
Obama’s dream of “breaking the fever” of non-stop obstruction by Republicans could of course come to pass. House Republicans could see these huge goof ups as evidence they need to do things like negotiate in good faith and not hold the nation’s economy hostage to try and win concessions. Or not, after all they sank their own farm bill in June and nothing much changed since then. But governing from crisis to crisis, especially when some of those crises are self-created, is no way for a responsible political party to act.
Photo by Leader Nancy Pelosi/flickr