The standoff in Congress appears to be that the Senate Democrats want a ‘clean’ Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government while the House Republicans want policy provisions included but that is more of a subplot.
In the saga at hand; House Republicans claim that they have done nothing but compromise with the Senate Democrats; backing off defunding the Affordable Care Act and ending up with a one-year delay in mandating individuals to sign up and forcing congressional and White House staff to buy health insurance on the exchanges without subsidies. Senate Democrats complain that Senate Republicans refuse to go to conference to work out differences on the two budgets and other bills. Both are right.
The CR strategy having failed, the House began debating a series of joint resolutions (JRs), each funding a specific program or agency through December 15th (Remember that date.). Those efforts are being helped along by the votes of 30 or so House Democrats. The JRs are like mini CRs, but after the CR effort failed they are more of a peculiarity akin to someone who rattles on anyway after losing an argument. Now the House has agreed to a supper committee to iron all this out but it will not produce and we should hope it does; the last super committee, by doing nothing, gave us the sequester.
So where does this go from here? House Speaker John Boehner knew the Senate would not accept the ACA defunding and all that followed. But he is carrying the flag for a particularly obstinate part of his caucus and is doing so in line with the effort by the Koch brothers and others determined to repeal the ACA. I believe he is just riding their coattails to a different outcome. Boehner knows that his unforgiving Tea Party caucus will wreak havoc if he doesn’t go along and that Republicans fed up with this gridlock will, in next year’s midterm elections, vote for Republicans anyway. It is important to him to hold those votes because, with maybe one exception in history, the party that does not hold the White House gains seats in the midterms. Another subplot.
To see where this ends up we have to go back to Rep. Paul Ryan’s House Republican budget which set spending caps at $986 billion. The Senate never entertained that budget and based its budget on a $1.058 trillion cap established in a previous Budget Act which passed Congress and was signed into law by the President. $986 billion was too drastic they held. That is the issue; all the JRs are based on the $986 billion cap. Democrats who support the JRs are agreeing to that number and ignoring the one established by law.
By the time December 15th rolls around the House will or will have produced a budget or a Continuing Resolution based on $986 billion. How then could Senate and House Democrats who supported the House JRs and a ‘clean’ CR not agree to the $986 billion in December they already agreed to once before? The ACA issue is done and the debt limit will be increased. There will be more demands from Republicans, perhaps more palatable to Democrats, but in the end House Republicans will get the spending cap numbers they have been after for two years.
It’s Time For An Intervention
By Lee H. Hamilton
The American public has lost patience with Washington. The question is, now what?
Congress is unable to do its job. It displays neither competence nor responsibility. It lurches — reeling from crisis to crisis, each one self-manufactured in an effort to postpone the reckoning from some earlier crisis. It shut the government down over a temporary budget. Now it’s threatening the financial credibility of the U.S. government and the security and safety of the American people. Three years of last-minute spending decisions have culminated in a television standoff with no actual negotiations.
Too many members of Congress reject the notion that accommodation and time-honored procedures allow them to fulfill their responsibilities to the American people. They use their legislative skill to engage in brinksmanship rather than address the country’s fundamental problems. Economic growth? Creating jobs? Putting the federal budget on a sustainable path? Don’t look to Congress. They’re too busy coming up with the next short-term tactic to confront the other side. Every day they dither, they keep the government from addressing the nation’s real problems.
Even worse, they’ve managed to raise real questions in this country and abroad about whether our system of government can work. Are we saddled with a national legislature paralyzed by unending conflict? Are we capable of tackling our major problems? We are on the road to a government that cannot plan, a country shackled by perpetual uncertainty, and a loss of faith in our institutions both at home and abroad.
We do not have to continue down that road, but we do have to confront a core problem. The political center in Congress has weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, if not near-irrelevance.
That’s fine with some people in Washington, who are comfortable with gridlock and don’t think its consequences will be dire. Our government’s inability to deal with problems, they argue, is good — a government that’s able to act, they believe, creates more problems than it solves.
Likewise, some people acknowledge polarization as a problem, but blame it on an electorate that prefers a divided government, split between the parties. All I can say is that divided government in the past — think Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill — didn’t keep Congress from creatively addressing national challenges. Divided government is not easy, but it is not unusual and it can work.
Politicians don’t deserve all the blame. Voters share responsibility: more people have to turn out to vote. The more people who vote, the better the chances to strengthen the political center — that is, moderates and pragmatists. That’s because low turnout brings out the most ideologically intense voters, who in turn reward the most polarizing candidates. A Congress more representative of the American people rests on expanding efforts to convince people to vote, and beating back the barriers to voting.
The second solution lies with members of Congress. Contemplating a government shutdown, a Kentucky congressman recently explained his stance by saying, “All that really matters is what my district wants.” This is not an uncommon view, but it’s a distressingly limited one. Our system depends on members who believe it’s also their responsibility to lead and inform voters, who are willing to weigh the national interest as well as parochial concerns and who have confidence in our system to resolve political differences.
In other words, we need members of Congress devoted to making the system work. We need men and women in office who understand that when the voters give us a divided government, they have no choice but to accept the distribution of power and work with it, regardless of what they wish were the case. We need legislators who realize that those on the other side feel just as passionately and deserve their respect, and who are committed to finding a solution to our problems.
We change laws in our democracy and solve our most difficult issues in this country not by bringing government to a halt, but by fighting out the issues before the voters in an election. At the end of the day, we have to move the country forward — and we need to elect members of Congress who are willing and able to do that. Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.