Is there a constituency for governing among House Republicans? That’s what Speaker John Boehner needs to find out during the August recess. Before leaving Washington last week, House Republicans tanked their own $44 billion housing and transportation appropriations bill. (The next day, Senate Republicans likewise blocked the Senate’s $54 billion housing and transportation bill.)
The House bill was not a one-off. It was a direct consequence of the House budget. But the bill contained none of that budget’s vague promises of savings, only real cuts to real programs. Local constituencies squealed, and Republican realists balked at the destruction of community development block grants and other necessities. While the bill cut too much for realists, it cut too little for party ideologues, who refuse to support government funding at all.
In short, House Republicans exposed their own budget as an elaborate hoax, untenable even among themselves, let alone in a capital where Democrats hold both the White House and Senate.
The only question is what Republicans will do about it. “We’ll take this one step at a time,” Boehner said, “and I’m sure August recess will have our members in a better mood when they come back.”
Republicans needn’t return in the mood for love, but a newfound sense of responsibility would help. If Republicans in Washington operated under established norms, the House budget would serve as a bargaining position. The Senate and House would produce their respective targets and negotiate a compromise. That’s not the way Republicans on either side of the Capitol work these days. Instead, threats to shut down the government or withhold funding for the public debt are deployed to gain the power that voters have denied them at the ballot box.
Even some Republicans appear to be tiring of this routine. While colleagues are once again threatening to shut down the government if they don’t get their way -- this time demanding that President Barack Obama defund the Affordable Care Act -- Republican Senators John McCain, Tom Coburn and Saxby Chambliss, as well as House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, argue against it.
The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1. Once again, Congress is unlikely to fulfill its chief duty -- organizing appropriations. Soon after, probably in November, the nation’s debt ceiling will need to be raised again. How Republicans handle these two fiscal inflexions, along with the continuing across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, will determine whether the party approaches the 2014 elections with a case to make to voters or merely greater expertise in the art of writing ransom notes.
On “Fox News Sunday,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Republicans are open to a compromise on sequestration if Democrats will put entitlement reforms on the table. Many Republicans have campaigned against Obama’s cuts to Medicare. Evidently they will now be demanding more of them.
We don’t know how such internal contradictions get resolved; there is little evidence that House Republicans do, either. The obvious path is to fund the government temporarily through a continuing resolution and then compromise on spending and sequestration with the Senate and White House. That seems to be what House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky had in mind when he condemned the “unrealistic and ill-conceived” sequestration cuts and called for a compromise to resolve budget issues.
Provoking a government shutdown, in contrast, would further discredit Boehner and his party while damaging the economy. A default on the debt would be unforgivably reckless, its full consequences unknown.
Before leaving for recess, House Republicans were given a packet including a draft op-ed for local use. “Every day I serve in Congress, I work to fight Washington,” it reads. As canned rhetoric goes, this certainly has a ring of truth, and it will doubtless find receptive audiences in ever-more extreme and narrowly focused congressional districts. Still, we’d like to think that members of Congress are capable of something better.
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