As the deadlocked US government moves inexorably towards a shut down, it may be good to see how it has come to this. Last Friday, I attended a discussion led by one of my colleagues in the political science department. I have always found him to be very enlightening because he takes a hard-edged, data-driven approach to politics and he did not disappoint this time either. He shed many interesting insights into what lies behind the current situation.
It is not secret that there is an internal war within the Republican party, especially in the House of Representatives. He says that the major problem that has led to the current impasse is that John Boehner is in an unenviable position as a Speaker in that unlike previous Speakers, he is not in a position to deliver Republican party votes on any given issue because he does not have control over his caucus. But the problem is not that he is a ‘moderate’ confronting Tea Party ideological extremists. He said that Boehner is as ideologically extreme as any of them. In fact, in measures of ideology (and political scientists have measures for these things) Boehner is well above the median Republican values for right wing extreme ideology. He also reminded us that Boehner came in to Congress as a Republican ‘bomb thrower’ in the camp of Newt Gingrich where they decided that they would flatly oppose anything they disagreed with, even if the government shut down, as it did back then too.
So if Boehner is as much an ideologue as the Tea Party, what is the problem? He said that the division is not based on ideology but between those who are deal makers and those who are purists. While Boehner’s views haven’t changed, his experience with the Gingrich shut down debacle made him into someone who felt that deals had to be made for the sake of governance. In fact, he had even tried an abortive coup against Gingrich that was exposed and failed. Boehner has become a deal-maker and faces a Republican caucus in which a significant number are purists who are not interested in making deals.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives is strong and can deliver the votes when he or she has the power to reward and punish members to get them to vote his or her way. These rewards and punishments took two forms: providing earmarks for their districts as bribes; and by appointments to plum committees and chairs of committees and subcommittees.
Both those things have disappeared. As a result of the push by John McCain and others against what was perceived as the corruption caused by earmarks (which actually make up a very small part of the budget), earmarks have been pretty much forbidden. Furthermore, many of the purists would refuse to be bribed in this way.
The second change is even more dramatic. Because Congress has pretty much stopped legislating, committee positions and chairpersonships are not seen as valuable anymore because they don’t really do anything. People have even turned down appointments to the House Appropriation Committee and its associated subcommittees. These used to be highly coveted because they set the budgets for the year and lobbyists would shower money on committee members to sway them. People would beg to be put on them. But since we have not had any real budgets for years, passing just continuing resolutions, these committees are seen as not being relevant anymore and a waste of time. It is much more fun to grandstand. After the 2012 elections, Boehner fired some committee chairs for defying him in the earlier Congress but that did not serve the purpose of intimidating others to obey him, the way it might have done earlier.
This leaves Boehner with little leverage over his members. So according to my colleague, he thinks the only way Boehner can get any budget and debt deals done is to try and quietly persuade some of his Republicans to break ranks and vote with the Democrats and pass continuing resolution and debt ceiling bills. Of course, such people will face the wrath of the purists and only those in safe districts will do so.
So that is where things stand. As I have said many times before, this is not the way to run the world’s biggest economy.