Tuesday, October 08, 2013

What Has John Boehner's Ambition to do With the Shutdown ?

Speaker of the House John Boehner listens to US President Barack Obama during a meeting with bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington to discuss a military response to Syria, 3 September 2013
John Boehner,  with Obama, is not seen as a conservative ideologue, yet he is following the policy agenda of his most ideological members

On a very simple level, the closing of most of the American federal government can be pinned on the ambitions of one man, Speaker of the House John Boehner. There is little doubt that Mr Boehner, a Republican, could, whenever he wants, gather enough votes from moderate Republicans and most all Democrats to reopen the government.

But conventional wisdom says the Republican caucus would swiftly dethrone Mr Boehner. And, interestingly, conventional wisdom and punditry, in Washington at least, doesn't blame Mr Boehner one bit for holding the government hostage to his career aspirations. Thus is the cynicism of  Washington today.

Why he is so committed to sticking with such a bruising job is another question. His caucus is balkanized and unruly. This Congress is held in the lowest public esteem since the invention of public opinion polls.

Once seen as a skilled dealmaker, Mr Boehner isn't able to make deals. Never seen as an ideologue, he has now relinquished control of the Republican policy agenda to the party's most ideological faction.

US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich shakes hands with US President Bill Clinton
Newt Gingrich (left) led a government shutdown in the 1990s that eventually proved disastrous to Republicans

Where's the fun? To put the question another way: Why can't the leader of the party in Congress control the party on the most important issues and votes?

The answers apply equally to Democrats and Republicans. A series of self-inflicted errors by the two political parties over the past 40 years have left party leaders with no whip and little power. After Vietnam and Watergate, there was a reform spirit that wanted to open and democratize the process of selecting party candidates for office, as well as get special-interest money out of politics.

The first part worked too well. Party candidates all came to be picked through open primary elections. In the process, the parties lost the ability to select loyal candidates in smoke-filled back rooms - they lost a source of power and persuasion.

The campaign finance reforms, however, backfired entirely. The post-Richard Nixon idea was to stop party bosses from doling out money from local moguls, unions and corporations. Instead, the reforms deformed and opened the spigots for money to flow directly to candidates from all the old sources, bypassing the party machines. The quantities of money have grown to gargantuan proportions.

By the 1980s, politicians were essentially free agents. They didn't need the parties to get nominated or to fund campaigns. Pollsters, advertizing wizards and fundraisers replaced the party bosses. And the party leaders in Congress lost their leverage.
At the same time, computers and marketing data gave political professionals new precision in drawing the map of congressional districts. Individual districts have become much more homogenous - overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. It has never been easy to unseat an incumbent. But now, once candidates of the dominant party in these districts get the nomination, they are home free.

So members of the Congress, especially in the House, mostly have safe seats and are immune from challenges by the other party. Their bigger challenges come from within their own parties and that tends to drive them further right or left. Voting patterns are as partisan now as at any time since the Civil War.

All that means is the House is filled with increasingly ideological members who aren't especially worried about re-election and are impervious to the party whip and discipline. It is legislative chaos.

John Boehner carries an extra burden as a Republican. From 1949 to 1995, the Democrats controlled the House except for two years in the 1950s. That is a long time to be in the political wilderness, with the Republicans effectively shut out of governing and legislative power. They developed a sort of frustrated minority party mentality, locked out of power and able only to toss bombs, make mischief and obstruct.

 So modern House Republicans have had little or no experience actually sharing the responsibility of governing. Their minority mentality lingers. And it shows. Republicans were led back to power in the House in 1995 by one of the most mischievous, incendiary party leaders ever, Newt Gingrich. He led the way to a government shutdown that year that was considered disastrous to Republicans.

But the Gingrich confrontation now seems far more rational than the Boehner shutdown. And Mr Gingrich's Republicans were pushing for a broad set of coherent conservative changes to the budget. There were realistic grounds for negotiation.

Mr Boehner's Republicans are pushing to repeal a sitting president's hallmark achievement a year after he was re-elected. There is no room for negotiation and no chance of success. It is purely a stunt, an act of guerrilla theater. They are throwing their weight around simply because they can and to hell with the consequences.
In effect a third party has formed in Congress to the right of the Republican Party. This has forced Mr Boehner to operate more like the tolerant head of a coalition government than an iron-fisted speaker of a past era, who could make or break a politician's career at will. 

Ironically, chances are high Mr Boehner will have to cave eventually and team up with Democrats to avoid an economically irresponsible - and politically lethal - default on government debt obligations.
That will probably save his job, but barely.

Dozens of Republican politicians, such as Steve King of Iowa, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, have suggested in interviews that the US government could prioritize its payments in the event of a debt limit breach, choosing to fund some government expenses - while drastically cutting others.

The strategy hinges on convincing President Barack Obama that conservatives are willing to break the debt ceiling and devastate the Democratic Party's government priorities, while assuring Republican big-business backers that this would not destroy the economy.

It is a fine line, but conservative grass-roots groups think they have found the silver bullet to kill Mr Obama's 2010 healthcare reform law, which Republican Representative John Fleming of Louisiana called in typical remarks "the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed in Congress".
If the debt limit is breached so that "Obamacare" can be destroyed and Americans be taught they can live with less government, so be it.

"Liberals might be so concerned about settling this issue because they do not want Americans to realize that we can survive just fine with a lot less government spending," Jeffrey Dorfman writes in Forbes.
First-term Republican Representative Ted Yoho of Florida said in an interview with the Washington Post that hitting the debt limit would "bring stability to the world markets", as it would prove the country is serious about balancing its budget.

"We hit the debt ceiling, and the world won't end," says Dean Clancy, vice-president of public policy for FreedomWorks, a conservative grassroots activism group.
"Once the public and Wall Street understand that default is not really a possibility, the president's leverage will be greatly diminished and a bipartisan compromise will be achievable."

Other Republicans counter that such a strategy is both impractical and dangerous. Even if the treasury department could figure out how to prioritize payments, the uncertainty created by such an action would devastate financial markets.

"The issue here is honouring our debt obligations," says Bill Hoagland, a senior vice-president at the Bipartisan Policy Center who served as a budget aide to former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. "It's stupid, and it's unbelievable we're even having this conversation."

Speaker of the House John Boehner, a reluctant recruit to the current budget fight over healthcare reform, has shown hesitation to take the plunge with the conservative caucus once more. Although he continues to assert that his party is united, there were reports in the media last week that he told nervous colleagues that he would not allow a default on the debt - even if that meant relying on Democratic support to pass a debt limit increase.

According to Republican campaign strategist and pollster Matthew Towery, the hard-line conservatives will soon learn their plan is unworkable.  As the debt limit approaches, what has been termed a Republican "civil war" between hard-line conservatives and the party establishment may be approaching its end game.

The conservative caucus has proven it is willing to continue to escalate the standoff until it achieves unconditional victory. With strong backing from voters at home and a view the "Obamacare" healthcare reform is an existential threat to the country, compromise is not an option. At some point, however, the rest of the Republican Party may decide it is ready to get off this ride.
"I think Republicans just want out of this mess altogether," Mr Towery says.

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