Does Budget Deal Herald the End of Congressional Dysfunction? No, No, and No.

U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) makes a statement on the budget negotiations to the media April 8, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Boehner said the issue of spending was the only reason why there ís not a deal yet.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
Dec. 18, 2013, 3:43 p.m.

The suc­cess­ful budget deal forged by Rep. Paul Ry­an and Sen. Patty Mur­ray, and its wide mar­gin of ap­prov­al in the House, have had many ob­serv­ers sug­gest­ing the polit­ic­al sys­tem may have turned a corner in its dys­func­tion.

Its small-bore and cramped am­bi­tions not­with­stand­ing, the deal is an im­port­ant achieve­ment, avoid­ing the worst and most dam­aging con­sequences that would have flowed from the second tranche of se­quester cuts. And its sym­bol­ism is it­self im­port­ant, bring­ing to­geth­er a rare match across the di­vide with both Ry­an and Mur­ray be­hav­ing re­spons­ibly and say­ing all the right things about the need to com­prom­ise un­der di­vided gov­ern­ment.

Re­port­ers es­pe­cially grooved to John Boehner’s open-throated de­fi­ance of groups like Her­it­age Ac­tion and the Club for Growth, while her­ald­ing the re­turn of Boehner as the speak­er in charge. So what is the real­ity here? Is this a new era of prob­lem-solv­ing, bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion, and a dom­in­ant speak­er? In a word, no.

On the lat­ter point, here is a little ex­er­cise. Ask your­self: If the ex­act same Ry­an/Mur­ray deal had in­stead been craf­ted by Boehner and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, would it have got­ten 300-plus votes in the House? One hun­dred and sixty-nine Re­pub­lic­an votes? One hun­dred Re­pub­lic­an votes? The an­swer is no, no, no. Kudos to Boehner for giv­ing free rein to Paul Ry­an, who has deep cred­ib­il­ity with House Re­pub­lic­ans, made deep­er by his vote against the deal to end the shut­down. It is true that the ex­per­i­ence of the shut­down gave pause to a num­ber of House Re­pub­lic­ans who un­der­stood af­ter­ward that they had blown it, giv­ing up three price­less weeks of neg­at­ive cov­er­age of the rol­lout of Health­Care.gov while dam­aging the GOP brand. But Ry­an made the deal at the front end and the back end. And the bot­tom line re­mains that Boehner and the rest of the lead­er­ship team are still viewed by a siz­able share of their col­leagues with sus­pi­cion that they are not “real” con­ser­vat­ives.

Fu­ture prob­lem-solv­ing? Soon after the deal, the self-same Paul Ry­an was spec­u­lat­ing on which de­mands House Re­pub­lic­ans would be mak­ing this spring when the debt ceil­ing nears — not wheth­er he and his col­leagues would avoid an­oth­er con­front­a­tion threat­en­ing Amer­ica’s full faith and cred­it, but what the terms would be. And that un­der­scores a con­tinu­ing real­ity. Even if the tea party or oth­er rad­ic­al forces in and out­side the GOP, in­clud­ing law­makers and groups like Her­it­age Ac­tion, were beaten back on the budget deal and dissed pub­licly more than once by the speak­er, they are still driv­ing and dom­in­ant forces in the party. Past ex­per­i­ence and cur­rent dy­nam­ics tell us that Speak­er Boehner is not go­ing to hit the ac­cel­er­at­or and drive through these forces again and again to hu­mi­li­ate and cow them, but will bal­ance the one com­prom­ise with a set of ac­tions that de­fer to their im­pulses.

The speak­er’s di­lemma is that he still needs the on­go­ing sup­port of a siz­able col­lec­tion of mem­bers who do not want to swal­low hard and com­prom­ise. But there are sev­er­al bills com­ing for­ward that re­quire mak­ing deals. The farm bill will be ready in Janu­ary, if Frank Lu­cas, the House Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee chair is to be be­lieved, but it will in­clude cuts in food stamps deep enough to cost the votes of a slew of Demo­crats but not deep enough to mol­li­fy the House con­ser­vat­ives who set $40 bil­lion in food-stamp cuts over 10 years as a lit­mus test. It should pass, but it will be a tough slog.

The dozen ap­pro­pri­ations bills that have to flow quickly from the budget deal will still in­clude very con­tro­ver­sial cut­backs in key pro­grams, mak­ing it hard to find a co­ali­tion for pas­sage. Even for budget is­sues, then, talk of a new im­petus to act re­spons­ibly is pre­ma­ture.

Which is not to say that all fu­ture com­prom­ises or prob­lem-solv­ing ef­forts are off the table.

A deal might be reached on ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance, with fund­ing per­haps from spec­trum auc­tions. The busi­ness com­munity, for the first time, is en­er­gized to­ward prob­lem solv­ing, and will­ing, at least in part, to put money in­to pro­tect­ing GOP prob­lem-solv­ers as well as go­ing after rad­ic­als.

The busi­ness lobby’s will­ing­ness to weigh in on key is­sues puts some in­to play that oth­er­wise would not be. With Obama and many con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats now in­dic­at­ing a will­ing­ness to con­sider an im­mig­ra­tion solu­tion in mul­tiple parts, there is a tiny chance of move­ment on that is­sue. There is a slightly bet­ter chance of some kind of in­fra­struc­ture deal, and pos­sibly an en­ergy deal as well. But if there are deals, they will likely re­quire Boehner to go back to the pat­tern of passing things with a deeply di­vided Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence. And des­pite his tough talk about Mi­chael Need­ham at Her­it­age Ac­tion, et al, Boehner is not eager to do that.

Now let’s turn to the Sen­ate, which shows its own signs of dys­func­tion. Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans flir­ted with killing the budget deal by fili­buster, and they show few signs of look­ing to solve prob­lems, es­pe­cially giv­en the ten­sions over the fili­buster change and the primary con­tests fa­cing a crit­ic­al mass of those up for reelec­tion in 2014. In the end, three-quar­ters of them voted no on clo­ture. Thad Co­chran, Lind­sey Gra­ham, Mi­chael En­zi, and Lamar Al­ex­an­der are all mov­ing fur­ther to the right in the face of stiff primary chal­lenges; Al­ex­an­der voted for clo­ture but in gen­er­al is be­com­ing more dys­peptic and less states­man­like. More sig­ni­fic­ant, GOP lead­ers Mitch Mc­Con­nell and John Cornyn are both feel­ing some heat from the right, es­pe­cially Mc­Con­nell. And with Mc­Con­nell fa­cing ser­i­ous dis­ap­prov­al from Ken­tucki­ans for his role in the deal that ended the shut­down, there is little chance he will want to be a deal-maker in the new year. Un­der­scor­ing that real­ity, Mc­Con­nell piled on after Ry­an to say there will be ransom de­mands on the debt ceil­ing.

Per­haps after primary sea­son, Al­ex­an­der and his col­leagues will move back to their more typ­ic­al prob­lem-solv­ing mode. Per­haps GOP sen­at­ors will lose their ob­ses­sion with Obama­care, and their fer­vent be­lief that they need to do noth­ing in oth­er areas and just watch the health care plan dis­in­teg­rate — their sure­fire path to ma­jor­ity. In­deed, the in­sur­ance in­dustry’s will­ing­ness now to fund a huge cam­paign to cov­er un­in­sured Amer­ic­ans sug­gests that the Af­ford­able Care Act will work bet­ter than they think.

But then, what is Plan B for Mc­Con­nell and his col­leagues? There are paths to more func­tion­al­ity in 2014, but they are long, wind­ing, pothole-filled, and have lim­ited ac­cess.

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