Saturday, March 23, 2024

Send in the Clowns

David Super

     So with just over six months remaining in the fiscal year, the federal government is finally funded.  And Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has filed a motion to oust House Speaker Mike Johnson.  Should we be worried?

     The omnibus appropriations legislation is bad, but that was largely pre-ordained by the bad budget deal President Biden made with then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy to prevent a national default.  Within those constraints, the final deal is about what one might expect. 

     The final appropriations bills – this one and the one enacted earlier this month – are much closer to the bipartisan Senate appropriations bills than to the extreme measures House Republicans proposed, and occasionally managed to pass, through their chamber.  But this is precisely because the Senate wrote its bills to be plausible and the House wrote its bills to gesture to numerous special interests and ideological fringe groups. 

     Far right (and far left) activists doggedly insist that moving their starting position in negotiations farther in their direction will pull the final compromise in that direction, too.  That can be true under some circumstances, but only to a degree.  Past a certain point, a position comes to be seen as unserious and has no impact at all on the negotiations.

     For example, if I want to continue a $100 million annual program that you would like to terminate, these activists would expect us to “split the difference” and cut the program back to $50 million.  Accordingly, they would urge me to allocate $200 million (or $250 million) for it in my bill so that when we “split the difference”, the program will receive at least $100 million.  But this assumes that legislators are automatons that must always split the difference, even when the other side is obviously playing games.  You could respond to my $200 million proposal by proposing to claw back the $100 million the program received this year, making $50 million the mid-point between our feigned positions.  More likely, you will just insist that you will not go above $50 million (or some other number) unless I give you valuable concessions in some other part of the bill. 

     Splitting the difference has only modest value as a legitimating principle, and none at all when one side is being blatantly unserious.  The more significant legitimating principle is that each side has influence proportionate to its contribution to passing the final legislation.  Thus, when one party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House, the minority party gets less (although not nothing) if its sole contribution is refraining from filibustering in the Senate.  If both parties are contributing equally – one supplies the votes in the House, one provides the presidential signature, and both combine to get the bill through the Senate – then both can ordinarily expect to have roughly equal influence on the final outcome – as judged against what their opponents believe their sincere, plausible positions to be. 

     But that is only a starting point.  Where one side is clearly desperate to avoid an impasse, as President Obama signaled in 2011 and 2013, it can expect to be mauled.  House Republicans’ on-going internal chaos made it unmistakably clear that they would be blamed for any impasse.  Speakers McCarthy and Johnson knew that, and Democrats knew they knew that.  The speakers got the best results they could as sparking an actual government shutdown would have increased the urgency of Republicans’ need for a deal and hence forced them to make even more concessions.  Thus, the blame for the concessions that far-right Republicans decry belongs to far-right Republicans. 

     Far-right Republicans further weakened their speakers’ hands by voting against pretty much anything and everything.  Not only would they not vote for compromises, whatever the terms, but they even voted down some of their own party’s extreme appropriations bills.  Thus, it was obvious to all negotiators that this was not a case where the Republicans would deliver the House, the Democrats would deliver the presidential pen, and they both would deliver the Senate.  Instead, the Democrats would have to deliver a fair number of votes to pass the House.  Moreover, because far-right Republicans used the seats Speaker McCarthy gave them on the Rules Committee to block compromises from coming to the House floor under the regular order, even more Democratic votes were needed to pass compromises by the two-thirds majority required to suspend the rules. 

     Indeed, on the final vote the majority of House Republicans voted “no”.  Under the Hastert Rule, named for the Illinois Republican who never gets invited to group portraits of former speakers, bills should not be brought to the floor without support from the majority of the majority.  Speakers McCarthy and Johnson promised their conference to adhere to the Hastert Rule but breached it to prevent fiscal calamities.

     With Democrats supplying the presidential pen plus about two-thirds of the votes in the Senate plus almost two-thirds of the required votes in the House, and with Republicans having no credible threat to provoke a government shutdown that they could clearly lose, Republican negotiators had little leverage.  Republicans surely would not expect an investor who contributes just 35% of the equity to dominate a business’s decision-making, yet somehow they did expect something similar here.  Nope. 

     As for Rep. Greene’s motion, it is, as she said, just a shot across Speaker Johnson’s bow.  It seems more about appeasing Vladimir Putin than changing House leaders. 

     If Rep. Greene wanted to block the budget deal, she could have filed a privileged motion to vacate the speaker’s chair at the beginning of the week.  The “privileged” designation would have entitled her to a vote before the end of the week, and ousting Speaker Johnson would surely have prevented the House from passing the appropriations legislation before Friday’s deadline. 

     Alternatively, if she wanted to allow the deal to prevent a government shutdown but punish Speaker Johnson for his capitulation, she could have filed a privileged motion at the end of the week, making an ouster vote among the first orders of business when the House returns from recess in two weeks.  She did not do that, either.  Instead, her unprivileged motion may be delayed indefinitely or sent to committee to die.  She knows this:  her motion to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas last fall was sent to committee as her party was not yet ready to vote for an impeachment without “high Crimes or Misdemeanors”.  Her non-privileged motion escalates the pressure against Speaker Johnson, but in a modulated way.    

     Progressives under-estimate Rep. Greene at their peril.  Her views, and her articulation of her views, are deeply offensive to mainstream liberals.  But that is very much the point:  liberals would never support her anyway, and many of her constituents and donors relish voting for someone so fiercely condemned by elites that they resent.  She showed splendid political judgment in fervently defending Speaker McCarthy.  She recognized that her conservative credentials made her support precisely what he needed and won considerable political capital within the conference by demonstrating a steadfast loyalty rare among her far-right colleagues.  Getting expelled from the self-destructive House Freedom Caucus gave her even more opportunity to pursue her own priorities. 

     Rep. Greene’s motion to vacate likely springs from her opposition to aid to Ukraine.  She is telling Speaker Johnson that she is willing to cross the threshold of moving to vacate and implies she will push it to a vote if Speaker Johnson allows a renewal of aid to Ukraine to come to the floor. 

     In practice, the Speaker is likely safe.  Although many House Republicans are angry, and Rep. Greene could vacate the chair with only a single Republican colleague’s help if all Democrats vote against the Speaker, Democrats seem unlikely to play along.  After Speaker McCarthy’s defenestration, Democrats have no further need to demonstrate House Republicans’ fecklessness.  Instead, abstaining to allow the motion to vacate to fail would allow Democrats to assume the mantle of the “adults in the room”.  And with many voters clamoring for bipartisanship, such a vote would allow Democrats to be magnanimous without any policy concessions.  Rep. Jeffries surely sees that he and his party would suffer if he somehow won the gavel of a still Republican-dominated House for the remainder of the year. 

     Nobody who has been paying the slightest attention to this tortuous process should expect Congress to pass appropriations bills for the fiscal year beginning October 1 before the election.  House Republicans may, however, go through some performative steps to posture as deficit hawks.  Indeed, drawing public attention to their proposals to raise the retirement age in Social Security and Medicare could provide some helpful context for next year’s battle over extending the upper-income tax cuts they passed with President Trump in 2017. 


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