Nobody can tell whether 2014 will be able to match 2013 for sheer fiscal drama, but it’s already clear that the year will begin with yet another fight over raising the debt limit, and that particular issue alone, as we’ve learned from experience, contains the potential for plenty of fiscal strife.
What follows is a list of people who will have an outsized voice in the discussions – we won’t yet say fights – over how the country funds itself next year and whether the two parties can stick to the bare bones bipartisan budget deal hammered out at yearend.
1. Paul Ryan The Republican congressman from Wisconsin and former vice-presidential candidate may be the most interesting figure to watch in the upcoming spending discussion, if only because his position is so complicated. A conservative favorite, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, his annual budget proposals have been hailed by the right wing and denounced by the left. But in December, he was the voice of compromise, negotiating a two-year deal with the Democratic Senate Budget Chair Patty Murray of Washington. Ryan then turned right around and promised a fight over raising the debt ceiling in early 2014– a necessary requirement if we plan to fund the budget deal he had just negotiated.
2. Dave Camp The Michigander is heading into his final year as head of the House Ways and Means Committee, unless Republican-instituted term limits are waived, and he has yet to achieve his goal of broad tax reform. Camp made it clear that he wants to overhaul the ridiculously complex U.S. tax code in 2014, but the odds are against him. His Senate Counterpart, Max Baucus of Montana, is leaving to become Ambassador to China, and Budget Committee Chair Ryan has made it clear that he wants Camp’s Ways and Means Post in 2015. Camp might find a willing partner in Baucus’ likely replacement, Ron Wyden of Oregon, but it seems more likely that Wyden will take the election year of 2014 to get his committee organized to his liking while waiting for Ryan, with whom he has worked before, to take Camp’s place.
3. Paul Krugman The New York Times columnist has been such a persistent and scornful critic of the political right in this country that he’s regularly demonized by conservative pundits and talk show hosts – to the point where relying on his analysis to support an argument is as likely as not to start a fight. The fact remains that as a Nobel laureate and one of the preeminent economists of his generation, his analysis of any deal happening on Capitol Hill will shape the way many Democrats view it.
4. Roger Ailes Love him or hate him, the man who runs Fox News has the ability to mold a large and very vocal segment of public opinion. Fox News remains the most-viewed news channel on television, and if Ailes decides that a particular deal in the works on Capitol HIll needs publicity – of the good kind or the bad kind – he has a small army of on-air hosts who can be counted on to support the party line. MSNBC, the liberal cable broadcast network, has less than half the audience of Fox.
5. Jim DeMint If you had any doubt about the power of money in politics, Jim DeMint’s story should clear things up for you. The one-time voice of the Tea Party, where his fundraising prowess and undiluted conservatism made him a major figure despite his relatively junior status, DeMint nonetheless resigned from the Senate to head the Heritage Foundation. His position as president of the well-funded right-wing think tank and his influence over its Political Action Committee, Heritage Action, have made DeMint a player among incumbents who fear his support for a primary challenge from their right. How DeMint and Heritage treat Republican lawmakers who broke ranks to support the budget deal in December will speak volumes about what sort of compromise, if any, is possible in 2014.
6. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson Simspon, a former Republican Senator from Wyoming, and Bowles, who served as White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, co-chaired President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010. The commission couldn’t reach majority consensus on a recommendation, but a draft proposal put forward by the co-chairs to slash spending and raise taxes retains a vocal set of followers. The plan, which does away with the majority of tax exemptions while guaranteeing cuts to social spending, has something for everyone to hate, but it remains a touchstone in battles of the fiscal condition of the country. If Obama had put the weight of the White House behind it, the country could have reached the “grand fiscal bargain” that is often referenced.
7. Chris Chocola The former GOP congressman from Indiana is president of the influential Club for Growth, which, with its two well-funded political arms, the Club for Growth PAC and the Super PAC Club for Growth Action, has gone 29-for-44 backing conservative Republican candidates in elections over the past two cycles. The organization, which many have noted could as easily be called the “Club for Millionaires” has a considerable list of positions on the issues, but is at heart an anti-taxation organization. Chocola may not be the highest profile anti-tax crusader, but if Congress considers any deal that even hints at tax increases, vulnerable Republican incumbents can expect a phone call from the Club. The money standing behind Chocola guarantees they’ll take the call.
8. Ron Wyden The Oregon Democrat is in line to take over the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which places him front and center in any debate about taxation and spending. Wyden’s ascension to the chair creates interesting possibilities for bipartisan discussion. Wyden has angered fellow Democrats for his willingness to compromise with Rep. Paul Ryan on health care reform. He also supported the plan put forward by the chairs of the Bowles-Simpson commission and was in favor of exploring controversial proposals such as the flat tax.
9. Patty Murray Not typically in the limelight, the Washingtonian is only the fifth-ranking member of the Senate Leadership. However, her position as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, combined with her starring role this Fall in brokering the first Congressional budget deal in years, means Murray has both the political influence and the moral authority needed to make her voice heard when the inevitable discussion of the debt limit begins in the New Year.
10. Ted Cruz The ability of the junior Senator from Texas to make substantive contributions to debates about taxation and spending is unclear, but his talent for throwing a wrench in the works is unquestionable. The Tea Party hero has shown little sign of mellowing since he helped engineer the government shutdown last fall. While his fellow Senators may be wearying of his self-promotion and grandstanding, he has strong support among the conservative base – both among the electorate and among House Republicans.
11. Harry Reid Since he pushed Senate Democrats to do away with minority Republicans’ ability to filibuster the majority of President Obama’s executive and judicial branch appointees, Republican hatred of Reid, at a constant simmer over the years, has boiled over. It might bother a different man, but the long-serving Nevadan seems to revel in the controversy, saying recently that he anticipates running for another term, which could conceivably see him serving as majority leader past his 80th birthday. As long as Reid holds the gavel in the Senate, anything and everything that Congress does, including all decisions about taxation and spending, must go through him.
12. John Boehner The version of John Boehner who turns up in Washington on 2014 will have a lot to say about the future of fiscal debates. Will it be the conciliatory House Speaker determined to let the House “work its will?” If so, we can look forward to more gridlock as a rump faction of hardline conservatives are allowed to stymie all but the most doctrinaire conservative proposals. But if the Boehner we get is the speaker who blasted the outside conservative interest groups for threatening to “primary” any Republicans who dared compromise with Democrats, there may be some room for progress on fiscal issues.
13. Janet Yellen There hasn’t been a whole lot of daylight between the incoming Federal Reserve Board Chair and the current chair, Ben Bernanke. If Yellen is confirmed, as expected, in early January, that likely means she, like Bernanke, will use the bully pulpit afforded the Fed chair to caution Congress against further increases in economic austerity in the midst of a fragile economic recovery.
14. Larry Summers Starting with a speech delivered at the International Monetary Fund Economic Forum in November, the former Treasury Secretary has begun publicly warning that the economic problems the nation faces may be far more complex than simple arguments over taxation and spending let on. He made a compelling case in his November speech that the U.S. economy may now be at a point where only negative interest rates would provide enough incentive to bring the economy back to full employment. This state of “secular stagnation” doesn’t lend itself to simple solutions, he warned, in an implicit argument for taking creative steps to boost demand.
15. President Obama Given his lack of involvement in the end-of-year budget negotiations, the President makes this list by default. Obama appears to have made a strategic decision to remove himself, to the extent possible, from negotiations about taxing and spending decisions, But he still holds the veto pen, meaning that, should he decide to exercise it, his voice could ring louder than any other’s.
Follow Rob Garver on Twitter @rrgarver
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