We’ll know for sure in a few days, but right now the smart money says that Republicans will regain control of the House in next week’s election, but fall just short of getting the Senate as well. Given that Democrats will still control the presidency, what sorts of things can we expect to see in January and over the next two years in terms of policy?
There is, obviously, a strong temptation to simply draw a parallel to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, halfway through Bill Clinton’s first term. But there are important reasons why the consequences will be quite different this time.
For starters, in 1994 there wasn’t a single Republican in the House who had served during the last time the GOP had control in 1953 and 1954. There was a lot that Republicans had to learn about being in the majority. Today, of course, there are many Republicans who were in the majority as recently as 2006, and are ready to seize power.
Another difference is that the House Republican leader in 1994, Newt Gingrich, had vastly more power over his caucus than his counterpart today, John Boehner, is likely to have. The reason is that every Republican owed Gingrich very heavily for achieving majority status, something many probably never expected to live to see. Therefore, as Speaker, he could get away with doing things and impose discipline in a way that Boehner cannot hope to duplicate. The Republican caucus that will take office in January will be vastly more independent and less willing to blindly follow orders than the one that took office in 1995.
Gingrich was able to command the support of rank–and-file Republicans because of his brilliant strategy that gave them control. It basically involved putting extraordinary pressure on conservative Southern Democrats to switch parties or face the toughest reelection battle they had ever seen. Historically, Republicans tended to give a pass to them since they usually voted together except — critically — on the vote to organize the House at the beginning of each Congress. Newt’s Southern strategy was extremely successful and the key to Republican ascendency.
chairmen are not prepared to be potted plants. They
are going to reinvigorate the traditional committee system and
make it once again the pipeline through which legislation flows.
Among the things Newt was able to do once he took control was effectively neuter the committees. The committee chairmen's roles were diminished, their staffs were slashed, and virtually all power in terms of policy and legislative initiatives was centralized in the speaker’s office. The only committee Newt had any use for was the Rules Committee, which would often rewrite legislation in the dead of night and bring it up for a vote the next day. Consequently, members from both sides of the aisle had no idea exactly what they were voting on, which made it easier to hide earmarks and other special interest provisions from scrutiny.
There’s no way Boehner can hope to get away with that sort of thing. It’s clear that the Republicans in line to be committee chairmen are not prepared to be potted plants. They are going to reinvigorate the traditional committee system and make it once again the pipeline through which legislation flows. And if nothing else, the many Tea Party members expected to be elected will want to see more legislative transparency and strongly resist the sort of heavy-handed methods that were used to ram legislation through during the Gingrich era.
Another important difference between 1994 and today is that presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and Democrats in Congress had already done the heavy lifting of getting the federal budget onto a sustainable path. In the 1990 and 1993 budget deals — both enacted against the strenuous opposition of congressional Republicans — taxes were raised and strong deficit controls put in place that led naturally to surpluses so long as the budget remained on auto-pilot, with no big new spending programs or tax cuts. Under these circumstances, gridlock was just what the doctor ordered.
It should be remembered also that Republicans had the very good fortune to take power right on the brink of the 1990s technology boom, which raised the real gross domestic product 4.7 percent in 1995, 5.7 percent in 1996 and 6.3 percent in 1997 — which sent tax revenues cascading into the Treasury.
benign, as it was in the late 1990s, but toxic, preventing our
political system from grappling with problems that demand action.
But today the situation is quite different. The economy is in the tank and the budget is clearly on an unsustainable path, in large part due to actions taken by Republicans when they were in power. They completely dismantled the deficit controls put in place by the elder Bush and Clinton so that they could cut taxes willy-nilly without paying for them, and in the process thoroughly decimated the government’s capacity to raise adequate revenue to fund its essential functions. Adding insult to injury, Republicans enacted a massive new entitlement program, Medicare Part D, without paying for a penny of it on top of every pork barrel project any Republican ever imagined.
The point is that gridlock under today’s circumstances will not be benign, as it was in the late 1990s, but toxic, preventing our political system from grappling with problems that demand action and will only get worse the longer it is delayed.
Furthermore, in the 1990s there were still a few Republicans in Congress like Sens. Bob Dole and Pete Domenici who put the national interest above blind partisanship, and had long records of supporting politically painful policies to get deficits under control by both cutting spending and raising taxes. Today, I do not see a single Republican anywhere with their stature and sense of responsibility. Republicans now oppose deficits only in theory and care more about defeating Obama in 2012 than rescuing the nation from bankruptcy, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently admitted.
I hope I am wrong, but I don’t see any prospect of meaningful action by a Republican Congress that would reduce the deficit, and much reason to think it will get worse if they have their way by enacting massive new tax cuts while protecting Medicare from cuts. And as I have previously warned, I am very fearful that it will be impossible to raise the debt limit, which would bring about a default and real, honest-to-God bankruptcy — something many Tea Party-types have openly called for in an insane belief that this will somehow or other impose fiscal discipline on out-of-control government spending without forcing them to vote either for spending cuts or tax increases.
Some Republicans delude themselves that they can enact legislation that will reduce the deficit on their terms — 100 percent spending cuts with no increase in taxes. In particular, every Republican believes that the Affordable Care Act adds massively to the deficit, despite repeated statements from the Congressional Budget Office and Medicare’s actuaries to the contrary — which means that repeal would be scored by CBO as adding to the deficit.
In any case, repeal is impossible for two reasons. First, President Obama would surely veto such legislation and Republicans will not have anywhere close to the votes to override. (That would require a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.) Second, even if Democrats lose the Senate, they will unquestionably have enough votes to filibuster whatever Republicans hope to accomplish in this regard. (Republicans would need 60 votes to block a filibuster.)
I think this second point is one Republicans really need to think about in terms of their general political and legislative strategy. They essentially wrote the book on how to frustrate the will of the majority through petty obstructionism. Democrats in the Senate need only follow the path Republicans have already neatly laid out for them. Rather than negotiate with the Senate, as the Founding Fathers clearly intended, I expect that the House Republicans will insist on “my way or the highway” and delude themselves that they can get a filibuster-proof majority and the White House in 2012.
I believe that’s wishful thinking, but the Tea Party crowd is nothing if not optimistic — even to the point of self-delusion. But that still leaves the ordinary business of Congress to deal with, such as passing routine appropriations bills to keep the government operating and fund operations Republicans support, such as paying for the wars they started during the George W. Bush years. Although many Republicans believe they will benefit, politically, from a government shutdown, I suspect that the outcome will more likely be a replay of what happened in 1995 and early 1996. As old Washington hand Stan Collender told me, “Another government shutdown is a PR disaster waiting to happen.”
Republicans should savor the period from Election Day to the first day of the new Congress on January 3, 2011. That will be as good as it gets for them; afterwards, it’s all downhill once they have to act, take responsibility, and can no longer blame Democrats for everything bad that happens anywhere. That goes for their allies in the business community, who naively assume that every action of the last two years that they opposed will magically disappear. And it goes double for the Tea Partiers, who have never had to take responsibility for anything. It’s a whole new ballgame in January.