Boost Congress, minimize Obama
Lefty pundits will tell you that the source of all dysfunction inside the Beltway is Republicans. Let’s concede that a segment of Republicans -- the “no” crowd, the shutdown squad, the spoilers of Plan B on the fiscal cliff -- have been beyond unhelpful in addressing our countries problems. But frankly the key to unlocking gridlock is taking President Obama out of the picture.
Consider that the lopsided budget deal came about because Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) essentially shut out the White House. An immigration bill got through the Senate only because Obama was kept at arm’s length; whenever he popped up, the process tended to stall. The resolution of the shutdown came from Senate Democrats and Republicans, not Obama. The original Budget Control Act was also a bipartisan legislative solution after Obama undid the grand bargain with the House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Even on foreign policy progress happens unless the White House intervenes. Republicans and Democrats were linked arm in arm on Iran sanctions and an additional House resolution until the White House bullied the Dems into holding off (for now). Agreement on the defense authorization act and compromise on sexual assault investigations also excluded the White House.
Maybe the key to progress, then, is keeping both the far right and the president out of the mix.
It is easy to see why the president is a disruptive factor. For starters, he believes opponents are stupid or evil and refuses to take their concerns as genuine. If you don’t understand the other guy it’s awfully hard to make a deal. That in turn leads to his favorite, unhelpful tactic -- traveling around the country to excoriate Republicans. All this does is stiffen the spines of the left flank in his own party while annoying the Republicans.
The problems don’t stop there. A refusal to communicate with Congress (even members of his own party), a disinclination to get into or present the nitty-gritty details of legislation, a determination to make the other guys look bad even at the expense of a deal and the predilection for second-rate yes-men who don’t give him an accurate picture of the Congress or the country all combine to make Obama one of the least effective executives in recent times. His single “achievement” is the disastrous Obamacare, jammed through on a party-line vote when he had majorities in both houses. Since then? Nothing.
Some pundits make the case for strengthening the executive branch to avoid gridlock. Congress is so messy, so riddled with “special interests,” you see. Well, there is a reason the Founding Fathers tried to make Congress preeminent (Article I is the Congress, with top billing). Surely they were concerned with an executive who would become like the monarchs of the Old World and exercise dictatorial power. But there is another excellent reason to tip things Congress’s way: Because of staggered terms you have legislative continuity (even more so with gerrymandering) and a body of collective judgment that is broader and more diverse than a single chief executive can offer. If you have one cruddy president and an executive-heavy government, the country is out of luck for his term (need I say more?); whereas the Congress is generally not hobbled by a single defective person or rotten idea.
You don’t want to make permanent, constitutional changes based on one president or even one era of government, but the Obama example should remind conservatives that Congress is really where the action should be. The give and take --checks and balances and legislative process -- as we know, is slow and deliberate, making radical change difficult. That has generally served conservatives well. But what about the crazies on the right (especially) running amok? And how do we solve problems that needs solving?
These concerns are real, but the solution is not an institutional or constitutional one. Certainly, campaign finance laws that push money out of political parties and into the hands of extreme groups that can boost similarly extreme candidates is one problem that has a fix (repeal McCain-Feinstein). But more generally, Congress can improve its output by also strengthening leadership in both bodies. Note the difference between the shutdown and this budget fight, the latter in which an emboldened speaker of the House is willing to rhetorically and legislatively beat down the far right.
Ironically with outside money and the end of earmarks, leaders have lost tools for keeping members in line. That leaves leaders with fewer mechanisms to move their body, but election of strong-willed leaders, seniority rules and committee assignments still offer some levers. (Telling cranks on the right that the “Hastert rule” never really existed and isn’t the way the House will run is another tool to force compromise within the majority and move legislation.)
For the next three years, we are likely to operate with a dysfunctional and inept executive. In foreign policy that is frightening. In domestic policy it’s the perfect opportunity for Congress to reclaim institutional authority, bolster internal controls and see if real work can get done when they keep the president at bay. Perhaps in divided government and a polarized country, big issues (e.g. entitlement reform) can’t get done, but middle- and small-sized gains are possible. Who knows -- maybe the budget deal can be the start of some beautiful friendships, legislatively speaking.
Keeping the fire under Iran negotiators’ feet
Congressional action on Iran is a moving target. One day Democrats seem ready to pass sanctions or join with Republicans in a resolution defying the Obama administration; the next they wilt under pounding from the White House. When grilled about their about-face, they either plead “bad timing” or, as Sen. Robert Menendez’s office did yesterday, simply refuse to explain it. No wonder they don’t wish to explain themselves: Their sheepish retreat in the face of White House hysterics undermines their image as strong defenders of Israel and Congress’s role as an important actor in foreign policy.
The good news for those concerned about U.S. national security is that White House pressure doesn’t last long and isn’t effective indefinitely; discussion on sanctions and congressional resolutions therefore remain active.
Long-time Democrat and pro-Israel activist Josh Block, now president of the Israel Project, observed Thursday evening, “Top Democratic and GOP leaders in the House have agreed to a [resolution] text, and the Senate continues to move forward in a bipartisan push to increase pressure on Iran and define success in any final agreement.” The question, he said, is not “if,” but “when”: “More sanctions are inevitable, it’s only a matter of timing, and that timing is dwarfed by the historic depth and breadth of public concern and the very public concerns being expressed by both Democrats and Republicans about any deal with Iran would leave the world’s leading state sponsor of terror with everything they need to build nuclear weapons.”
The Senate still may act next week before it goes on recess for the balance of the week, or -- more likely -- in January. Potential Senate action does three things:
First, it continues to engage the domestic and international public. Senate debate educates the public that the interim deal is a bad omen of things to come and that at least the U.S. Congress does not accept the premise that the Iranian regime should be entitled to enrich uranium. That public pressure is important not only in pressuring and electing leaders, but in extending legitimacy to actions by Israel, the Gulf states and others if military force is ultimately needed.
Second, Congress has already given the administration a scare and yesterday forced it to make the first move on sanctions in months. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, “In a move designed to convince Congress that a recent nuclear deal does not mean the US is going soft on Iran, the Obama administration on Thursday hit an additional two dozen companies and individuals with punitive measures for aiding Iran’s nuclear program. The designation for Iranian and foreign companies and individuals found contributing to Iran’s progress in uranium enrichment and evading existing US and international sanctions comes as the administration tries to head off mounting pressure in Congress for a new round of sanctions against Iran.”
And finally, congressional involvement acts as a spine-stiffener for the U.S. negotiators in their implementation talks with Iran. Surely the administration now understands a weak implementation deal that, for example, does not afford full access for inspectors will only trigger those sanctions.
In essence, Congress is establishing a three-sided negotiation. The United States can’t run too far in Iran’s direction or Congress will revolt, pass sanctions and potentially expose the negotiations as a fa ade. Unlike previously, when negotiator Wendy Sherman could construct a deal with North Korea that was obviously going to be violated, this time she has minders in the form of the U.S. senators. She should be looking over her shoulder whenever she gets the urge to acquiesce to the mullahs.
Can the GOP capitalize on the Democrats’ huge turnover?
In a political universe a long time ago -- ok, only October 2013 -- Democrats dreamt of taking the House back. Right now that seems as likely as a “grand bargain” authored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report explains that with “the 2014 election back to looking more like a referendum on President Obama than House Republicans, we have updated our outlook to a GOP gain of zero to ten House seats.”
The shutdown has now been subsumed by the Obamacare rollout mess:
[F]or Democrats to have really built on their October progress, they would have needed 1) the promise of more Republican intransigence on continuing resolutions and debt ceilings, 2) more Republican retirements from marginal or semi-marginal districts, and 3) a raft of five to ten more “grade A” candidates in GOP-held districts. In the aftermath of the ACA’s launch, none of the three have materialized.
He puts the “best case” for Democrats as adding 12 seats and the “worst case” as losing 21 seats. So even if everything goes their way, the Democrats remain in the minority. Cook himself calls the turnaround in political fortunes “unprecedented”:
[I]n mid-October, the focus shifted from the government-shutdown fiasco to a different debacle, this time a Democratic disaster: the botched launch of the Obamacare website and subsequent implementation problems of the health care law, including termination notices going out to many people who had insurance coverage. The Democratic numbers from the generic-ballot test dropped from 45 percent to 37 percent, and Republicans moved up to 40 percent. This 10-point net shift from a Democratic advantage of 7 points to a GOP edge of 3 points in just over a month is breathtaking, perhaps an unprecedented swing in such a short period.
There are several conclusions to be drawn from this. First, the flip from GOP disaster to Democratic disaster is precisely why it was so critical for Republicans to get the budget monkey off their backs. That they were able to do so with no tax increases, more defense spending and the sequester in essentially the same form suggests Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) got the best of the deal. As Megan McArdle puts it, “[T]actically, I think this is a clear win for the Republican Party. The last thing [Republicans] need right now is to take the focus off the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and revive Obama’s flagging poll numbers with an ill-timed budget battle. Their best shot at a budget they really like is, after all, to retake the Senate in 2014.”
Second, Republicans may be tempted now to be overly cautious, do nothing and sit tight until November 2014. This would be a mistake and lost opportunity. With the far right in retreat and Democrats in panic over Obamacare, House leadership could well accomplish some agenda items -- immigration reform, an energy bill or even student aid transparency and reform. Not only would this potentially help them get to that +21 number, but it would give them a mandate and direction after the election to press forward.
Third, another way Republicans can set the stage for 2014 and 2016 without getting off the topic of Obamacare is to introduce a very simple Obamacare alternative, the short-and-sweet antidote to Obamacare woes. This will also remind voters how bad Obamacare is, give them additional reason to throw out the Senate Democratic majority and reassure voters the GOP is ready to govern. It would be wise, for now, to match up GOP proposals to the major problems with Obamacare. Obamacare has narrowed the choice of insurance plans, restricted doctors accessible through those plans and taken away the option to buy a catastrophic plan if that suits your needs. Republicans should do the opposite. The GOP plan bill should let people buy whatever insurance at whatever price they please, increase choices by allowing interstate sales and help states set up high-risk pools for people with preexisting conditions. If Republicans fear getting too far into the weeds now, they can come up with a short list of these items to immediately replace Obamacare and then a more general framework for the type of health-care reform they are willing to negotiate with the president.
In short, Republicans are ending the year on a very strong note. However, as in sports, if you sit on your lead it’s likely to disappear.
‘Lie of the year’
How big will Politifact’s “ award“ for the biggest lie of the year be? Given that it was the GOP’s best issue of the fall -- the ”If you like your health care plan, you can keep it” -- pretty big, I would say. Politifact found 37 times Obama repeated the untruth with no caveat and then socked him for compounding the misrepresentations:
If you like your health care plan, you can keep it,” President Barack Obama said -- many times -- of his landmark new law.
But the promise was impossible to keep.
So this fall, as cancellation letters were going out to approximately 4 million Americans, the public realized Obama’s breezy assurances were wrong.
Boiling down the complicated health care law to a soundbite proved treacherous, even for its promoter-in-chief. Obama and his team made matters worse, suggesting they had been misunderstood all along. The stunning political uproar led to this: a rare presidential apology.
This will be significant in a variety of ways.
First, this acts as a sort of Velcro keeping the president stuck to the issue that finally wrecked his credibility. More coverage of the “lie” and more fencing with the White House will result.
Second, the “lie” may loom even larger come January. That is when the millions who did lose their coverage and some who thought they had signed up for coverage on the defective exchanges will find themselves uninsured, overcharged and/or unable to see their doctor or visit their hospital of choice. In other words, the real damage to real people who thought the president was telling them the truth is about to unfold. Rory Cooper, spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), sent an e-mail out to the media that had been sent to congressional offices highlighting the last-minute scrambles to get people covered. (“Requiring insurers to accept payment through December 31, 2013 for coverage beginning January 1, 2014 . . . Urging issuers to give consumers additional time to pay their first month’s premium and still have coverage beginning January 1, 2014 . . . Strongly encouraging insurers to treat out-of-network providers as in-network to ensure continuity of care for acute episodes or if the provider was listed in their plan’s provider directory as of the date of an enrollee’s enrollment.”) Cooper blasted away, “It’s clear the administration knows Obamacare’s problems are only going to get worse, and patients will be the ones who suffer. What’s not clear is whether they understand the confusion and chaos they continue to cause.”
And finally, Republicans are wasting no time in tying Senate Democrats to the same misrepresentation. Thursday evening the conservative America Rising attack team was already up with clips of four Senate Democrats and three House Democrats repeating the “lie of the year.” Oh, and they also included Hillary Clinton saying the same line.
The real gift to the Republicans is that the president and other Democrats got caught misleading voters. The Politifact recognition is just the topping on the political sundae. Expect the Republicans to gorge on it all through 2014.
A big win for Ryan, the GOP and the country
The margin was simply stunning — 332 to 94 — for House passage of a two-year budget that restores some monies for defense, includes minor pension reform, eschews tax increases and maintains the basic structure of the sequester. The far-right groups (Heritage Action, Club for Growth) and their minions squawked, but they were ignored and even insulted by the speaker, who questioned how the folks that brought us the shutdown could question a bipartisan budget deal that takes away the threat of tax hikes and a shutdown for the remainder of the Obama presidency. The era of bullying by the hardliners — if not over — is at least waning.
The victory is a substantial one for the House leadership, for mainstream Republican groups like the Chamber of Commerce (which has roused itself to take on the far right) and most especially House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who struck the deal and persuaded the 168 other Republicans to join him in passing the bill (Dems provided nearly as many votes).
In essence, Ryan saved the GOP from itself, allowing it to forgo endless squabbles and shutdown threats in order to concentrate on the best issues for them, primarily Obamacare. In staring down the far-right groups, the speaker and others in House leadership gain some running room to use on immigration and other issues. With a win this big — one that the country desperately wanted to end the budget histrionics — why quiver at the prospect of Heritage Action e-mails or threats by Club for Growth to primary incumbents? (Let them try to primary 169 Republicans.)
In his floor speech, Majority Leader Eric Cantor reminded his colleagues: “I think we can all agree that arbitrary, indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts are not the smartest way to cut spending. Last year, House Republicans passed two bills that would have replaced the sequester’s indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts. This bill is a reflection of our priority to replace the sequester with permanent savings that will responsibly reduce our deficit.” That was an unmistakable jab at the GOP hardliners who flip-flopped on defense spending and the Senate Republicans who get a free “no” vote despite their past objections to across-the-board cuts.
As for 2016, the far right predicted the end of Ryan’s presidential ambitions. ABC News quoted him as saying, “If I’m not good at this job, why should I ask somebody for another job?” That, make no mistake, is a slap at the grandstanders in the Senate who aspire to the presidency yet have no accomplishments to their name. Those senators can all afford to vote no, protect their right flank and let the real leaders, Ryan especially, govern. It is actually a pretty powerful argument in Ryan’s favor — the man who can get a huge majority to preserve a very conservative agenda (e.g. no taxes, spending cuts). The GOP senators are acting like senators while Ryan is acting like the party’s leader.
Meanwhile, the House also passed the defense authorization bill, without the provision that threatened to take line commanders out of sexual assault investigations and disciplinary proceedings. (Alternative reforms supported by the military were included, as the speaker pointed out in a statement.) Contrary to the hype of a few isolationists, the pro-defense contingent in the House showed its determination both on the budget and the defense authorization bill; perhaps Obama’s reckless foreign policy has frightened enough lawmakers into taking their national security role more seriously.
The winners: House leadership, Ryan, business groups, national security, conservative hawks, Obamacare opponents, the economy, Republicans challenging red state Dems (the budget deal is an argument for GOP governance), Congress and voters (wondering if government was permanently broken).
The losers: MSM (no more budget fights!), Jim DeMint, Club for Growth, Senate Republicans aspiring to the presidency, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (if Ryan runs, Walker won’t), the right-wing media (again shown to have little influence in Congress), immigration reform opponents, the left (no Obamacare distractions, no unemployment benefit extension and no tax hikes) and the president (it’s now Obamacare 24/7).