The Real House Leadership Crisis

The big news of the past few weeks is the House Republicans’ revolt against John Boehner, who is being forced out as Speaker of the House, setting off an odd scramble over who can avoid taking his place. (The latest person to not want to be Speaker is Paul Ryan.) On social media, the running joke is to compare Speaker of the House to other jobs nobody seems to be able to hold: number two man in al-Qaeda, Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, drummer for Spinal Tap.

The leadership battle is driven by a sense of inchoate frustration at the House leadership’s inability to achieve much of the right’s agenda, despite being given majorities in both houses of Congress. That’s why one of the chief demand of the Freedom Caucus—a subset of more radical House Republicans—is a program of procedural reforms that would decentralize power and give individual members a greater ability to shape legislation.

I’m not sure that matters as much as they think. Sure, conservative congressmen could have more impact on legislation as it goes through the House—but that won’t get it through the Senate, or get it past a presidential veto. And that’s the real question: how can Republicans wield power when they only control Congress?

In theory, the House should have a lot of power as the branch of government that writes the budget. (The Constitution requires that all revenue bills must originate in the House.) In practice, Republicans have given up trying to use that power, and that is the real source of frustration for the Republican “base.” Which means that the top priority of the next Speaker has to be getting that power back.

The fundamental cause of the whole leadership fight is that Republicans never figured out how to defuse the weapon of the government shutdown. They haven’t been able to figure it out for 20 years, ever since Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich blinked in the budget showdown with Bill Clinton in 1996.

Here’s how the shutdown weapon works. The president and his Democratic allies in Congress dictate their priorities on the budget and spending. If Republicans don’t go along, if they pass a budget that doesn’t spend as much as the president wants, Democrats use the filibuster and the veto to block the budget and shut down government. They then use “shutdown theater”—things like erecting barriers around public monuments that require no federal money to stay open—to make this seem like a bigger crisis than it is, and they depend on the press to put all the blame on Republicans. The House GOP, seeing the public approval of Republicans taking a hit, backs down. That’s how the last two Democratic presidents have used the shutdown to beat a hostile Congress into submission.

So long as Obama and the Democrats can use a government shutdown as a credible threat, they neutralize House Republicans’ power of the purse. And so long as that’s the case, the House GOP can’t do anything substantial. They’re reduced to pleading, “We can’t do anything until we have the Senate,” and then, “We can’t do anything until we have the presidency.” And eventually the Republican base and the Tea Party types get fed up and conclude that Republican leaders never really wanted to do anything in the first place, that they’re just marking time before they can go to K Street or Wall Street and cash out. (Which is partly correct.)

The House GOP needed to find a good opportunity to go to the matt on the government shutdown and force Democrats to compromise. If they had done that, they could have used budget negotiations to get at least some of what the base wanted, instead of caving in all the time. Then they wouldn’t be facing the current revolt against the leadership.

What this implies is that there is really only one issue in the House leadership fight. Republicans need a new Speaker who is going to force a shutdown until Democrats blink.

The fact is that this won’t hurt many House members, because they’re mostly from districts that want to see government reined in. One of the great paradoxes of American politics is that most people hate Congress as a whole, yet they consistently vote to re-elect their own congressman. A shutdown may hurt the “brand” of the Republican Party with the general public, but if that’s the inevitable cost of getting back the power of the purse, now is probably the best time for it. Take the hit now so there’s time to recover from it before the general election gets under way in 2016, at which point nobody will remember the shutdown, and the two parties’ prospects will depend on who their nominees are.

The lesson of the last government shutdown attempt, in 2013, was that Republicans went down in the polls, giving Democrats an advantage—but then the disastrous rollout of Obamacare promptly swung things back the other way. And believe me, this administration has a lot more disasters left in it, particularly in foreign policy.

It’s time for a Speaker who will turn the shutdown weapon back against the Democrats. Otherwise, congressional Republicans are declaring their intention to give up on doing anything significant and to be mere office-holders until a new president is elected—and indefinitely after that, if a Democrat gets into the White House again. Which means that we effectively have one-party, presidential rule, and the Republicans’ core supporters have no reason to vote for them.

The House needs to seize back the power of the purse, both for the good of the Republican Party and for the good of the republic. When you think about it that way, the only real shutdown crisis is that we’re not having one.

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