Grassroots conservatives have many unrealistic expectations and political objectives. And then sometimes they have a good point.
The new budget deal arranged by John Boehner and Democrats — approving $50 billion of additional spending in 2016 and $30 billion in 2017 — will be split between domestic discretionary programs and defense. Cuts will supposedly take effect in 2025, by which time this deal is likely to be buried under a dozen budget debates and a trillion dollars of bad memories for fiscal conservatives.
We’re told the reason for GOP capitulation is that Boehner, acting selflessly, is about to “clean out the barn” for a Paul Ryan speakership. Implicit in this argument is the idea that this kind of budget agreement would normally be a no-brainer, but the crazies must be appeased. Passing it now and avoiding the heat will allow Ryan to move forward with his own agenda.
If only it were that simple.
For one thing, the GOP will have to live with the precedent set by the terrible deal in future negotiations. Barack Obama, as The New York Times points out, is now going be able to “break free of the spending shackles” of the imaginary reign of austerity that was brought on by Budget Control Act of 2011. So are all Democrats.
For another thing, conservatives will almost surely see this as a betrayal. The administration came up with the idea of sequestration, and it turned out to be only tangible victory Republicans could claim on spending.
You might remember the 2010 Pledge to America that promised to roll back government spending to pre-stimulus/bailout levels, cutting at least $100 billion in the first year after taking power. Republicans failed to achieve this improbable goal. And almost every year since, government spending has gone up, though the GOP keeps adding seats by promising to achieve the opposite.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Expecting the GOP to return Washington to 2008 spending levels — now with a Democratic president in power or probably ever — is unrealistic. Expecting them at the very least, not to piddle away the only leverage they have to keep the status quo is surely reasonable.
If the GOP is unable to extract concessions that mitigate future spending and debt, then the debt ceiling has no real political purpose for them. In fact, if Republicans can’t even hold the line on what they’ve gained — and at this point, Boehner is actually giving back items Republicans won in previous years — then the debt limit isn’t just useless, it’s counterproductive. Why then did we go through all this angst for the past five years?
It’s true that both sides are guilty of “holding the country hostage” in the face of pretend “fiscal calamities” and government shutdowns. But Democrats understand that they will take none of the blame from the media when the sides fail to reach an agreement. And so Republicans fear this kind of coverage far more than they fear their own base, despite years of polling that show most voters like the debt ceiling in theory (whatever they think it means) and don’t mind if a party uses it to obtain spending cuts. In a new AP-GfK poll, 56 percent of those questioned would trade a government shutdown for more spending cuts. Nearly 80 percent of Republicans claim that they would be open to closing down agencies to procure those budget cuts; even 44 percent of Democrats agrees.
So the central question is: how is ceding this fight to Obama supposed to make life easier for Ryan? This is a guy who will begin his term reopening the Ex-Im Bank and perhaps the worst fiscal policy defeat since Obamacare. Won’t conservatives expect Ryan to try and stop the deal even before he takes the gavel? Marco Rubio opposes. Rand Paul will filibuster. Why isn’t Ryan doing anything?
If Ryan opposes the deal in substance — and as of this writing
he hasn’t said he does he does— then the theater he’s starring in right now doesn’t make it sound like he’s going to do anything about it. Most of protests from the GOP about the budget deal, at least publicly, have focused on the lack of participation and process, not substance. Ryan made a big production of noting that the “top-down and crisis-driven” agenda of his longtime ally Boehner will no longer be the way leadership operates.
“This is not the way to do the people’s business,” Ryan said. “And under new management we are not going to do the people’s business this way. We are up against a deadline — that’s unfortunate. But going forward we can’t do the people’s business (this way). As a conference we should’ve been meeting months ago to discuss these things to have a unified strategy going forward.”
What magical ideas will Ryan wring from the GOP conference that was unavailable to Boehner? And how many voters outside the Beltway care about process more than results? Democrats under Obama, for the most part, have been willing to use these deadlines to get what they can. Republicans have not. And if Ryan, a fiscal conservative by any standard, does nothing about the deal, the perception grassroots GOP types have about the old leadership may well be transferred to the new. If that happens, this deal will not only have sold out fiscal conservatives, but it might achieve the opposite of what Boehner intended.