Govern, or Fight?
Congressional Republicans face a choice as the new Congress takes its seats.
Last week, a spotlight shone on two houses divided: the House of Representatives and the Republican Party. Until Kevin McCarthy was elected as Speaker of the House just after midnight on January 7, the House witnessed 14 failed votes for the position—the most in a century—as the narrow Republican majority wrangled with itself and Democrats munched popcorn on the sidelines. Perhaps the most telling contrast, however, was between the ruckus on the House floor and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attending an infrastructure event with President Joe Biden. In the aftermath of a disappointing midterm performance, Republicans remain divided between those who think it most essential to show that the GOP can be a partner in governing and those who instead see political opportunities in sharpening contrasts with the Democratic Party. This internal division could have significant consequences for the legislative trajectory of the next Congress.
Diverse political incentives helped prompt the productivity of the last Congress. With half a century in Washington, Biden, who staked his presidency on the image of a return to “normalcy,” wanted to put some legislative points on the board. Democrats in Congress were happy to pass major pieces of legislation, and the narrowest of Democratic congressional majorities allowed the party to pass some reconciliation bills advancing long-standing progressive aims. Meantime, Senate Republican desires to preserve the filibuster and regular order in the Senate fostered an instinct for collaboration, which Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema encouraged. The Senate mustered bipartisan “gangs” on everything from semiconductor subsidies to reforming the counting of electoral votes.
In the new Congress, the political incentives are considerably more scrambled. Democrats no longer have a majority in the lower chamber, so party-line reconciliation packages are out. Negative partisanship is particularly keen in the House, making it harder for Kevin McCarthy to muster a critical mass of House Republicans to cooperate with the White House and Democrats in the Senate. Partner-in-governing Republicans would have an incentive to try to work out compromise pieces of legislation with Democrats, while heighten-the-contrast GOPers might instead focus more on messaging legislation and investigations.
And Democrats face their own political crossroads. In the first two years of his presidency, Biden managed a careful political balancing act: work with enough Senate Republicans to pass major legislation, while also portraying the GOP as a party of dysfunction. This could be harder to do in the current Congress. Democrats will have to decide whether they want to follow Bill Clinton’s 1995–96 precedent of “triangulation” or instead fight Republicans and push the message that GOP rule would mean the paralysis of the federal government and escalating political chaos.
The debt ceiling is one area where these tensions could be extreme. If Congress does not raise the debt limit by the time it is reached (projected to be sometime this summer), the federal government would have to cut the budget radically and might risk defaulting on some obligations. To service debt payments, the government would have to slash other spending in many other categories, possibly including Social Security and other entitlements. The disruptive process would roil financial markets, threaten the value of the dollar, and invite greater currency instability across the globe.
Could negotiations lead to a political stand-off between Republicans and Democrats, as Republicans demand budget cuts in exchange for hiking the debt ceiling? The key issue would be finding cuts substantial enough to appease Republicans yet small enough that Democrats would accept them. The Budget Control Act of 2011 arose out of such negotiations a decade ago.
The political landscape has changed since then, however. Many Democrats resent the cuts imposed by the 2011 negotiations and think that President Obama should have refused to negotiate. Then-Speaker John Boehner may have had more negotiating room in 2011 than Kevin McCarthy does today. In 2011, Boehner had almost 20 more GOP votes than Republicans have now. Sixty-six Republicans ended up opposing the 2011 Budget Control Act, but enough Democrats backed it to pass the House handily. Last week’s House battle showed how even a handful of Republican House members could paralyze McCarthy’s speakership—and the new one-vote threshold for initiating a vote on vacating the Speaker’s chair gives even more leverage to those demanding higher cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. However, cuts that are too great could repel both Democrats and even some Republicans in Congress. Moreover, many Democrats might hope to use any Republican-proposed cuts to popular programs as fodder in the 2024 campaign.
All this could make the O.K. Corral look like a cakewalk. Republicans and Democrats would have to calculate which side would be tarred more by catastrophe—the economic disruption caused by a debt-ceiling breach would likely be a huge drag on Biden, but Biden and Democrats could also point to a Republican refusal to compromise as a sign that the GOP could not be trusted with power. The risk of a legislative deadlock would likely only add to political pressure for some attempted executive workaround on the debt limit.
Such fiscal battles would represent a reversion to Tea Party themes from the pre-Trump era. Part of the deal negotiated between McCarthy and holdouts reportedly involves laying out a budget that would balance the books over the next decade and would cap discretionary spending in the 2024 fiscal year at 2022 levels. The Republican rules package requires a three-fifths vote of the House on any bill that raises income-tax rates. It reinstitutes the “Cut As You Go” rule, which requires that any proposal that would increase mandatory spending be matched by an equivalent cut to mandatory spending.
Congressional investigations could be another venue for political conflict. High-profile political hearings and investigatory committees have long been catnip to politicians. Exercising oversight is one of Congress’s important tasks, and increased scrutiny of the executive often follows when the opposing political party takes over one branch of Congress. Many Republicans have indicated a desire to launch investigations of the Biden administration’s border policies and approach to the coronavirus pandemic, and of Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
Yet openings for bipartisan cooperation may persist. For instance, some Republicans and Democrats have expressed an interest in new regulations on the technology sector. In late 2022, concerted industry lobbying intervened to stop bipartisan momentum for tech reform, but key lawmakers (including Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher in the House and Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar in the Senate) have indicated their hopes to resume efforts at tech regulation in the new Congress. In a recent article for The American Conservative, Florida senator Marco Rubio laid out an agenda—calling for new regulations on Wall Street, revitalizing national supply chains, and labor-market policies—that could attract attention from both recent Republican arrivals and sitting Democrats.
Which path will be taken remains an open question. Republicans themselves are divided on many of these issues, and both parties face the temptation of setting into familiar feuds.
Among the more consequential parts of the compromise that gave McCarthy the Speaker’s gavel are various procedural reforms to weaken top-down control of the House. House leadership has pledged to open up the process of introducing amendments on the floor, which had been radically curtailed in recent years. Anti-McCarthy holdouts won more seats on the Rules Committee (one of the great instruments of power in the House) for themselves and their allies. This provision essentially brings elements of a faction long thought of as congressional “outsiders” into one of the key mechanisms of the House political establishment. Expanding the range of stakeholders in key institutional structures of the House may provide more political flexibility. Particularly over the past decade, the legislative process in the House has grown rigid, and spending has been characterized by last-minute mega-omnibuses. A slightly more decentralized model might offer a viable alternative.
Last week’s fireworks indicate continuing tensions within the Republican Party, but they also suggest the need for new political thinking to overcome them. Forging a durable coalition demands much more than budget battles. The 2022 midterms illuminated the limitations of a GOP trying to pin its electoral hopes on dissatisfaction with macroeconomic conditions or the president; instead, Republicans need to present themselves as a credible political party that can meet Americans’ needs. A coherent policy agenda could help congressional Republican leaders gain renewed credibility with voters.
Photo by Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
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