CONGRESS RAISES ITS CAPS: IT’S CHRISTMAS IN THE CAPITOL
Last week, the House Republican majority, having created no government budget for the last five months finally, in desperation, moved to a radical solution. Had they been willing to negotiate with the Democrats they could have created one back in September but they weren’t. Having gone through over four months of awkward patching the House majority finally moved. When Congress avoids passing its annual budget bills for the departments it resorts to continuing resolutions, which for a stated period allows the spending mandated in the old budget. Usually continuing resolutions are short term, often to get Congress past the biannual November elections (cutting programs just before an election can have deleterious effects on voting support). By last Thursday (February 8th), both Republicans and Democrats finally recognized that things could be put off no longer. They were operating on an unprecedented fourth continuing resolution and facing a second government shutdown. Something had to be done!
The result was an all night session on Thursday which produced a lifting of both the debt limit which had prevented more borrowing and the spending caps which had inhibited spending. That night, Republicans, always eager for more military spending, in effect, gave in to the Democrats who wanted more spending on social programs. With the debt limit suspended it can be Christmas all year for both parties in Congress. Gone for Republicans is their horror of rising deficits and accumulating debt (Republican concern about deficits began to fade as Barack Obama went out the White House door). Members of both parties now face two dreamy years of spending while back stage the Debt quietly rises.
It might be useful to think about the political ramifications of this change: One change will be that very conservative Republicans in the Congress will lose a great deal of their power. We have seen over the first Trump year the Republicans in the House quarreling among themselves about how much to cut programs which benefit ordinary people. Republicans in Congress are overwhelmingly conservative (what are now called Republican moderates would earlier have been considered very conservative). So the struggle has been between conservative Republicans and ultra conservative Republicans about how many benefits to take away. The very-conservative are grouped in the House Freedom Caucus whose members really want the federal government to provide no benefits at all. During much of that Republican civil war the Democratic members have reduced to standing helplessly by.
The Freedom Caucus members number about forty (there are 31 official members but others keep their membership silent). Even though they have been a minority of the 238 Republicans in the House, the Freedom Caucus has been able get its demands met by their fellow Republicans by using blackmail. That blackmail has been effective because their votes have been needed to avoid government shutdowns. Now with both the debt limit and spending caps effectively suspended they have little ability to threaten. With the caps lifted on military spending there is little more that they can demand (they are given to constantly demanding more military spending). Their demands to cut social spending are now blocked too. Their demand for tax cuts is now null. With the “tax reform” passed, and government borrowing to exceed a trillion dollars (100,000 million dollars), there certainly is not going to be much appetite for more tax cuts.
Outside the Congress, the one person most effected by the Thursday night revolution will be President Trump. With the Republicans constantly battling among themselves about how to kill Obamacare and then struggling with tax reform, the President could appear to be involved by making phone calls, calling House and Senate leaders over to the White House, and of course, tweeting to his base. The struggle to kill Obamacare failed (killing it isn’t even mentioned in this new two year deal), and the tax reform is now law. That tax reform is all the Republican leadership ever really cared about. Now that the debt ceiling is raised and spending authority is locked in for two years, there will be far less for the President to do. He runs the risk of sitting isolated a mile and a half from the Capitol. Certainly the just announced infrastructure bill will die aborning. And, if the Democrats manage to win one or both of the Houses in this fall there will be almost nothing legislatively he will be able to do.
So, as a result of that all-nighter last week a great deal has changed. The bulk of the Republicans in the House will be finally freed from control by the far right (John Boehner might dream of giving up golf and returning as Speaker). The current Speaker, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, has been ruminating in public about retiring but, with the Freedom Caucus neutered, the glories of Kenosha may fade. The majority of Republicans will be far more free to operate as they wish. We may see Republicans and Democrats working more easily together. With money available for both increased military spending and for improved social programs there will be less reason for the harsh antagonism that has marked Donald Trump’s first term. The members from both Houses can concentrate on the thing they really care about: The campaigning can begin!