July 30, 2011 – 2:27 p.m.
Political Economy: OK, So Now What?
By John Cranford, CQ Columnist
For those insiders and outsiders who might have thought (or perhaps hoped) that the debt limit fight would settle anything, it probably has done just the opposite. Washington faces a long list of important fiscal and economic policy decisions over the next year and a half, and every one of them offers yet another opportunity for confrontation and brinkmanship.
That approach has worked so well during the protracted back-and-forth over whether and how much to raise the ceiling on government borrowing and how much to curtail future government spending in the process that it’s sure to be a principal legislative strategy for conservative Republicans during the balance of the 112th Congress.
The conservatives — led, in part, by newcomers who were encouraged by the tea party movement — say they came to change Washington. And it seems certain that they have, at least for the moment. They have made compromise an ugly word. And in that way they have made it impossible to conduct business as usual on Capitol Hill.
That spells trouble for anyone who wanted to get through the balance of this Congress in a semblance of regular order.
Just think about the laundry list of routine matters that will no longer be routine.
The House, for instance, has passed six of the 12 regular appropriations bills for fiscal 2012 — which begins just two months from now. The Senate has passed only one. It’s impossible to imagine that more than one or two of these essential bills can become law. And it’s highly unlikely that any will be enacted before the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.
That means Congress will have to pass one or more stopgap continuing resolutions to keep the government functioning, and some members of the newly empowered conservative wing of the House GOP are already warning that they will use this process to try once more to achieve the deep spending cuts that they didn’t get as part of the fiscal 2011 appropriations process.
Stopgap CRs have been ubiquitous on Capitol Hill for more than three decades. Once in a while, one will be subject to brief delaying tactics. But they are as formulaic as anything Congress does — generally used to keep spending at the previous year’s level until a full-year spending bill can be enacted. Holding one hostage is a rarity. This year, though, we might see the threat of a government shutdown if conservatives try to use these typically non-controversial stopgap measures to produce significant spending cuts.
Then, at some point, lawmakers will have to take up an omnibus spending bill for the balance of the coming year. Almost certainly, House conservatives won’t allow themselves to be rolled in negotiations with the Senate and the White House on this much more important bill — as they believe happened earlier this year.
If conservative lawmakers were willing to risk a government default and a resulting global financial meltdown over the past few weeks, they are unlikely to have any qualms about trying to shut the government by refusing to go along with spending for fiscal 2012 at levels as high as those currently planned.
But Wait, There’s More!
There are even more fights on the horizon that will test the notion that compromise is anathema to this new faction that seems to think it holds the cards.
The alternative minimum tax will need its annual patch by year’s end or soon after. The White House and possibly others will push to preserve the Social Security tax reduction that expires in December — perhaps extending its benefit to employers to provide an incentive to boost hiring. Other tax provisions that have powerful corporate sponsors are up for their annual renewal. But who can imagine the trajectory of a tax bill in a no-compromise Congress?
Political Economy: OK, So Now What?
And at some point — possibly early next year, depending on how the current fight plays out — we are likely to witness a sequel to the debt limit showdown. Given that the conservatives have hitched their wagon to a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget — and given the likely difficulty of winning two-thirds majorities for such a thing — the next debt limit fight is sure to be the most contentious of all.
It really is a new world on Capitol Hill when leaders cannot count on their troops to get in line on the most critical votes, and when leaders have nothing to offer to win the most recalcitrant caucus members over to the cause. When the price for a vote is less of something — reduced spending, lower taxes, no more debt — it’s next to impossible to win votes with incentives.
That was evident last week, when the incentive for conservatives to vote with House Speaker
It’s hard to see how this ends. The public may, sooner or later, fall back to demanding that lawmakers deliver the goods. Or the Just Say No caucus may continue to wield its newfound power. One thing is sure, it’s a long year and a half until the next election.