Make no mistake about it; House Republicans definitely prefer that a Republican be elected president.
But what’s been clear for years on things related to the budget has become even more obvious in recent weeks with the take-no-prisoner decisions House Republicans made on immigration and agriculture: The House GOP is increasingly unwilling to make its own political lives even slightly more difficult by making accommodations (that is, compromises) that make the election of a Republican candidate in 2016 more likely.
And I don’t just mean compromises with Democrats. These days House Republicans are as unwilling to make deals that make life easier for their R Senate colleagues as they are with the Ds in either house.
The implications of this situation for the federal budget debate in the coming years is simple. Without a major crisis that changes the situation (and given the “crisis fatigue” we have these days I’m not even sure then), the debates on federal spending and revenues, the national debt, and the deficit are going nowhere in the next few years. There will be no big deals, possibly no small deals and fiscal policy is going to continue to be net negative for the U.S. economy.
It also means:
1. Annual sequesters for 2014 – 2017 are far more likely than anyone has yet admitted. The activities of both military and domestic departments and agencies will be under significant pressure over the next four years. Expect continued reduced services, more furloughs, less federal employment and decreased agency effectiveness. Also expect increased spending on bad situations — natural as well as man-made — caused by a growing federal inability to prevent disasters.
2. As I’ve said before, comprehensive tax reform is not likely until the end of this decade.
3. There is no more than a 10 percent chance of getting a budget resolution conference report, that is, an agreement between the House and Senate on the appropriate fiscal policy for the coming year until at least the next president takes office. And 10 percent may even be a reach.
4. Multiple yearly fights over continuing resolutions and debt ceiling increases will be the norm. It may not be called a fiscal cliff or — my preference — “#cliffgate,” but the last-minute, year-end legislative games of chicken should now be expected and planned for.
This is happening because the House GOP sees doing anything else as hurting its chances of staying in the majority.
This is the (perhaps) unintended consequence of the redistricting that occurred after the 2010 census. Rather than increase the number of congressional districts they could win, the House GOP strategy was to reinforce the likelihood that existing Republican districts would stay Republican. To do this they made each GOP-controlled district more red and less blue.
It’s worked as planned. Even with the record-low job approval rating for Congress as a whole and House Republicans in particular, the House GOP majority now appears to be very secure through at least the first election after the next redistricting in 2022.
But the electoral benefits have also had an extraordinarily negative impact on the ability of House Republicans to legislate. Most GOP representatives are not worried about losing their seat to a Democrat in the general election; they are instead most concerned about getting a primary challenge from another Republican. To avoid that the GOP incumbent has to play to those who vote in the GOP primaries and that group tends to be far more fiscally conservative — radically more fiscally conservative is actually a more accurate description — than those who vote in the general.
In other words, to keep their power House Republicans have to play to a very different target audience than both their GOP Senate counterparts and Republican presidential wannabes who typically need independents and some Democrats to get elected.
This is not just a theory; we’ve seen the implications of this extraordinary internal Republican political conflicts many times in recent months.
For example, House Republicans were more than happy to score political points with their primary voters by insisting on the “No Budget No Pay” provisions earlier this year because, they said, they wanted to force the Senate to pass a budget resolution, something that was a red-meat issue for GOP primary voters.
But once the Senate passed a budget resolution, House Republicans have been completely unwilling to go to conference with Senate Democrats because they might be forced to compromise on spending and revenues, and that’s something their compromise-is-a-sin voters won’t like.
The result? No budget resolution, no reconciliation, no deal on the deficit or debt, and very serious procedural and political problems with the fiscal 2014 appropriations that need to be in place by October 1 to avoid a government shutdown.
It’s hard to see how this changes any time soon because the only-primary-voters-can-eliminate-our-majority thinking that’s so prevalent among House Republicans will continue until (1) they get swept out of office in a wave election or (2) there’s a new redistricting. Given that the first isn’t predicted any time soon and the second won’t happen for nine years, it’s likely to be a long while before House Republicas do anything that makes it easier for a GOP candidate to get elected president, or for the budget debate to produce a serious agreement.