I think one of the major misunderstandings (willful, in many cases) of this budget mess is that it's about Republicans just running around willy-nilly screaming "nonononono" like toddlers having a temper tantrum. I know it looks that way, but that's not what's happening. This is a strategy. And it's one they've even written down.
Jonathan Chait wrote about this in a widely read piece yesterday in which he explains what they've been up to:
In January, demoralized House Republicans retreated to Williamsburg, Virginia, to plot out their legislative strategy for President Obama’s second term. Conservatives were angry that their leaders had been unable to stop the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on high incomes, and sought assurances from their leaders that no further compromises would be forthcoming. The agreement that followed, which Republicans called “The Williamsburg Accord,” received obsessive coverage in the conservative media but scant attention in the mainstream press. (The phrase “Williamsburg Accord” has appeared once in the Washington Post and not at all in the New York Times.) But the decision House Republicans made in January has set the party on the course it has followed since.
If you want to grasp why Republicans are careening toward a potential federal government shutdown, and possibly toward provoking a sovereign debt crisis after that, you need to understand that this is the inevitable product of a conscious party strategy. Just as Republicans responded to their 2008 defeat by moving farther right, they responded to the 2012 defeat by moving right yet again. Since they had begun from a position of total opposition to the entire Obama agenda, the newer rightward lurch took the form of trying to wrest concessions from Obama by provoking a series of crises.
And certain institutional players got in on the act and put the heat on MOC's big time. Here's a letter from Heritage action to the GOP caucus from last May:
In the coming months, you will face tremendous pressure to accept a deal to raise our nation’s debt ceiling. Conservatives around the country will insist the debt ceiling not be raised unless our nation gets on a path to a balanced budget within 10 years and stays balanced. This is not an arbitrary marker; rather, it is the marker laid out by the entire House Republican Conference in what has become known as the Williamsburg Accord.
Conservatives cannot enter into the debt ceiling debate without understanding the promise of the Williamsburg Accord.
On January 18, four current and former chairmen of the Republican Study Committee announced an agreement to re-sequence the 2013 fiscal fights. In exchange for holding the line on the sequester and producing a budget that balanced in ten years, conservatives agreed to postpone the debt ceiling debate for several months. In turn, the debate on the debt ceiling would revolve around enacting the policies that put the federal budget on the path to 10-year balance.
A few days later, Speaker Boehner declared, “It’s time for us to come to a plan that will in fact balance the budget over the next 10 years.” He said it was the GOP’s “commitment to the American people.”
As the proverbial ink dried on the Williamsburg Accord, the House Republican Conference marched in unison. Lawmakers focused on laying the groundwork to enact the policies necessary to achieve a 10-year balance, as scored by the Congressional Budget Office, and attach them to any future increases in the debt ceiling.
At the same time, the National Republican Congressional Committee quietly poll-tested the message in key districts. Balancing the budget was a winning political argument in swing districts. The NRCC poll found that 45 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of Independents and 76 percent of Republicans thought balancing the federal budget would “significantly increase economic growth and create millions of American jobs.”
Good policy is good politics, and we know from recent history a coherent, principled message on the debt ceiling can shift public opinion. Before landing on the Budget Control Act in August 2011, Republicans consistently said America had a spending problem and spending reductions must accompany any increase in the debt ceiling.
Not surprisingly, the accepted narrative of that showdown is wrong. Many forget Republicans were winning the generic congressional vote the entire month of July. President Obama’s disapproval rating stood at 52% by the end of August. In September, Mitt Romney was leading in head-to-head polling.
The path to balance is the path to victory.
Conservatives should not raise our nation’s statutory debt limit unless Congress passes and the President signs into law real reforms and immediate spending reductions that place America on a path to balance within 10 years without raising taxes and keeping the budget in balance.
What they were talking about was Paul Ryan's budget. And guess what? They got it:
The Democrat-controlled Senate passed a continuing resolution, or CR—a temporary funding measure meant to keep the government operating—that would set the relevant funding levels at an annualized total of $986 billion. That’s about $70 billion less than what the Senate endorsed as part of its comprehensive budget plan back in April. But that actually understates the extent of the compromise.
When President Barack Obama first took office in 2009, his budget proposed $1.203 trillion in discretionary spending for FY 2014. The Senate CR is about $216 billion, or nearly 18 percent, lower than that. Actual enacted funding levels for FY 2010, when the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, totaled $1.185 trillion in 2014 dollars. The Senate CR is about $200 billion below that, a cut of nearly 17 percent.
After the 2010 midterm elections, the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives and offered a budget plan that proposed dramatic spending reductions. That plan, authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), envisioned FY 2014 funding levels at $1.095 trillion. Note that the funding in the current Senate-passed CR is about 10 percent less than the levels in the original Ryan budget.
Finally, in August 2011, after a prolonged standoff over the debt limit, President Obama and Congress agreed to cut even more spending than the original Ryan budget demanded. The original spending caps in the 2011 debt limit deal limited funding to $1.066 trillion in FY 2014. The Senate CR accepts a cut of an additional $80 billion, or nearly 8 percent, from that compromise level.
Progressives have repeatedly made significant concessions in order to protect the economy from a series of manufactured crises. Today’s manufactured crisis is no different. The Senate-passed legislation to keep the government open sets funding levels that are even lower than previous compromises. If the Tea Party shuts the government down anyway, it will not be because progressives were inflexible. Just ask House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)—the compromise incorporated in the Senate CR was originally his idea.
Last night Steny Hoyer shouted this on floor during one of the debates:
"This is not a negotiation -- we're taking their number, and we would hope that they could also take their number so we can keep the government open."
You see? The Democrats already folded. Sequestration is now the ongoing law of the land and Paul Ryan's budget wet dream is considered the "clean" continuing resolution. Huzzah.
And yet, they were not satisfied. (You've heard the old saw "give 'em and inch and they'll take a mile," right?) Here's one view of the "Williamsburg Accord" from the more radical (yes, more radical even than Heritage Action) Madison Society from a few months back:
Back in January, a number of conservatives rendered themselves irrelevant in the fight for liberty by signing onto an incomprehensible agreement with leadership, known on Capitol Hill as the ‘Williamsburg Accord’ (yes, everything in Washington has to have a silly name). That agreement was aptly hatched at the GOP Retreat in Williamsburg. They agreed to suspend the debt ceiling law for 4 months and vote for a CR that funds Obamacare on condition that leadership keep the sequester and pass a 10-year balanced budget. The idea was to pass an amazing budget blueprint for everyone to support, and fight for it in return for lifting the new debt ceiling in May or June.
Let’s ignore the fact that the sequester was already a fait accompli, as Republicans would have been forced to succumb to tax increases in order to overturn it. Let’s ignore the fact that leadership forced the Democrat Violence Against Women Act down their throats with Democrat support. Let’s ignore the fact that there was nothing new in this year’s Ryan budget to improve upon last year’s budget other than $3.3 trillion in new tax revenue.
Let’s look ahead to the future. We’ve been playing this game for two years. If Boehner is going to buy into the notion that the debt ceiling is off-limits, why in the world would the Democrats feel the need to agree to any aspect of the Ryan budget, much less defunding Obamacare? How could Boehner make this comment while he is concurrently telling his conference that he will demand dollar-for-dollar cuts in return for raising the debt ceiling – whatever that means?
Hence, the conservatives who signed onto this deal were punked – unless they also buy into leadership’s claim about default. If Republicans were really serious about dealing with this issue, they would pass Tom McClintock’s Full Faith and Credit Act (H.R. 807), which prioritizes payments for interest on debt. All of those conservatives who agreed to the Williamsburg Accord are co-sponsors of this bill? Why don’t they force leadership to vote on their bill ahead of the May 18 debt ceiling deadline?
It’s clear now that the vote to suspend the debt ceiling for 4 months had nothing to do with their desire to push for a balanced budget, rather it was an expression of fear – the same expression they are evincing to Obama ahead of the new debt ceiling deadline.
We are looking for new candidates who will not be possessed by this incorrigible fear during a time that calls for intrepid courage on the part of conservatives. I’ve already found several promising candidates, and will not rest until we find an army of new savvy contenders who plan to play by a different set of rules. The way we approach elections is not working. The movement is not doing enough to change the face of the Republican Party. And by voting to suspend the debt limit and funding for Obamacare in the CR, conservatives are making it harder for us to run against the moderates, obviating our ability to send them reinforcements. As we’ve explained this week with regards to taking down the rule on bad bills, we have failed to even match the passion and commitment of the ’94-era Republicans.
This must change.
Over the next few weeks, at the Madison Project, we will be updating our index scores for the 112th Congress and our hall of shame, which is comprised of liberal members in conservative districts. Sadly, it’s a long list. You can email me with suggestions of new candidates at Daniel@madisonproject.com. We can either complain or we can take action.
That is the alternate universe in which these grassroots/teaparty/lunatics dwell.
And yet this fact is all too real: they've got the Ryan budget already. And they've already moved on to the debt ceiling, which all the Fox freaks were going on about last night. Krauthammer suggested they could get Obamacare defunded if they are willing to hold out. They all believe the consequences of a default are phony concerns made up to force them to back down and they are having none of it. That threat to back primary challenges in those gerrymandered districts against those who deviate from this dangerous delusion is quite real (or these members of congress believe it is, anyway.) So, they are going to play this all the way out.
But why wouldn't they? With the exception of some chump change from millionaires in the last round, the Democrats have been losing on policy every step of the way since these budget battles began, even as they seem to be winning the politics. What could be more telling than the fact that the numbers in Paul Ryan's budget are now considered the starting point in any new negotiations to end the shutdown.
Who's being played here?