Disarming the Rebels

North Korea is a miserable little country, one of the poorest on earth, run badly by a strange little man, the son of the strange little man who ran it badly before him, who ran it as badly as his father before him – but North Korea has a few crude nuclear weapons and is working on delivery systems, rudimentary intercontinental ballistic missiles which may actually work one day – every time they test one it seems to blow up on the launching pad or two minutes later. They’re working on that, and on how to miniaturize their nukes so they’ll fit on top of those missiles that don’t quite work yet, which isn’t easy – but they can blow things up. Now the world has to take them seriously. They may never be able to wipe out Los Angeles with one big one, but they could supply nuclear weapons to ISIS, or to the Catalan separatists in Spain, or Ted Nugent. They might, just to make trouble. They’ll get what they want, although what that is isn’t clear. But they have that power. They may be a tiny insignificant country with no real resources, and their people may be starving to death in the streets, but they did do one single thing with what little they had. They developed a way to blow things up. Others will jump when they say jump.

The Freedom Caucus is a group of forty severely conservatives in the House. That’s forty of 435 members – 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats – so that’s nothing. But they also can blow things up. If their fellow Republicans try to do something they don’t think is conservative enough, like cut a deal with Obama to keep the country running or allow the country to pay its bills, only getting a bit of what real conservatives want, not all, they can withhold their support. Their fellow Republicans are afraid to vote against them, and the Democrats would be no help. They can force their fellow Republicans to agree to a government shutdown or a default on the nation’s debt obligations – unless Obama ends Obamacare or Planned Parenthood is defunded or whatever. Their fellow Republicans may point out that never works and only makes Republicans look like jerks, but the Freedom Caucus can force them to use those weapons. Those are the nuclear weapons in this case. They can blow things up. They may be a tiny sliver of the House – nine percent – and only sixteen percent of the Republicans there – but people will take them seriously, damn it.

Speaker of the House John Boehner had had enough of their nonsense and decided to quit the speakership, and Congress. He didn’t like being bullied by pipsqueaks. Kevin McCarthy as second in command could do it, but the Freedom Caucus hated him – they figured he would also cuts deals with Obama to keep things running – so McCarthy was out. Paul Ryan agreed to take the job, if these folks would calm down, and they seem okay with that, but they haven’t elected him to the position yet.

Boehner agreed to stay on until this is settled, but he seems to have decided to do Paul Ryan a favor. He decided to disarm the rebels:

Congressional leaders and the White House reached a major deal Monday to avoid a potential fiscal calamity, but not before many Republicans were left fuming that their party leadership had given too much away to their Democratic adversaries.

The agreement, which would raise domestic and defense spending by $80 billion and lift the national borrowing limit until March 2017, could be voted on by the House as soon as Wednesday – the same day the GOP is expected to nominate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, to replace retiring Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as House speaker. The deal prompted a tense session among House Republicans Monday night in the basement of the Capitol.

The Freedom Caucus just found out someone took their nukes away:

The final details were still being ironed out late into the night Monday, including cuts to the Social Security disability program and to Medicare. But the deal was the product of weeks of negotiations led by Boehner, who is furiously trying to take the divisive fiscal issues off the plate for Ryan before his successor takes office. If the deal passes, Ryan could have a clear path to do his job without the fiscal brinksmanship that damaged Boehner’s speakership.

Josh Marshall puts it this way:

John Boehner will do Paul Ryan an immense, immense favor by resolving all the potential budget stand-offs and possible legislative hostage takings through the end of next year. It still seems like there might be some poison pills Republicans are planning to include. But this would basically confirm for the House fire-breathers everything they’ve always said about Boehner, take all their bombs and fireworks away for the next 18 months or so, and do Paul Ryan an immense, immense favor by taking away the grounds for potential confrontations through 2016.

These guys got neutered and they don’t like it:

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, strongly objected to the deal. “We’re not just here to take commands,” Amash said. “People back home expect us to participate in the process. I hope that Paul Ryan will let us know how he feels about the process.”

Ryan, who is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, deliberately took a low profile and refused to weigh in on the deal, declining to comment to reporters and not saying a word about it during a private meeting with fellow House Republicans.

At that meeting, however, the tension was rife.

Of course it was:

Louisiana Republican Rep. John Fleming told reporters Boehner essentially “threw committee chairmen under the bus” and suggested this big deal was being dropped on members now because the committees failed to do their work. But, in Fleming’s telling, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Georgia, pushed back, saying that he was in fact working on fiscal reforms but was told by leadership to stand down.

Roughly 10 House conservatives got up and complained in the meeting about the process of cutting a major deal and rushing it to the floor without going through regular order, lawmakers said.

Rep. Walter Jones, a conservative from North Carolina, said he still was waiting on the details – but added that he “would not be blackmailed” into voting for a debt limit increase.

That hardly matters now:

While there is consternation in the ranks, many expect there will still be ample support from Democrats – and a large enough number of Republicans – to pass the deal later this week. That’s largely because the bill would increase defense spending to alleviate the pain felt by across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, enough to win the backing of the sizable number of GOP defense hawks. Sen. John McCain says he will support the deal, even though it is $5 billion short on defense funding in 2016 and more than that in 2017.

This will pass, and this is now the Freedom Caucus’ worst nightmare:

The product was the result of weeks of negotiations between Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The bill would raise spending caps by $80 billion – $50 billion in the first year and $30 billion in the second year – divided equally between defense and domestic programs.

Even though Ryan’s fingerprints aren’t on the deal – a deliberate move by the presumptive speaker and Boehner – the framework of the agreement is very similar to the two-year budget deal he crafted in 2013 when he chaired the budget panel with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington.

So, Paul Ryan really isn’t one them and, one more time, true conservatives won’t get absolutely everything they want, just some of it, and for the next two years they will also be without their two nuclear weapons, the shutdown and forcing the nation to stop paying its bills.

They have been neutralized, if not neutered, but Matthew Yglesias argues that Paul Ryan is now doomed:

The core problem that afflicted John Boehner during his tenure in office remains in place – a band of hardline conservatives routinely insists that the GOP use routine but critical pieces of must-pass legislation (debt ceiling bills, government funding bills, etc.) as “leverage” to secure ideological concessions from the White House. The plan fundamentally doesn’t make sense and can’t work, which most Republicans know but aren’t willing to say. It’s a recipe for disaster, and it hasn’t changed one bit. And in some ways, things may be worse than ever under Ryan, who isn’t really a practitioner of the kind of crass transactional politics that Boehner used to make it work.

So while the personal drama is fascinating on its own terms, it’s irrelevant in terms of the larger structure of American politics or the consequences for ordinary people. Ryan is setting himself up for a world of tumult, intra-caucus conflict, and talk radio denunciations. The country, meanwhile, can expect a continued spell of unnecessary (and economically damaging) political crises, which it’s already endured for the last four and a half years.

It will be more of the same:

Enterprising members of Congress have long tried to use must-pass bills to smuggle the occasional idiosyncratic priority or interest group giveaway into law. But what’s dividing Republicans is the notion that they ought to try to use must-pass legislation to pass big partisan and ideological priorities – whether that’s something grand like comprehensive entitlement reform, something petty like defunding of Planned Parenthood, or something in between like rolling back Obamacare.

There are basically three schools of thought on this:

The Pragmatists agree with the vast majority of non-Republicans that this strategy doesn’t make sense. Reasonable people do not expect Barack Obama to compromise his core values in order to maintain the basic functions of government, so Republican demands that he do so merely bring the GOP into disrepute. What Republicans ought to do is pocket the gains they have already made and try to win the 2016 election.

The Fire-Eaters see the Obama presidency as in some important sense illegitimate, and Congress as a crucial check on his unwarranted use of power. On this view, to approve an increase in the debt ceiling without fundamentally altering America’s fiscal trajectory is to become complicit in that trajectory. To pass an appropriations bill that fails to defund Planned Parenthood is to be complicit in Planned Parenthood’s activities.

The Timids compose the center of gravity in the Republican Congress. They think the Pragmatists are right, but they don’t want to say they think the Pragmatists are right. They would like the Fire-Eaters to go away, but they don’t want to denounce them publicly. They are essentially paralyzed by twin fears. On the one hand they worry that if the Fire-Eaters get their way, the result will be a disaster for America that gets blamed on the GOP. On the other hand, they worry that if they break with the Fire-Eaters, talk radio hosts will denounce them and they’ll be vulnerable to a defeat in a primary campaign.

This will not go well for Ryan:

Like Boehner before him, he’s set himself up to be a patsy for the Timids’ own dysfunctional timidity. Here’s how things are going to go:

During a caucus discussion of a must-pass vote, the Fire-Eaters will propose doing something crazy. The Timids will complain about it off the record to Politico reporters, but publicly line up behind the demand. Ryan, acceding to the stated wishes of his conference, will line up behind the demand even though neither he nor anyone else thinks it makes any sense. Obama will refuse to cave. After a bunch of posturing, the Timids will signal privately to Ryan that they wouldn’t mind seeing a clean version of the must-pass bill brought to the floor. Ryan will bring a clean version of the must-pass bill to the floor, where a coalition of Democrats and Pragmatists will pass it over the real objections of the Fire-Eaters and the fake objections of the Timids.

Conservatives will go crazy over why their leaders have betrayed them again. This is how Boehner did things, and for all his hemming and hawing, Ryan hasn’t actually done anything to change the dynamics that pushed Boehner in this direction.

Conservatives are already going crazy:

Things may never be the same for the Freedom Caucus after most of its members moved last week to support Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as the next House speaker. Suddenly, they may not be conservative enough for some in the party. …

The anger over Ryan’s ascent has been fueled by voices across the conservative media landscape. On the Internet, sites such as Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report have pumped out a steady stream of anti-Ryan stories casting doubt on his record, while such prominent commentators as Erick Erickson, Ann Coulter and Mickey Kaus have sharpened their teeth and urged conservatives to contact lawmakers and tell them to spurn Ryan.

Particularly brutal have been the syndicated talk-radio hosts who have helped foment the anti-establishment outrage that has kept Donald Trump atop the GOP presidential race and forced Jeb Bush, a well-financed mainstream conservative, to undertake a campaign shake-up.

Kevin Drum is a bit amazed:

First, the Republican conference in the House wasn’t conservative enough, so it moved to the right and put Newt Gingrich in charge. Then that wasn’t conservative enough, so the real conservatives restarted the Republican Study Committee. Then that wasn’t conservative enough, and the Tea Party was born. Then that wasn’t conservative enough, so we got the House Freedom Caucus. Now, even the House Freedom Caucus isn’t conservative enough. Only the small band that voted against Paul Ryan are true conservatives.

So that’s where we stand. Former conservative darling Paul Ryan is now a crypto-RINO squish, and there are only about a dozen true conservatives left in the House. Maybe they should split off and form the House Super-Duper Freedom Caucus.

Or maybe they should develop real nuclear weapons like the North Koreans did. Then this threat to blow up the government, from a tiny group of pipsqueaks, wouldn’t be metaphoric.

That’s not going to happen, perhaps, but the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell argues that John Boehner didn’t go far enough. If he’s going to go out in a blaze of patriotic pragmatic glory, the guy should go all the way:

He must persuade his fellow legislators to abolish the debt limit.

Over the past century, the debt limit has evolved from a perfunctory housekeeping measure to a weapon of legislative terrorism (in the memorable coinage of budget wonk Stan Collender). If moderate Republicans ever want to escape the yoke of their wackadoodle Freedom Caucus fringe, they need to defuse and destroy this federal-default doomsday device once and for all.

No, really, this never made sense:

The debt limit – which, to be clear, isn’t about authorizing new spending, but paying bills we’ve already approved – is not a new innovation. Its weaponization, though, is fairly recent.

Congress has always capped how much debt the government can issue. Initially, it authorized specific kinds of debt to be raised for specific purposes (bonds to fight a war, for example). In 1939, the law was amended to grant the Treasury Department more freedom over what forms of debt it could issue, creating the first aggregate limit for public debt.

Over subsequent decades, as Cold War debt mounted, the ceiling became more of a political symbol. It allegedly enforced fiscal restraint among spendthrift policymakers, akin to Odysseus binding himself to his ship’s mast. … It was only in the late 20th century that the debt ceiling became an extortive tool.

Things did get out of hand:

In the 1980s, for example, Senate Republicans delayed raising the debt limit while trying to force spending cuts. Something similar happened a decade later, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) refused to raise the limit unless his fiscal policy demands were met. (Then-House Republican Conference Chairman Boehner, by the way, was on board.) Government shutdowns followed, but Republicans yielded ground before the country got too close to default.

In subsequent years, the debt ceiling got used as leverage again and again, typically by opposition parties hoping to extract demands. Even Barack Obama, as a freshman senator, voted against raising the ceiling in 2006. Other Democrats in minority leadership positions joined him.

But throughout these showdowns, it was assumed that those withholding their votes were bluffing, or otherwise doing so for symbolic reasons rather than because they were willing to risk triggering a U.S. default.

Regardless of who was in the White House, leaders of both parties likely never considered default a conceivable outcome – at least, not given the mayhem and global depression that could result from compromising the safety of the world’s safest financial assets (that is, U.S. Treasuries), which happen to underpin the entire global financial system.

Not to mention the constitutional crisis that might arise from questioning the “validity of the public debt of the United States,” as explicitly prohibited by the 14th Amendment.

Ah, but then, in the 2010 midterms, the Tea Party arrived:

The bluffing and symbolism stopped. The far right declared it was more than happy to vote down debt ceiling increases – really, truly vote them down – and has brought the country to the brink of default multiple times.

Not because this is the behavior of responsible fiscal conservatives, as Freedom Caucus claims to be; a responsible fiscal conservative knows that calling into question the country’s commitment to paying our debts hurts our fiscal health in the long run by raising borrowing costs and potentially incurring penalties for late payments.

Nor is this about helping the economy, which lost out on about 900,000 jobs as a result of crisis-driven fiscal uncertainty in 2013, as estimated by Macroeconomic Advisers.

Then again, holding the debt ceiling hostage has never been about principle. It’s always been about leverage. But while that leverage was once wielded by (supposedly) level-headed, moderate, establishment leaders, now it’s in the hands of people who openly say they’re cool with blowing up the world – and perhaps taking down their party in the process.

This legislative weapon, in other words, has finally fallen into the hands of terrorists.

And terrorists really should be disarmed. North Korea should be disarmed. But in this case we may have to settle for a two-year pause in threats from small groups of strange people, over here, who say they can blow things up if they don’t get their way. Over there is another matter.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Disarming the Rebels

  1. Rick says:

    With North Korea’s Kim Jung family having, for decades, periodically threatened to annihilate anyone who looks in their direction, you’d think we would long ago have nuked those little guys, but I’m pretty sure I heard somewhere those in the know have calculated that their little Pekinese barks are worse than their bites — in other words, making threats is just their style, and they really don’t mean it. And that’s a good thing, because if the threats are ever determined to be real, a lot of innocents will die.

    In other words, sometimes pipsqueaks do get their way through intimidation. As for what Matt Yglesias thinks Paul Ryan will do about his North Korean-like Republican Whackadoodle Caucus?

    Even if House Republicans get a new speaker this week in Paul Ryan, they’re not going to get what they really need: a new strategy.

    The core problem that afflicted John Boehner during his tenure in office remains in place — a band of hard-line conservatives routinely insists that the GOP use routine but critical pieces of must-pass legislation (debt ceiling bills, government funding bills, etc.) as “leverage” to secure ideological concessions from the White House. The plan fundamentally doesn’t make sense and can’t work, which most Republicans know but aren’t willing to say. It’s a recipe for disaster, and it hasn’t changed one bit. And in some ways, things may be worse than ever under Ryan, who isn’t really a practitioner of the kind of crass transactional politics that Boehner used to make it work.

    “Boehner used to make it work”? In what sense did he “make it work”?

    While I really like the way Yglesias later breaks down the House Republicans into three groups — the “Pragmatists” (the good guys), the “Fire-Eaters” (the bad guys), and the “Timids” (like the Claud Raines character in Casablanca, they’re not really bad, but just go in whichever direction the wind blows) — I do think I disagree with him on the above. The reason I say I “think” is because I’m pretty sure Yglesias knows more about this stuff than I do.

    Still, it seems to me that, rather than reprising Boehner’s strategy — which was that of trying to get the Fire-Eaters to do the right thing, and eventually giving in to their demands under threat of losing his speakership — Ryan might be better advised to try to light a fire under the Timids, and threatening that, if they don’t go along with him, he will just quit his job — putting everyone back to square one, that of trying to find a Speaker that is acceptable to everyone.

    His threat would obviously be credible, since everybody knows he didn’t want the job in the first place and had to be coaxed into taking it. And what makes the threat even more believable is everyone knowing that the reason he didn’t want the job in the first place was his desire to someday become president, and that no longer being Speaker would allow him the freedom to go back to working on that project.

    But won’t the Freedom Fries crowd then go berserk? And by that, you mean even more so than they are now? Sure, but what of it? After all, the power of this maniac-minority only seems to be in intimidating the majority, which is what they’re doing already. And so, if Ryan is unable to reverse that situation, then he just goes back to his old job.

    But if Ryan is successful, he then will have done his party — and his country — an almost immeasurable good turn that countless presidential candidates, both winners and not, can only envy, and one that also might help him in any future run for the White House.

    Rick

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