Over the past few years, the number of conservatives in the House has grown exponentially. Well, at least to the extent that you can’t count them on your fingers. Unfortunately, House conservatives are about to become a victim of their own successes if they fail to change course.
In a sane world, Republicans would have more leverage than the Democrats over the legislative process. They have full control over the House and a filibuster-strength minority in the Senate. Consequently, they have the ability to block bad legislation from passing the Senate, while jamming the Democrats with good bills from the House.
But such a process is predicated on a Republican leadership that actually stands for Republican values. The reality is the opposite. We have Mitch McConnell outsourcing his leadership to McCain and Graham so that a number of bad bills pass the Senate (McConnell makes sure to vote against the bills, of course). Then, instead of ignoring unpopular bills that pass the Senate, House leaders work indefatigably to see how they can pass Senate bills.
Here is how the cycle of capitulation plays out. House conservatives balk at leadership’s initial attempt to pass bad legislation. Leadership is defeated. Conservatives prematurely view this as a sign of strength. Then, McCarthy and the whipping team come to conservatives and “whip” up general principles from conservatives. They ask them what it would take to get them to a “yes vote.” Conservatives mistakenly perceive this as a conciliatory gesture form leadership, when in reality, it is an attempt to get them to sign on to bad bills. Conservatives offer some general principles. Leadership commits to those general principles. Then they offer a new bill that employs a subterfuge in which those principles are addressed on paper in general terms, yet they are completely voided out by the specifics of the bill or the strategy behind the process. But because those principles are addressed in a superficial way, conservatives feel as if they had already given their word to vote for the bill. Repeat and rinse as needed.
During the 2011 debt ceiling fight, conservatives rallied behind Cut, Cap, and Balance as a precondition for raising the debt ceiling. Leadership had no intention of abiding by that condition. They offered a new plan that gutted the spending cap and initial cuts but retained a balanced budget as part of the second tranche of the debt ceiling hike. All but 22 conservatives signed onto it because it officially contained a balanced budget amendment, as promised, even though it wasn’t CCB. As we all know, they ultimately caved on that deal and passed a new plan to merely require a vote on a balanced budget amendment, not passage. Leadership hoodwinked conservatives into abjuring their principles because their ridiculous plan was supposedly “in the spirit of cut, cap and balance.”
Last January, leadership confronted another debt ceiling and a CR that contained funding for Obamacare. They asked conservatives what they needed to get to yes. Conservatives said they wanted the sequester cuts and a budget that balanced in 10 years. The sequester cuts were going to be enacted by default anyway. So what did they do with the budget? They repackaged last year’s Ryan budget, which balanced in 2040, to include all the new revenue from Obamacare tax hikes, fiscal cliff tax hikes, and overly optimistic CBO revenue projections, and poof….they had a balanced budget in 10 years. The budget actually called for more spending than the previous iteration. So they manipulated conservatives into a trap where they co-opted their general principles with a crap sandwich. Moreover, they never committed to actually standing behind that budget as a pre-condition for raising the debt ceiling this fall.
Last week, leadership asked conservatives what they needed to get to yes with the farm bill. They asked to split up food stamps and the agriculture subsidies. Now the entire purpose of splitting up the bill is so we can reform both sides without the legislative logrolling. Instead, leadership added massive new subsidies and made all the programs, including the sugar subsidies, permanent law. So while conservatives got what they wanted on paper, making it difficult for them to say no, they were forced to vote for something even worse.
Why am I going through all this “inside baseball?”
Leadership plans to do the same thing with immigration. Here is a very troubling report from National Review’s Robert Costa:
McCarthy’s message in those sessions was simple: “You bring people together and you tell them, ‘This is like sitting in the exit row.’ You have to see who is willing, at some level, to support it,” he says. “Then you go around the room and get people engaged. We quickly found that by splitting up the bill, we’d be able to get to our number. Once we got there, it was a huge shot in the arm, but you’ve got to get there first.”
McCarthy believes the farm-bill experience has consequences beyond alleviating internal tensions. He says House Republicans, who have long been cautious about moving forward on immigration reform, are now more open to considering such legislation. Before the farm bill, there was resistance to pursuing a piecemeal strategy and doubts about the leadership’s cloakroom clout. Since the farm bill passed, “I’ve felt momentum,” McCarthy says. “We’re able to do things on our own terms.”
He argues that the farm bill’s passage, though arduous, also gives Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia leverage for negotiations with Democrats on immigration, since they proved that they still have the support of a majority of House Republicans on big-ticket items. “The speaker’s hand is strengthened,” he says. “In politics, you’ve got to show that you can get bills through without the other side. We did that, and we got back to where we needed to be as a Republican team.”
Keep in mind that Eric Cantor and Bob Goodlatte are already crafting piecemeal amnesty bills and Paul Ryan is working on promoting a House gang bill.
All you conservatives who voted for the farm bill need to keep this in mind. Leadership will ask you what you want on immigration. If you tell them enforcement first, they will find a way to craft a bill “in the spirit of enforcement first,” and ship it off to the Senate.
Remember, these people don’t share our values. They are using you. They must be defeated.