Friday, July 18, 2014

How Long Can the Craziness Be (Somewhat) Controlled?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In anticipation of the upcoming academic year, the media affairs people at my law school asked me what to expect with regard to budget-related news.  They were, of course, especially interested to know when the debt ceiling would become a big issue again, because that is when they will surely be most active in helping reporters and producers arrange interviews with me.  (My tiny amount of fame is, as I've said before, an oft-ignored social and personal harm caused by the Republicans' debt ceiling madness.)  What can we expect going forward?

It is important to start by noting that this is an especially odd moment in American politics, when the Tea Party-fueled craziness of the last few years is viewed as being somewhat in remission.  That description is broadly accurate, I suppose, but it is all a matter of comparison.  On last night's "Daily Show," for example, Jon Stewart noted that there is still a lot of chatter on the far extremes of the right (which is to say, among large numbers of Republicans in Congress) about the need to impeach President Obama.  Some of the darlings on the right say that it must happen NOW, but they have thus far been disappointed.  In part, of course, this is because Obama has not actually done anything impeachable, but that is hardly a barrier to bringing it to a vote in the House.

With impeachment currently off the table, what are Republican leaders doing to mollify their base?  Well, the "moderate" alternative, endorsed by Speaker Boehner (and thus, presumably, the rest of the Republican leadership) is to sue the President in a court of law, claiming that he has overstepped his executive authority.  Although Boehner embarrassed himself earlier in the summer, when he brought up the subject but did not know on what grounds he might sue, the idea has apparently now come to fruition.  The plan is to use the lawsuit to amplify the Republicans' "Obama the dictator" theme, with the specific issue in the nascent lawsuit being that Obama violated the Affordable Care Act by giving businesses additional time to comply with the law.  (Ironies abound, none worth expanding upon here.)

If this is moderation from the Republicans, then the Democrats must be the luckiest party on Earth.  When I first heard about the lawsuit, I could only think, "They just can't stop themselves!"  Heading into winnable midterm elections, the idea should be for Republicans to look as responsible as possible.  In fact, being deliberately boring would be a great plan.  All of the structural pieces are in place for serious gains by Republicans (a second-term President, continuing weakness in the economy, Democrats forced to defend a large number of Senate seats), so why would Republicans want to remind people that they can barely control the craziness?  "Hey, at least we didn't impeach him!" is hardly a reassuring message to swing voters, when the idea of the House suing the President is so easy to mock.  The President's amused demeanor on this issue says it all.  He is loving every minute of the farce, because it is one of those rare cases where it cannot possibly hurt him to make fun of the other side's strategy, and to do so loudly.

The broader context, then, is a Republican Party that is barely maintaining the ability to project seriousness.  Even when they are handed issues that could work for them, like the mess in Iraq or the immigration crisis, they find themselves undermined by their own excesses.  Dick and Liz Cheney's recent anti-Obama op-ed was an early Christmas present to the White House, and nothing makes Obama look more presidential than being able to contrast himself with the anti-immigrant nastiness that oozes from the right.

How will this affect the budget situation?  We know that the Republicans could not even stop themselves from making a big issue out of funding highway maintenance this summer, so it is not as if they have put the budget silliness on hold.  Even so, the consensus seems to be that the end of the fiscal year on September 30 will not lead to another government shutdown.  The timing is just too close to the election for Republicans to repeat that disaster.  Admittedly, the consensus a year ago was that there would be no shutdown in the Fall of 2013.  Especially because that prediction was wrong, however, and the Republicans learned some hard lessons, this Fall seems likely to be quieter on that front.

That is not to say, however, that a full set of appropriations bills for 2014-2015 will pass by October 1.  More likely, there will be some kind of continuing resolution, locking everything in place for some number of months, before we face another possible shutdown in late 2014 or early 2015.

How will the results of the midterms affect what happens next?  Short of a completely surprising sweep in one direction or the other, it would seem that very little would change.  The House will probably have a few more Republicans, and the Senate will be close to 50-50.  It matters who controls the Senate, of course, but not so much for budgetary matters.  The more intersting question is how the Republicans will handle post-election budget matters, when the next election is as far away as possible, and the people who were thought vulnerable are safely back in office.

Earlier this year, people thought that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might lose his primary to a Tea Party fire-breather.  McConnell won easily, which could suggest that he will not feel the need to go along with shutdowns and other brinksmanship next year.  Of course, people thought that John McCain's lurch to the far right in his last reelection campaign was merely tactical, but he has shown no signs of maverickiness (or even sanity) since then.  There is no reason to be confident that McConnell will suddenly decide that budget issues should be handled quietly from now on.

Lying in the background, of course, is the debt ceiling, which Congress put back to sleep from February of this year through March 15, 2015.  If, as seems likely, the continuing resolution that avoids a government shutdown before the midterms is only a few months long, that could put the shutdown and possible debt-ceiling-induced default -- which are, again, completely different matters, both legally and economically -- back on the same time line.  There are complications, of course, including the unknown amount of time that "extraordinary measures" will buy, pushing default past the March 15 wake-up date.  But we could easily find ourselves facing a series of fiscal deadlines in 2015 that will be eerily similar to the crises in 2011 and 2013.

How will it play out next Spring?  It is worth noting that the dearly departed House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, was one of a small number of Republicans who voted for the debt ceiling extension earlier this year.  There were only 28 Republicans voting yes, on a 221-201 vote.  Even with every member voting, it would only take 17 more "no" votes to kill such a bill.  It is possible, of course, that the Republican leadership allowed the other 199 Republicans to vote "no" only because they had the votes in hand to pass the bill.  What we do know, however, is that any new Republicans who join the House are likely to be at the far edges of the party's extremist wing.

Even if enough votes finally are brought together on a vote to avoid a default (and a shutdown is similarly avoided, although that is far less important), what seems certain is that the post-midterm political atmosphere will all but require a return to the full-on craziness of budget brinksmanship that we have seen too often in recent years.  The White House is fully committed to reprising its stare-down strategy, and Republicans are likely to think that whatever they do in Spring 2015 can be overcome or forgotten by November 2016's elections.

Or, to put it differently, the Republicans who want to impeach Obama will never have a better time, or a better opportunity, to induce a constitutional crisis.  This seemed clear earlier this year, when both Professor Dorf and I wrote separate posts about this question (here and here).  Even with the Tea Party now supposedly having been brought to heel (the Cantor surprise aside), nothing has really changed in a way that would alter the post-election dynamic.  The craziness is barely under control now.  It can only get worse after November 4.