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Shutdown Battle: All Noise, No Signal

US Senate Votes On House Spending Bill

The impending Congressional showdown over Obamacare and the federal budget has set the chattering classes ablaze all week, yet as with the Iran story, we’ve chosen to remain mostly silent on the topic. To us, it seems like a lot of noise rather than signal. This battle has much more to do with the big beasts in the Republican jungle positioning themselves for the 2016 race than anything happening today. In 2013, it’s much too early for anybody but aspirants for office and consulting jobs to care about that. Pack journalism loves to obsess about these budget crisis stories and report day by day statements and moves, but they are almost always less important than the noise about them would suggest.

The key dynamic often missed by the press is that politicians in both parties gain points with voters by striking poses during the run-up to an actual decision. Even if you are planning to fold in the end you would be stupid to make it look as if you weren’t willing to push for all the concessions you could get. We saw this in the previous battles over the debt ceiling, and there’s no reason to believe that this time will be any different.

When it comes to Obamacare, we’ve argued repeatedly that it is a bad law with some attractive features and some negative ones, but one that overall doesn’t get the health system going in the right direction. But we don’t think much of that is going to be fixed or changed by the current budget battle.

Intellectually, the most interesting thing about this whole debate is what it tells us about the American Constitutional system. Originally, many people thought that the House would end up as the most powerful body in the government because it had the key power that had given the House of Commons so much strength in the UK: the power of the purse. The Constitution says that all money bills must not only pass in the House—they must originate there.

That, plus the fact that the House at least theoretically is closer to public opinion (and was even closer until the basis of Senate elections was changed from indirect election by state legislatures to popular votes back in 1913) than the other branches, was expected to make the House a more powerful body than it has ever managed to become.

This is part of the frustration that is tormenting the House GOP today. Looking at the Constitution and the money power, a determined majority in the House ought to be able to exert more power over the Senate and the White House—but it has been hard to figure out a way to do the job that will actually work—and not lead to huge political repercussions that could sweep the majority away.

What has stunted the House’s growth? It’s partly the frequency of election—having to face voters every two years (in the UK MPs in the House of Commons sometimes don’t face them for as many as five) makes it hard for the House to act coherently and play the long game. It’s also that the Senate is very, very good at entrenching its power even as power has tended to flow to the executive in modern times.

We don’t think this budget battle is going to point the way toward the House becoming more dominant in the system, and that the tools a House majority possesses almost always look stronger than they turn out to be.

[Ted Cruz photo courtesy of Getty Images]

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  • Boritz

    Leadership is a big part of it. How many times have we heard senators say “This House bill is dead on arrival in the Senate.” I’d like to hear the House leaders use this tactic about what the Senate sends back to them. Duh Boehner. This Senate bill is dead on arrival in the House. Poetry.

  • Pait

    Republicans have only managed to hold a majority in the House by means of massive gerrymandering. Democratic control of the Senate and the executive reflects the will of the people more accurately. The extremism of House Republicans is a sign of desperation, like a gambler doubling his bets to make of for accumulated losses.

  • wigwag

    In this case the “noise” isn’t coming from the mainstream media, the source of the static is Via Meadia. The coming government shut down is far from inconsequential; that is unless you believe it doesn’t matter which political party controls the White House.

    Which state has the largest number of government workers? If you guessed Virginia, you guessed right. Which state will have the largest number of laid off federal workers? Virginia you say; right again.

    Virginia used to be a reliably red state until it morphed into a swing state. The looming government shutdown will turn Virginia, the twleth largest state, into a state that is as reliably “blue” as New York. It’s just one more state that the 2016 Republican nominee can kiss off along with its electoral votes.

    There’s a reason that Terry McAuliffe is praying for a shutdown while the now longshot campaign of Ken Cuccinelli is panicking.

    By the way, Florida has the sixth largest number of federal employees of any state. A government shutdown won’t help the GOP’s prospects in Florida one bit.

    If Professor Mead thinks there’s a winning strategy for the 2016 GOP presidential nominee who loses Virginia and Florida he should tell us what it is.

    The GOP’s implosion matters a lot, at least if you think it matters who the President of the United States is.

    • wigwag

      Forgive the error, Virginia is home to the second largest number of federal workers not first; California has more federal workers than any other state.

      But it doesn’t change anything; California is already reliably Democratic and the looming shutdown is pushing Virginia in exactly the same direction.

      Of the top 15 states with the most electoral votes, 8 are reliably blue and only 3 are reliably red. Of the four swing states (Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia) only North Carolina looks like it will lean Republican. The other swing states look bluer every day and the government shut down will exacerbate that trend.

      The GOP is committing suicide before our eyes; at least at the presidential level.

      • Bruce

        The government workers like the shutdowns. They get back pay for the time they sat home.

    • cubanbob

      Please. Enough with the melodrama. Unless you are a federal employee or contractor or dependent on government subsidies what does a government shut down really mean? That the NSA won’t be spying on you and the IRS won’t be robbing you? The real panic over the “shut down” is that the democrats are afraid that the private sector won’t notice it. Or care.

  • wigwag

    The GOP’s decision to shut the Government is sure to antagonize another incredibly important GOP constituency, its donor class.

    Billionaires and multi millionaires who finance GOP campaigns are, for the most part, socially liberal and far from economic radicals. They don’t want the Government on lock down, they don’t want a default on the federal debt and they don’t want the value of their equity and fixed income portfolios threatened.

    Sure, there are a few big GOP donors like the Rickets family and the Kochs whose heart goes pitter patter at the sight of tea party activists but they are a distinct minority. McCain’s and Romney’s campaigns were both financed in large part by Wall Street money and especially hedge fund money. Finance types living on Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue, Scarsdale and Greenwich don’t have much sympathy for tea party aspirations; in fact they have no sympathy for those aspirations and guess what? They couldn’t care less about Obama care.

    Without their financial support the 2016 GOP candidate has zero chance of being elected. While GOP House members in safe districts may not need to worry, Republican House members, senatorial candidates and gubernatorial candidates in swing districts and states are desperately dependent on the largess of the donor class.

    Antagonizing that class as the House GOP is doing is a dreadful self-inflicted wound. Hillary Clinton is on a first name basis with virtually all of the big GOP donors; in fact, she and Bill have partied with most of them and vacationed with some of them.

    GOP populists may think these donors are part of the problem not the solution but here’s a newsflash, without these donors the GOP is toast.

    Making them angry, which is what the House Republicans are doing, is a very, very bad idea.

    • cubanbob

      All the money in the world isn’t going to make a bad product successful. Antagonizing the bulk of your voters is an even worse idea.

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