GOP's fatal do-nothing problem: Why everything changes once Republicans have to govern

Republicans are likely to take the Senate, but even they admit one major problem: They can't get anything done

Published October 29, 2014 2:39PM (EDT)

John Boehner, Ted Cruz                                                                             (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Jeff Malet,
John Boehner, Ted Cruz (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Jeff Malet,

Let’s just go ahead and assume that the Republicans are going to win control of the Senate. It’s a safe assumption, given the trajectories of the toss-up races and the fact that Arkansas and Colorado appear to have slipped away from the Democrats. It’s also increasingly clear that reporters and pundits are less and less willing to entertain notions of an unexpected Democratic resurgence. When the writing’s on the wall, people can’t help but read it.

As such, there’s been a glut of stories lately on how, exactly, a Republican-dominated Congress would govern. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy talked to Politico and said that the GOP is going to have to implement some changes when it comes into power and actually work to pass an agenda that has a chance of making it past President Obama’s veto pen. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio talked to the Atlantic’s Molly Ball and said that a Republican majority in the Senate will work to hammer out compromises with the administration: “He mentioned tax reform, a ‘grand bargain’ on the budget, an energy bill — perhaps something that combines Keystone XL pipeline approval with reductions in carbon emissions — and new free-trade agreements.”

Such a lovely vision of bipartisan comity! All it’s missing is any plausible scenario in which it could come to pass.

I’m a pessimist in this regard, in case you couldn’t tell. I don’t doubt that there’s a sincere desire among some factions within the GOP to actually work with the Democrats and the administration to implement policy. The problem is that there are so many other Republican factions that view compromise as heretical, and they make it impossible for the Republicans to actually govern. And that’s not just my assessment; that’s what the Republicans say, too.

The whole question of “can the Republicans govern” has been asked for a long time now, and each time it’s asked the answer that everyone eventually settles on is no. Way back in February, the Republicans were contemplating this very question and were angst-ridden over the divisions that plagued the party and the attendant perception that the GOP was too fractious to actually govern. They were concerned that people wouldn’t vote them into power if they couldn’t be trusted to effectively wield that power. They came up with a solution that elegantly resolved the perception issue, but left the underlying problem unresolved: do nothing.

Seriously, their strategy to convince everyone they could govern was to not govern. The Washington Post’s Robert Costa reported at the time on the Republican leadership’s thinking: basically, since everyone correctly assumed that the Republicans wouldn’t be able to muster enough votes from their own caucus to pass legislation on any major issues like immigration or healthcare reform, the better option was to just sit on their hands, try not to do anything stupid, and trust that the people would confuse their relative lack of comedic faceplants for legislative competence. “We don’t have 218 votes in the House for the big issues,” Costa quoted Rep. David Nunes as saying, “so what else are we going to do?”

And even the “don’t do anything stupid” strategy was too much to ask. When the child migrant crisis at the southern border exploded over the summer, the House Republicans found themselves forced by circumstances to pass legislation on a major issue – precisely the situation they had hoped to avoid. And they made a complete hash of it. Boehner waited until the very last minute before the August recess to try to pass a bill to address the crisis, only to get hamstrung by Steve King and the conservatives in his own caucus. So he went into extra time to pass a bill that appeased the nativists, but couldn’t pass the Senate (it had already adjourned anyway). And this fiasco, they argued, was the actual proof they could govern.

I don’t really see how this dynamic changes in 2015 and beyond. Conservatives – the people who will have handed the Republicans control of Congress – don’t want compromise. They want the IRS eliminated, Obamacare repealed, Benghazi investigated, and (time permitting) the president impeached. If anything, conservatives are going to be more adamant that the GOP pursue hard-line right-wing policies given that 2016 is shaping up to be a rough cycle for the Republicans and control of the Senate could be a short-lived proposition. That means crisis governance and using things like the debt ceiling and government funding to try to force the White House’s hand. Mitch McConnell has already indicated that he will pursue that strategy to force Obama to “move to the center.”

Speaking of McConnell and his hostage-taking strategy, he might want to put in a call to Kevin McCarthy’s office, since the House majority leader told Politico that he wants the Republicans to abandon “cliffs” as a tactic for forcing policy through Congress:

“If we are fortunate to have both majorities, take away any cliff you can have hanging out there,” McCarthy said, sitting in his SUV fiddling with an iPhone and Blackberry. “If you have a cliff, it takes attention away. Why put cliffs up that hold us back from doing bigger policy?”

So can Republicans govern? Well, they’re not even in the majority yet and already they can’t agree on what they should do.

By Simon Maloy

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