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Kevin McCarthy Found Out He’s No Donald Trump
And the rest of us found out the House GOP remains delusional about budget realities.
KEVIN MCCARTHY IS THE LATEST but doubtless not the last Republican to find out that when you’re Donald Trump, they let you do it—and when you’re not, they don’t. So many deals, so many pledges, so many lies and reversals, so much hypocrisy and selling out. So much disregard for principle, truth, and consequences.
And for what?
To be felled by eight people! Eight my-way-or-the-highway right-wingers, led by Florida’s Matt Gaetz, pressing Trump’s cynical portrait of “American carnage.” All because they couldn’t trust McCarthy to fight hard enough against “the harmful, radical Democrat agenda that is destroying the country, bankrupting the country, and under which the American people are suffering,” in the melodramatic hyperbole of Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.).
This is confusing. America was not a hellscape when Trump gave his American carnage inaugural address in 2017, and while it has problems, it is not a hellscape now. Gaetz claimed on the House floor that there was a policy dispute behind his move to oust McCarthy, and he opportunistically pointed to the budget process, annual federal deficits, and soaring debt. But those are the work of both parties, including repeated Republican tax cuts, the Great Recession bailout and relief packages of 2008-09, two expensive wars, and a costly global pandemic—and all that doesn’t even get into the escalating fiscal demands on Social Security and Medicare as the Baby Boom generation ages.
Despite the bipartisan responsibility for our budget reality, today’s Republicans often sound a lot like they did decades ago, when their purported goal was (in Grover Norquist’s memorable phrase) to reduce government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Their fevered rhetoric and austere budget proposals are at odds not only with the GOP’s fiscal record but also with the federal behemoth that Donald Trump envisions for his second term. Nor are they anywhere close to the deal McCarthy and President Biden struck in May, precisely to avoid brinkmanship and an Oct. 1 government shutdown. Under that plan, the debt limit would be raised for two years, averting a national and possibly global economic recession; spending would remain flat in fiscal year 2024, except for veterans and defense; and growth would be capped at 1 percent in fiscal year 2025.
What did conservatives think would happen when they proposed an 80 percent cut in aid to schools in low-income neighborhoods? That the Democratic-run Senate would say Let’s meet in the middle and cut 40 percent, and Biden would sign that? That Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans and Biden would say That’s fine to no new aid to Ukraine, fighting for its freedom—and our security—against Russian invaders? That they’d be okay with steep cuts in FBI and Justice Department funding so that federal Trump investigations and prosecutions would cease? That they’d cultivate good-faith negotiating by passing Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s $1 salary for Lloyd Austin, the first black Defense secretary?
Republicans tried and failed in one spending bill to on the one hand restrict access to abortion pills and on the other cut food aid to pregnant women, infants, and children. In another bill, supposedly aimed at buying time before a shutdown, they imposed a 30 percent across-the-board spending cut with a few exceptions. It was doomed when Democrats opposed it on substance and 21 GOP absolutists opposed the idea of a short-term stopgap.
McCarthy himself was doomed when he allowed the House to pass, with Democratic votes, a funding patch to keep the government operating at current levels until Nov. 17. (How dare he!) Now it’s the next speaker’s Rubik’s cube to solve on a tight deadline.
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This is no way to produce a bipartisan approach to long-term national solvency. Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, was polite as could be last month in praising House Republican budget writers for producing an overall spending blueprint—the first one in five years—and focusing on “lowering deficits and slowing debt growth.” But she also said it “lacks seriousness” in significant ways, starting with its timing (six months too late to have any meaningful impact) and feasibility.
“The fiscal goal of reaching a balanced budget in ten years is completely unachievable, especially from a budget that lacks substantial savings from the largest spending programs or the tax code,” MacGuineas said of the spending resolution. Its economic growth assumptions are “fantastical,” she said, and added: “The budget also fails to say much about how it will pay for expensive tax cut extensions, and many of its proposed spending cuts are unspecified, unrealistic, or both.”
Here’s the thing: MacGuineas, the GOP, most Democrats, and people like me, unnerved by the trend and worried that interest payments on the borrowed money will prevent spending on real needs, agree that we are on an unsustainable fiscal course. Gaetz & co. are not wrong to want to cut spending. They are just wrong about everything else—where and how much and how fast to cut, and their iron rule that taxes should never, ever be raised and should always be reduced, especially for corporations and the rich, who would use their new cash to create jobs. (Spoiler: They didn’t.) Trump theoretically was leading a GOP populist revolution, but in reality the massive tax cut he signed was more of the same deficit-swelling, trickle-down delusion.
WHAT WE NEED IS A BIPARTISAN COMMISSION. The House GOP has proposed one and MacGuineas says it’s needed immediately. Former Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a former Office of Management and Budget director and former Senate Budget Committee chair, respectively, added their voices last week. “Further procrastination will lead only to draconian cuts and a severely weakened economy,” they wrote in the Washington Post.
This would have to be a serious group exploring politically palatable, equitable ways to revise the tax code, bolster Social Security and Medicare, and prioritize other spending. By definition, its members would have to be open to compromise. They could not be looking to score political points, fundraising hauls, a higher, more important office, or a lucrative TV gig. They can’t be flame throwers. Which may limit the opportunities to include Freedom Caucus members.
In an ideal world, Congress would also have to commit to at least hold votes on each of a commission’s proposals, as was supposed to be the case with the Simpson–Bowles commission in 2010.
Commissions have been constructive in the past because everyone understood they would need to give ground to win ground. There is more receptivity to that concept in the Senate, where many Republicans represent diverse states and have helped shape deals on, for example, spending on infrastructure and semiconductor manufacturing. The House is more polarized and polls suggest why: Republicans generally don’t like compromise. In January, for instance, the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of Republicans and Republican leaners said GOP congressional leaders should “stand up” to Biden on matters important to GOP voters, even if that makes it hard to solve big national problems. In fact, most of them wanted more investigations. Which a Speaker Jim Jordan would be happy to deliver, should he get the job.
ON THE SENATE SIDE OF THE CAPITOL, Appropriations Chair Patty Murray of Washington and Vice Chair Susan Collins of Maine managed an impressive feat this year: They produced 12 bipartisan appropriations bills and sent them to the Senate floor. The pair, who pointed out it’s the first time two women have led this committee, are both veteran negotiators. Democrat Murray’s notable bipartisan successes include a 2013 budget deal with Rep. Paul Ryan and a 2015 education deal with Sen. Lamar Alexander. Collins, who is often involved in bipartisan legislative projects, was the lead Republican negotiator last year on reforming the antiquated Electoral Count Act and protecting same-sex marriage.
As I wrote in my book on political negotiations, the conditions for success include patience, reliance on facts, and the maturity to understand that you won’t get everything you want—but that all sides need to walk away with a few things they can feel good about, or at least can defend to their supporters.
McCarthy managed to do this with Biden on the debt deal, to the fury of Republican hardliners. But how else can you govern a country of 330 million? It’s hard under the best of circumstances, and it’s impossible when you only control a tiny slice of government—and not by much. Here we are talking about a 221-212 GOP majority in one half of one branch, Congress, in a government that has three branches.
Should McCarthy have stuck to the Biden deal instead of caving? Should he have resisted any deal at all? It was immaterial. McCarthy was a short-timer as soon as he agreed in January to a rule allowing a single House member to move to oust a speaker.
The main lesson of McCarthy’s ordeal and whatever happens to the next speaker is that you can’t avoid what Maryville College historian Aaron Astor calls “the great tortoise of our governing system.” You can’t make big changes unless you win elections and amass the power to do so. There are no shortcuts. And if you can’t get the votes you need in elections, it’s time to rethink what’s on offer.