Thoughts on the Budget Fiasco [with comment by Paul]

I’m still scratching my head about the results of the omnibus budget that passed last week, in which it appears Republicans snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. About the only tangible victories were the ending of the ban on oil exports, and the torpedoes launched at Obamacare (i.e., cutting off the insurance company bailout, and postponing the “Cadillac” tax on health plans, though I acknowledge the contrary case that this may be a tactical mistake; i.e., doing so forfeits “heightening the contradictions”). In any case, those torpedoes won’t strike the hull for a while, and may not sink the leaky skip.

I’m not sure I agree with brother Paul here that Paul Ryan is essentially a double agent for the Democrats, but at the very least Ryan and the rest of the GOP leadership need to give a better account of things. It is possible that they can’t give a better account, without making things worse. At the very least, we should add the word “omnibus” to the word “comprehensive” as terms that should be expunged from our legislative vocabulary and practice. Better luck next year? Can we please get back to the prescribed practice of passing separate appropriation bills for the major departments of government as the law calls for, instead of this annual ritual of an “omnibus” bill that is always a defeat for our side?* Maybe, though surely the Chicago Cubs can be forgiven for laughing at the GOP right now.

Taking just the spending items that have drawn controversy, and leaving aside for later the immigration provisions and other policy defeats embedded in the omnibus, a few things to consider:

This budget cycle was a game-theorist’s playground. One of the complaints the House Freedom Caucus made against Speaker Boehner was that too many key decisions, especially about the budget, were centralized in the small circle of the Speaker’s office. One of the demands made of then-prospective Speaker Ryan was that power be decentralized back to committees (and especially committee chairs). Has this in fact happened? Were the committees and the GOP House rank and file more involved in the details of assembling a budget before it fell apart in final negotiations between Ryan and Pelosi? I have no idea.

These are the kind of sausage-making details that get little media coverage, even in specialized press such as Politico or The Hill. I’ve long thought Republicans aren’t very good at this process for a lot of reasons having to do with the asymmetry of the two parties when it comes to government. It’s much easier for liberals to slip in or increase spending items than it is to strip them out or reduce them. House Democrats grew especially skilled at this game during the 40 years they ran the House without interruption before 1995, and their institutional memory and skill lasts a long time. And as I say, being the party of government makes your job easier.

There’s a second layer of difficulty, however. If a critical mass of House Republicans say they will not vote for a budget that does not successfully defund Planned Parenthood, repeal Obamacare, or any number of other worthy targets, it means a budget cannot pass without Democratic votes. Advantage Pelosi. If you announce ahead of time that you won’t vote for a big spending budget, you lose any leverage over the final outcome, and transfer the power back to the Speaker’s office. This is game theory 101. This is what Rep. Tom McClintock had in mind when he resigned from the House Freedom Caucus back in September, writing that the HFC’s intransigence has “thwarted vital conservative policy objectives and unwittingly become Nancy Pelosi’s tactical ally.”

McClintock ended up voting against the omnibus because it represented a huge overall defeat on spending, which is probably correct. It is worth reading his whole analysis here; I find it a very balanced account. Would he and other conservatives have voted for the omnibus if it had more successfully held the top line on spending, in which case Ryan would have had a stronger hand with Pelosi and the Senate? Once again, I have no idea. An additional factor I haven’t seen much discussed is the troublesome influence of Washington business lobbies on behalf of some of the worst features of the deal (increased H2B visas, funding for the IMF, etc); this must be faced squarely. It isn’t a new proposition that Big Business is not the friend of conservatism or limited government.

Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who is about as true-red conservative as they come, offers this observation:

The omnibus and tax extenders package is a huge victory for President Obama’s climate agenda.  Unfortunately, most conservative Republicans who supported the EPA and GCF riders and opposed the renewable tax subsidies had little leverage in the behind-the-scenes negotiations because they had already announced that they would vote against the omnibus.  A Senate Appropriations Committee staffer told me that this allowed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to call the shots in the negotiations.  He added that he had never seen anything like it; and he concurred that conservatives were primarily responsible for their own ineffectiveness.

* Here’s what I wrote about this back in September:

It [a government shutdown crisis] would be a moot point if Republicans went about the budget fight in a more sensible way. The biggest failing in my mind—the real failure of GOP leadership in both houses—is that we’re once again looking at passing yet another omnibus continuing resolution for the whole darn government rather than 12 separate appropriation bills for the major government departments, as Congress is supposed to do under the modern budget process. If Congress were doing its job properly, they could threaten to shut down just the Department of Health and Human Services, and/or they could attach Planned Parenthood defunding to all 12 appropriation bills and make Obama issue 12 vetoes for funding for every government department on behalf of a single Democratic Party special interest group. That would transform the politics of any shutdown radically.

I don’t think they’ve figured this out. And I wonder if Paul Ryan is growing his beard so as to blend into the Witness Protection Program more easily.

PAUL ADDS: The problem isn’t that Speaker Ryan is a double-agent for Democrats. The problem, in my view, is that Speaker Ryan is an agent for Paul Ryan.

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