20 October 2015

On The Cruz Effect and the Capitol Hill Cocktail Party

Senator Tom Coburn on The Cruz Effect

Former Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) was recently interviewed on Sirius-XM radio by Pete Dominick in which he disparaged "The Cruz Effect".  Coburn chaffed at lawmakers being put in a position to make desperate stands about legislative items which he believes have no chance of overcoming a veto. This was not the first time in which Coburn raised this reluctance to futilely fight. Coburn said similar things to Joe Scarborough on MSNBC's Morning Joe in 2013.

Senator Coburn was a 20 year veteran of the Senate and had developed a reputation for being "Dr. No" for his conservative intransigence.  Yet before retiring to tend to his Colon Cancer after the 2014 election cycle, Senator Coburn exhibited an animus against Tea Party types, with Huffington Post headlines bragging of a Coburn Smack Down of the Tea Party. Coburn was quick to condem Senator Cruz's shut down tactic on Obamacare. Some Tea Party constituents wondered if he was a Charlatan, Traitor or Patriot for his go along to get along Senatorial approach  gun control.

Although he is no longer in the Senate, Senator Coburn is pushing a Cocktail Party approach to things. In Oklahoma, it is not hard to sound conservative and promise to repeal Obamacare, protect the second amendment or now even to defund Planned Parenthood.  But where the rubber meets the road in legislating in the District of Calamity, intentions and ardor matter.

When speaking to Scarborough about Obamacare in 2013, Senator Coburn rightly points out that Republicans did not have 67 votes to overcome an expected Presidential veto from Barack Obama. Right. So when has either party had vetoproof supermajorities in the Senate? Not in nearly half a century.  In the 89th Congress (1965-67), Democrats held 68 seats in the Senate and 295 House seats. During the New Deal, Democrats had veto proof majorities in the 74th and 75th Congresses (1935-39).  During Reconstruction after the Civil War, there were veto proof majorities for Republicans in the 39th, 40th, 41st and 43rd Congresses.

So having an assured veto proof majority is a rarity in American polity. Nowadays, the benchmark seems to be reaching Cloture (now set at 60 votes in the Senate).  After the election of Barack Obama and the eventual seating of Senator Al Franken (D-MN), Democrats had Cloture proof majority until Senator Scott Brown, the elected replacement for Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) was seated (replacing interim Senator Paul Kirk (D-MA)).

So it is fanciful for a Republican to think that their measures will have veto-proof (or Cloture proof) majorities by party votes alone through regular legislative procedures. But does that mean not doing anything because you are unsure if it will be enacted?

The reason why the comments of a former Republican Senator matter is that it epitomizes the conflict on Capitol Hill for the next Speaker and is a reason why outsider Republican Presidential candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) are leading in the polls.

What has been called the Surrender Caucus is only happy to fight for bills which they are certain will be enacted.  Sure, you can campaign conservatively for the "rubes" back home, but politicians who are comfortably ensconced in the District of Calamity Cocktail Party won't spend any political capital for causes in which victory is uncertain.  Hence they surrender without a real fight.

For example, with the recent effort to defund Planned Parenthood, there were attempts to attach a rider onto a Continuing Resolution to divert funding for womens' health from the embattled abortionists to community health centers. The Byrd Rule for budget bills only required 51 votes for passage (avoiding a Cloture Vote). But President Obama promised to veto the CR and Republican Leadership feared that it might be blamed for a government shut down.  So they surrendered without a fight and Senate Majority "Leader" Mitch McConnell jammed down a clean CR through December 11th. This was not a one-off but was indicative of a pattern, which Tea Party renegades like Cruz have exposed for the shame that it is.

It might have been messy, but having must pass legislation like the Highway Bill, a Continuing Resolution or a real Congressional Budget with liberally unappealing riders might have forced the hand of President Obama to shut the government down.  If the Republicans had a better communication strategy, they might not automatically be blamed for shutting the government down when it was an Executive Branch veto which did the dirty deed.  As the branches sought to craft a resolution, concessions might be extracted.  So in the case of Obamacare (a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act), a nigglesome provision like the employer mandate could be up for grabs, which eventually would kill the clunky and unpopular system.  But that involves some guts to take a political risk and then be ready to fight hard in the media and on Capitol Hill.But it's so much easier to, echoing Mr. Coburn: "Dingity, we tried but we just didn't have the votes to do it. Too bad (but we'll still rail against it for the next election).

The House Republican Caucus is set to nominate another candidate for Speaker.  Despite the entreaties of Speaker John Boehner that he is retiring after the crowing achievement of his Congressional career of having Pope Francis speak before a Joint Session of Congress, the reality is that he was set to resign because he would lose a Vacate the Chair vote.  Boehner could not win the necessary votes in the GOP Caucus because the Freedom Caucus both wants a leader who will fight but will also vote on their legislation rather than dictate what will be voted on (and will will or will pointedly lose and be a campaign issue).

After the talking heads shows this weekend, there is speculation that House Ways and Means Chairman Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI 1st) is reconsidering running for Speaker but he does not want  any strings attached to achieve the big chair.  Ryan's record on immigration issues does not jibe with conservatives and not allowing stands for legislation not certain to pass goes against the grain of the Freedom Caucus.

In the larger Presidential Primary picture, many insiders wonder why political novices like Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina lead in the polls.  Perhaps they are not seem corrupted by the system and are talking a good game about fighting the power.

Senator Coburn's cautionary comments about legislating are true enough, but they reveal that establishment Republicans don't really want to fight. Some Tea Party elected officials have not sold out to the Establishment. This explains why Leaders are anxious to primary rebellious Tea Party types and bad mouth others.  Since Republicans have not had a Veto Proof majority since 1875, is it their role to be Democrat lite, only proposing what can get passed and signed by a Democrat President?  What about the years when there were Republican Majorities in both Chambers of Congress and Republican President?  It does not seem like things were much different then.

Pundits have noted that Congress has a similar favorability rating to the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea with communist dictator Kim-Il-ung. This might explain why disaffected voters might welcome a congressional Cruz missile in the form of fighting for principles and causes.  This will be put to the test during the Republican primaries.  But political junkies might get early indications how this "fight to fight" will succeed  in the Speaker's Race.

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