Why This Compromise is a Win for Democrats (I think)

It’s complicated but I’ll try to explain why.

The senate has just voted to open the government and raise the debt limit.  There’s some discussion around the internet about whether this is really a win for the GOP, even though it appears to be a win for the president.  The argument (for example here on the Huffington Post) is something like this:

All Obama et al are really agreeing to here is to reinstate the sequester, the Bush tax cuts, etc. that was already a problematic status quo.  These negotiations will still give the GOP long-term wins even though they look bad now.

Here’s why that’s wrong.  Like I said, it’s complicated but hey – so is government, and sometimes that’s just how it has to be.  If you’re tempted to wave your hand and say “they’re all crooks, I don’t get this” I encourage you to read on.  That sort of cynicism is what helps crap like this happen in the first place.

But I digress.  Let’s start by talking about the actual deal being voted on in the house and senate tonight.

It includes a few things:

1) It reopens the government until December 15 or so

2) It raises the debt limit until February 7 or so

3) It adds some weird income verification thing on the Affordable Care Act that seems to be a token concession so that the Tea Party morons can believe “basic fairness to Obamacare” has been restored (what Boehner keeps saying – apparently he was closing the government and threatening default to make sure our incomes are verified more accurately?  Sounds worth it to me… But again, I digress).

4) (largely overlooked so far) the house and the senate will appoint conferees for a house-senate conference to negotiate about the budgets already passed by both houses earlier in the year.

#4 is a BIG WIN for the Democrats.  I’ll try to explain why.  Again, complicated but worth understanding.

First, a little Schoolhouse Rock-style info.  Every year (theoretically) the house passes a budget.  What that means is (among other things) that they pass a big set of appropriations bills, budget resolutions, and tax-code tweaks which fund various branches of government (15 bills or so in all – ones that fund the Defense Department, Department of Health and Human Services, etc.).  The house does that first (in theory) then the senate takes up those bills.  The house and the senate usually end up passing different bills, because congresspeople in each house make different changes.  It’s sort of like if 2 people open a Dropbox document at the same time – they get out of sync.

To get these bills in sync, the house and senate (theoretically again) both appoint delegates to a house-senate conference.  In that conference, a new “conference report” emerges.  The conference committee negotiates until they get a conference report that can pass that conference committee by a majority vote.  They then send that conference report back to both houses.

At that point, each house considers the bill again, and (theoretically) because the conference report is a compromise between the two versions, it’s able to pass both houses.  Then it goes to the president and if the president signs it, it’s a law, and the government runs for another year.  This is supposed to happen like 3 months before the next fiscal year starts, so there’s never danger of a shutdown.

What’s happening now isn’t what’s described above.  Instead, “omnibus spending bills” and “continuing resolutions” are squeezed throw congress under threat of shutdown.  no committees ever formally meet to discuss their contents; the republicans have used this to their advantage to ransom the president repeatedly.  The president has given in.  You’ve seen the results.

But if we got back to things as they used to be – why would this seemingly arcane switch help the democrats?

I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but it’s something like this.  Once a conference report returns to the house and the senate, it has pass each one.  But once they agree to a conference report they ALSO agree to bring that legislation to the floor for a vote.

In the senate, that means it’s harder to filibuster.  I think there are fewer procedural barriers that can be thrown up by minority senators.  This (I think) has something to do with the Budget Reconciliation process (last used to pass the Affordable Care Act), since it only requires a majority, and there is no cloture vote.  I’m actually not too sure this conference report would be subject to that rule.

BUT – in the house, there are no filibusters.  The agreement to bring the conference report to the floor means that sooner or later, the house will vote on that bill.  Since there is a functional majority that supports moderate measures in the house (a few republicans plus all the democrats), if the thing comes up for a vote, it probably passes, whether the Tea Party likes it or not.

Boehner generally manages the Tea Party and makes them feel important by only allowing measures to come up for a vote that a majority of Republicans support (the so-called Hastert rule).  I’m still not sure why he’s able to do that.  I don’t understand why an house member can’t make a motion on the floor to suspend the rules Boehner has put in place and allow a majority vote on any piece of legislation.  If there were a majority support for that legislation, presumably there would also be support for that rules-changing motion.  But for some reason that rarely (though not never) happens.  It happened recently with the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act.  I guess it’s just really hard to make it happen, and for the most part, most republicans are loathe to join such actions, since it angers the powerful speaker, meaning they get punished behind the scenes?  I’m not sure.

Anyway, Boehner agreeing to appoint conferees and allow a vote on the conference committee report effectively sets aside the Hastert Rule.  Regardless of whether a majority of Republicans support the Conference Report, it will come up for a vote.  If all the democrats and just like 20 republicans (out of 232) support it, then it will pass, whether Boehner and the Tea Party want it to or not.

The Conference Report, it’s true, won’t be what the Democrats want.  But it will be a lot closer to what they want than the budget the House passed independently at the start of the process.  Both parties end up with some input, but in the status quo (since Obama has acquiesced under similar threats in the past, though he hasn’t this time) the Republicans have been getting their way almost entirely.  The conference report represents a significant ceding of power on the part of John Boehner, and also (by implication) the Hastert Rule and (also by implication) the Tea Party.  They don’t get to suppress votes on compromise measures any more.

And if a real budget passes, and it can restore the budget process to what is described above the Tea Party loses leverage in another way – because we won’t come close to shutdowns with which they can threaten the Democrats.

That’s all assuming the Conference report can pass both houses.  But the point is, Boehner hasn’t wanted to give them the chance, because he knows they probably would have in the past.  That’s why this shutdown happened in the first place.  If he had let the senate bill come up for a vote 2 weeks ago (a bill that’s virtually identical to the one they’re passing tonight, MINUS the appointment of conference a committee) that’s what would have happened.  I think what happened is that Obama said to them something like “we’re lot letting you all off the hook until you agree to appoint a conference committee.”  In other words, in true George Constanza fashion, the Republicans are getting less than they asked for at the start of the negotiations and having to pretend that they won.

If things return to normal, at least for the next 3 years, the republican minority loses a lot of power, at least on budgeting.  Of course, Boehner can still block votes on other legislation by not letting them come up, and the republicans in the senate can still mount senate filibusters on other legislation as well.  We still need filibuster reform, and we still need a way for a coalition majority in the house to work effectively (something Paul Krugman wrote about earlier in the week).

In the short term, that means Boehner letting that happen without getting decapitated by the Tea Party caucus.  But as long as he gives them just enough often enough, they can’t win any actual mutiny.  They don’t have anywhere to go.  They don’t have a majority they can muster up to vote for a more conservative Speaker of the House.  Their mutiny would just end up splintering the Republicans and potentially lead to a Democratic Speaker being elected, which they don’t want.  So what Boehner needs to do (if he actually believes in passing legislation that isn’t totally insane) is he needs to tell them to suck it up and lose from time to time.  In other words, he needs to stop using the Hastert rule, or he needs to let someone else assemble ad-hoc coalitions from time to time to pass things without majority-of-the-majority support.   At times like that he’ll probably still pretend to be outraged, but then the Tea Party will see why they’re in a corner, until they decide to get more reasonable (probably won’t happen, but hey, one can hope…)

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