WASHINGTON – This will be no ordinary Congress, so there are no ordinary ways for judging how effective it will be at governing.
That is, in any event, a preposterous standard to hold up as a brand spanking new goal. Isn’t governing what Congress was supposed to be doing all along? Imagine an everyday citizen making a New Year’s resolution promising that this year, for a change, he or she would actually show up for work.
The problem for the Republicans who now control both the House and the Senate is that they are divided between their right and their far right. The number of bona fide moderates can be counted on one hand – although, if you wanted to be generous, you might get to a second hand. As a result, the Republicans’ own measures of success will be out of line not only with President Obama’s priorities, but also with what most middle-of-the-road Americans would take as reasonable tests of what it means for government to work.
House Speaker John Boehner’s battle to hang on to his job is instructive. Boehner prevailed, but 25 Republicans on the right end of his caucus opposed his re-election. These 25 almost certainly spoke for at least 40 or 50 members who think of Boehner as some sort of sell-out for his occasional willingness to pass bills with Democratic votes. Because Boehner worries most about pressure from his right, his definition of where the “middle” lies will necessarily be distorted.
The notion of Boehner as a moderate is belied by the new House rules he and the Republican leadership have concocted. They’re designed to rig the legislative playing field in favor of right-leaning policy.
One example: The new rules would provide for “dynamic scoring” of tax cuts, which sounds very cool and forward-looking but for the fact that their aim is to assert that tax cuts won’t cost what they’ll actually cost. This, in turn, will make it easier for the Republicans to shower money on their favored constituencies while pretending to be fiscally responsible. Dynamic scoring, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted, “could facilitate congressional passage of large rate cuts in tax reform by making the rate cuts appear – on paper – less expensive than under a traditional cost estimate.”
To understand the dynamic-scoring game, imagine a formula based on the idea that because infrastructure spending boosts the economy – which it most certainly does – we should pretend that an expenditure of $100 billion is actually, say, only $80 billion. Proving that this is about ideology and not economics, as Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., pointed out this week, the Republican rule doesn’t apply dynamic scoring to discretionary spending.
For good measure, the House leadership includes another rule flatly designed to force cuts to Social Security’s disability program. If they want to debate such cuts, fine, but don’t sneak them in through the fine print.
Then there is the move by both House and Senate Republicans to change the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Currently, employers with 50 or more full-time workers have to provide health insurance to employees who work 30 hours or more, or pay a fine. Republicans want to limit the mandate to Americans who work 40 hours or more. In USA Today this week, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said the purpose of the change is “so more people can work full time.”
But the truth is that the change would have exactly the opposite effect. Currently, only 7 percent of American workers put in between 30 and 34 hours a week, but 44 percent work 40 hours a week. In other words, wrote Yuval Levin, a conservative policy analyst and a foe of Obamacare, altering the law in this way “would likely put far, far more people at risk of having their hours cut than leaving it at 30 hours.” So much for more people working “full time.”
Keep in mind that all these ideas come from the Republican mainstream, the people who tell us they are interested in “governing” and being “reasonable.”
How far have the goal posts been moved in the GOP? Just because Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell say they want to avoid government shutdowns and debt-ceiling hostage taking, they are to be regarded as heroes of sane policy-making. But if we’ve sunk so low that this is now the test of “governance,” we are still a long way from the real thing.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.