House GOP Considering New Strategy on Fiscal Issues: Surrender!

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 07: Republican vice presidential candidate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) waves to the crowd as he walks off of the stage.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

As I’ve been emphasizing for a while, the key to standoffs between the Obama administration and the House of Representatives is the party cartel dynamic unleashed by the Hastert Rule. But the deal that resolved the fiscal cliff ultimately involved breaking the Hastert Rule. So did the bill to fund relief efforts for Hurricane Sandy. And there are no indications this week that sporadic ditching of the Hastert Rule may become the key survival strategy for House Republicans on fiscal issues. In essence, they’ll throw in the towel and beat a tactical retreat.

The way the Hastert Rule (which, as Sarah Binder writes, was de facto in effect before Hastert gave it a name) works is that for a bill to be brought to the House floor it must be supported by a “majority of the majority.” That means that for the White House to strike a deal, it can’t bargain with the median House member (a Republican who might conceivably lose his seat to a Democratic challenger) and then bring liberal members along for the ride. It has to strike a deal with the median member of the House GOP caucus (a Republican whose only chance of losing is from a right-wing primary challenger), which is extremely difficult. But of course there’s no need to actually enforce the Hastert Rule if the majority of the caucus doesn’t want it enforced. Ashley Parker refers to the “Vote No / Hope Yes” caucus within the GOP—members who wanted a Sandy relief bill to pass (so Republicans wouldn’t take blame for blocking it) but also didn’t want to vote for it (so they wouldn’t be vulnerable to charges of ideological impurity). If the Vote No / Hope Yes caucus is large enough, then it’s possible for Republicans to let Democrats pass crisis averting legislation—a debt ceiling increase, an extension of appropriations bills—with just a tiny bit of GOP cover or GOP “present” votes.

And it turns out that David Schnittger, John Boehner’s chief of staff, tweeted a link to an article by Dennis Hastert’s former spokesman advocating that the House Republicans do just that: Abandon the Hastert Rule and basically duck and cover. Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner has an op-ed also advocating fiscal surrender and wrapping it up in a lot of complicated rhetoric and analogies to make it sound bold and aggressive.

Last but by no means least, Paul Ryan apparently told reporters at today’s House GOP retreat that part of the purpose of the retreat is to help members “recognize the realities” of divided government.

If this comes to pass, it would be great news for America. Failure to raise the debt ceiling could be completely catastrophic. And it’s not as if abandoning a strategy of aggressive confrontation means opening the doors to Sharia Socialism run amok. Anytime Obama wants to actually advance new agenda items on guns, immigration, climate change, or whatever else, House Republicans can just say no. Fiscal surrender doesn’t mean rolling over for the Democrats’ agenda, it means giving up on specifically advancing top GOP priorities through repeated rounds of hostage taking. It can be a sound strategy. Recall that back in 2007-08 Nancy Pelosi didn’t try to lead House Democrats into high-profile confrontations with George W. Bush. Instead they passed some low-profile Democratic priorities, collaborated on TARP and the forgotten 2008 Bush/Pelosi stimulus bill, and she tried—successfully—to rally her troops to a bigger electoral win in 2008. Then having won an election, Democrats pushed the envelope in 2009-10 and passed a bunch of big bills.