The Fiscal Cliff: A Legacy of Dennis Hastert’s House

John Boehner’s Plan B to avert the fiscal cliff got nixed by his own party raising the question of what, if anything, he could get the members he leads to agree to. He could also try to swing some Democrats his way—but that would violate the edict established by his predecessor, Dennis Hastert, which Boehner has made, at his peril, even stronger.

Dennis Hastert

 

Yesterday John Boehner’s “Plan B” was supposed to be first step in averting the fiscal cliff. Or at least check to see just how recalcitrant the House majority he nominally controls is. Or something:

In reality, Plan B is best thought of as an attempt to inoculate Republicans from blame after the U.S. goes over the fiscal cliff, because—if it passes—they’ll be able to rebut the Democrats’ charge that they’ve plunged the country into chaos sheerly out of pique that Democrats insist on higher taxes for “millionaires and billionaires.” 

Basically, it said that House Republicans were willing to raise taxes on the 0.2 percent of taxpayers making more than $1 million a year, for their part, and their other part would be watching that crash and burn in the Senate. To sweeten the deal, Boehner said they could gut Dodd-Frank and the social-safety net too.

In response Boehner’s colleagues said that they would be happy to plunge the country into chaos, if out of principle instead of pique.

Now Boehner faces a choice: buddy up with Nancy Pelosi, get something passed across the aisles and immediately burn his political career to the ground; or punt, watch the country go over the cliff, and take his chances that even though broad national polling suggests voters will blame Republicans, Republican House members’ voters will not blame Republican House members:

If he takes the other route, and stands by the will of his base, we’re going off the cliff. That then weakens the Republican position even further, because polls overwhelmingly show the public will blame the GOP for going over—a position no doubt enhanced by last night’s disaster in the House. Also, all taxes go up on January 1, meaning that Obama’s proposal to extend them above $400,000 is actually a massive tax cut.

Right, but the public is much, much larger and more diffuse than the public that elected the most conservative members of his party, who have to protect their own necks. The math is a bit more complicated than national polling. The logic is, too. (Keep this in your head for a minute: “all taxes go up on January 1, meaning that Obama’s proposal to extend them above $400,000 is actually a massive tax cut.” It will make non/sense in a minute.)

Boehner, if he brokered a deal between Pelosi and moderate Republians, would be bucking years of Republican House tradition, pioneered by Newt Gingrich and codified into a “rule” by Dennis Hastert: “the majority of the majority.”

Hastert’s position, which is drawing fire from Democrats and some outside groups, is the latest step in a decade-long process of limiting Democrats’ influence and running the House virtually as a one-party institution. Republicans earlier barred House Democrats from helping to draft major bills such as the 2003 Medicare revision and this year’s intelligence package. Hastert (R-Ill.) now says such bills will reach the House floor, after negotiations with the Senate, only if “the majority of the majority” supports them.

And Hastert’s strategy is a big reason the Republican House is what it is now, including on issues that are crippling the party eight years later:

Critics of Mr. Hastert said his self-imposed rule prevented the House from considering centrist social and economic measures that, in their view, could have benefited both parties. It is likely, for instance, that a coalition existed in the House last year to pass an immigration overhaul that Republicans and Democrats could have hailed going into the elections. But strong opposition from a majority of the majority derailed that idea.

Nancy Pelosi didn’t adopt Hastert’s rule; when John Boehner took over from her, he said he wouldn’t, either, and then made it harder still:

Dennis Hastert formalized the new rules as the “majority of the majority” principle. For a bill to pass his House of Representatives, it needed two concurrent majorities—the support of both a majority of House members and the support of a majority of House Republicans. That had the effect of shifting the veto point in the House well to the right of the median house member. During the last congress, Speaker Boehner changed the rules again adopting the principle that he only wanted to move legislation that had the support of 218 Republicans which shifts the veto point way further to the right.

[snip]

Under the current rule, you’re asking Obama to bargain not with the median House member (a moderate Republican) or with the median House Republican (by definition a mainstream conservative Republican) but with essentially a member of the far-right fringe. That’s tough.

What could save the House Republicans, and maybe Boehner’s job? Even more bizarro ideological math, as veteran Republican operative John Feehery explains: “There seems to be some confusion here among the right-wing of the party.  They don’t seem to understand the law.  They think that a vote to stop some of the tax increases is a vote to raise taxes.  Well, no, it isn’t.  A vote to stop some of the tax increases is by definition a tax cut, not a tax increases…. And in the New Year, this all becomes a bit easier because then the debate over whether the Congress is increasing taxes or cutting taxes ceases to be a debate.”

Translation: the fiscal cliff hasn’t yet pushed taxes up, so stopping some but not all of the tax increases is a vote to raise taxes. In a week and a half they’ll go up automatically, so doing what then becomes a tax cut. The fumbling is a feature, not a bug. It puts the burden of the tax “increases” on the calendar, not an explicit ideological betrayal. It’s the House that Hastert built, and this is how they make sausage in it.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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