If you like the game of chess, you are going to enjoy the lameduck session of Congress. Every move by the key political actors opens up challenges and opportunities for opponents, sometimes with consequences that were not foreseen, a battle of wills and political smarts set upon a stage.
Republicans were furious with President Obama’s decision to use executive action to shield as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. They huffed and they puffed but when it came time to blow the house down, they demurred. In this case – and others over the next two years – the equivalent of blowing the house down is shutting down the government. The power of the purse is the most blunt instrument a Congress has to get its way: If Congress does not pass a Continuing Resolution (CR), the government shuts down. So, a CR is a “must pass” piece of legislation, and the temptation is obvious that you can get something your side wants passed by attaching it to the CR legislation. It is an old trick.
The problem is that this particular old trick is thoroughly identified with the Republican Party from past government shutdowns. When they threaten to shut down the government, the Democrats smile. President Obama virtually taunted the Republicans about a government shutdown in his address to the nation on immigration. So, that instrument went from being blunt to being useless.
Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team decided they would try and satisfy the “Hell No” wing of his party by allowing them a vote opposing the president’s action before a separate vote on the CR. This did not so satisfy them. So, now, Boehner faces the prospect of needing to enlist the help of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to pass the CR. Of course, Ms. Pelosi’s support comes with a price tag too. She will want something in return for soliciting Democratic votes to pass the CR. For example, in another sop to the Hell No caucus, Boehner’s CR funds most of the government through next September but the Department of Homeland Security, which handles immigration enforcement, would only be funded for a shorter period of time, allowing Republicans in the new Congress next year to use that debate to highlight their opposition to the president and try to derail his new executive order. Pelosi might say that in exchange for providing Democratic votes to pass the CR, she wants DHS funded through September like the rest of the government.
The chess game analogy also helps explain the happy death of a plan that would have extended certain tax breaks indefinitely. Democrats in the Senate wanted to pass the plan while they still controlled the upper chamber, the better to be able to protect favored tax breaks for key constituencies. The Republicans in the House were open to passing an indefinite extension, especially one that tilted heavily towards pro-business tax credits, and were even willing to extend certain tax credits that target low income people. Then, the Hell No caucus warned that the tax breaks aimed at low income folk would be available to “illegals” as they call them, on account of the president’s executive action on immigration, the House GOP stripped the low income tax breaks from the deal, at which point the White House threatened a veto. The solution? All current tax breaks will likely be extended through 2014, but the incoming Congress will have to debate the issue starting from scratch in the new year.
The negotiations over the tax credits showed how vindictively this chess game is played. After Sen. Ron Wyden, could not deliver the Democrats, the GOP House leadership drafted the short-term extension but, on account of a “drafting error,” the extension does not apply to one of Wyden’s favorite tax breaks, for the purchase of electric motorcycles. Now, I am not a fan of any motorcycle, electric or not, but I do not begrudge people who enjoy them. But, why would it be so important to give a tax break to people who want electric motorcycles? Such a break is not likely to really affect the decisions of millions of motorcycle drivers to purchase an electric motorcycle over a standard one, will it? No, but you can be sure there is a contributor to Wyden who makes electric motorcycles, or a key lobbyist in DC with especially close ties to the Oregon senator, and so one way to show your displeasure towards him is to strip that one provision from the bill. If this all seems somewhat childish, that is because it is.
So, around and around we go. We are told that elections have consequences. Unfortunately, these days Washington is so dysfunctional, it may take us two years to figure out precisely what the consequences of the last election really were! I see only one sign of hope in the future: Come January, Republicans will control both chambers of Congress and the Democrats will control the White House. The next two years could prove clarifying for voters as the choices the parties represent are more open, defined by a presidential veto and not by backroom negotiating between GOP leaders in the House and Democrats in the Senate. But, if, in 2015, Boehner still needs Pelosi to pass bills, even that clarity will be denied and the dysfunction will likely be complete. Our political leadership - the phrase does not seem very apt – may be about to put the banana back into banana republic, and I am not talking about clothing. Actually, the analogy does not work precisely because banana republics usually had strongmen who got things done, often evil things to be sure, but they were not dysfunctional. The U.S. is in danger of becoming a banana peel republic.