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Republicans can’t pass bills for the same reason they support insurrection
The defense bill disaster shows that they can't even make deals with themselves.
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Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the foaming clown car that is his caucus once again performed their expected rituals of self-mutilation and humiliation this week.
This time the occasion was a must-pass defense spending bill. On a key vote, five Republicans voted with Democrats against their own party’s policy preferences, leading to a high-profile, embarrassing defeat. The failure of the vote makes it even more likely that the GOP will stumble into a government shutdown at the end of the month because it can’t figure out how to make a deal with itself.
Even the compulsively both-sides-are-at-fault national media has had to acknowledge in this case that Republicans are screwing things up all on their own, without any help from Democrats. “Republican infighting stalls spending bill in US House,” Reuters’ headline read. “GOP Civil War worsens," said Politico. “Right Wing House Republicans Derail Pentagon GOP Bill, Rebuking McCarthy”, the New York Times admitted.
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There’s some pleasure in watching the GOP immolate itself in such spectacularly undeniable fashion. Their incompetence has downsides, though. A government shutdown will cause real harm. Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that the GOP’s ineffectual stumbling is rooted in the same dysfunction as Trump’s coup attempt.
Republican House members have lost touch with mechanisms of democratic accountability. Chaos and authoritarianism aren’t opposites in this case. They’re both symptoms of the same rot.
What do they even want?
GOP members are at each other’s throats — but it’s remarkably unclear why or over what. The defense spending bill is a right-wing messaging bill. It blocks funding for abortion travel for troops and medical care for trans personnel. It also rolls back Pentagon diversity and climate change initiatives. That’s why Democrats oppose it, and it’s why President Biden has already promised to veto it in its current form.
Hard-line Republican objections are more amorphous. The House holdouts — Matt Rosendale (MT), Ralph Norman (SC), Andy Biggs (AZ), Dan Bishop (NC), and Ken Buck (CO) — weren’t even voting against the bill, but against a “rule” which sets terms for putting the bill on the floor. They claim they’re rebelling because they haven’t been provided with the top line number for total appropriations for 2024. That seems like a fairly abstract objection, especially considering that rules votes are usually a default, rather than battlegrounds.
The fact is that many GOP House members, and especially the far-right Freedom Caucus, have for some years taken any and every opportunity to buck leadership simply for the sake of bucking leadership. Conservatives forced their speaker, John Boehner, to resign prematurely in 2015. His successor, Paul Ryan, left Congress in 2018 after elaborately failing to unite his caucus. Kevin McCarthy then limped in as minority leader. When the GOP won a narrow majority in 2022, he was forced to endure 15 votes before his caucus reluctantly seated him as speaker.
The far-right representatives are fractious not because they have a consistent, principled agenda, but because they don’t. Cocooned in gerrymandered districts and in the far-right media bubble, representatives like Matt Gaetz of Florida or Dan Bishop of North Carolina have little interest in improving their constituents’ lives.
Instead, as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has said repeatedly over the years, they’re focused on distancing themselves from other Republicans so they can declare themselves to be the true conservatives. Mainstream conservatives, for their part, are filled with “terror” at being “tagged as RINOS” or ‘Republicans in Name Only.’”
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Everyone is posturing for possible Fox interviews and/or is trying to stave off a primary challenge. No one has much, if any, incentive to try to use the budgeting process to get jobs for their district, or pass popular policies.
It’s notable that even the mainstream Republicans are grandstanding to pass a bill that tries to use military appropriations to push anti-abortion messaging — this despite the fact that abortion bans are extremely unpopular and get more unpopular when they are actually passed into law. The backlash to the Dobbs anti-abortion Supreme Court decision is widely credited with winning Democrats the 2022 midterms. McCarthy’s GOP is pushing a ruinous messaging bill, and then, even more ruinously, torpedoing that bill for unrelated and unclear reasons while the entire conference runs about like decapitated farm fowl.
Point and laugh. But also despair.
If you’re a Democrat, the schadenfreude is thick and well-nigh irresistible. And why resist? There’s nothing wrong with pointing and laughing as Republicans beat themselves about the face and head with various large blunt objects.
There are also downsides to Republican dysfunction, though. The House’s incompetence is likely to result in a government shutdown of indeterminate length.
That’s not necessarily a political problem for Democrats; the GOP almost always is overwhelmingly blamed for shutdowns aimed at Democratic presidents. In 1995 and 1996 when Speaker Newt Gingrich shut down the government, a Washington Post/ABC poll found 50 percent of the public blamed the GOP and only 27 percent blamed Democrats.
In 2011, following a shutdown and debt ceiling showdown, 77 percent of Americans blamed the GOP, and 58 percent blamed then President Barack Obama. With GOP divisions even worse and more obvious this time out, the numbers could be even worse for McCarthy.
But there’s more to governing than getting the best polls. In this case, a shutdown could have serious economic consequences, needlessly harming people who can ill afford to be harmed. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2018-2019 partial government shutdown reduced US economic output by $11 billion. The 2013 full government shutdown reduced growth by $20 billion. Some $13 billion in federal contracts could be disrupted, leading to layoffs. Consumer confidence, shakily recovering as inflation slows, could take another hit. Hundred of thousands of federal employees could be furloughed. Though backpay is guaranteed, they may have to go without paychecks for weeks or months. Regular workers suffer as sententious dopes like Andy Biggs posture for conservative media goons.
Republican pratfalls also have an ominous, leaden ideological echo. The GOP House is irresponsible in large part because it has no sense of democratic responsibility. Representatives have marinated in conspiracy theories and far-right media nonsense so extensively that they’ve virtually severed ties with actual constituent well-being. That’s why some House Republicans have been trying to take credit for infrastructure projects included in a $1 trillion Biden stimulus they voted against. The GOP no longer works for its constituents, which means GOP reps often lie to their constituents about what they’re doing.
At least GOP infrastructure hypocrites are, however duplicitously, acknowledging that they are accountable to their voters. In other cases, though, the Republican Party’s indifference to democratic incentives has led them to reject democracy altogether. It’s no coincidence that of the five Republicans who voted against the defense spending bill rule, four — Biggs, Norman, Bishop, and Rosendale — also voted to overturn the 2020 election.
The GOP had abandoned democratic governance and democratic accountability. That weakens the GOP, which pursues unpopular policies and has little interest in making sure the government works for the governed. It also weakens the country, though. The GOP is hurtling towards a shutdown for the same reason it supported an insurrection. It’s very dangerous when a major party sees democracy as a distraction from the business of demagoguery.
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That’s it for today
We’ll be back with more tomorrow.