Contentious style will continue in Congress

Pete Souza/White House

McConnell, Reid, Pelosi, Boehner, Biden, Obama in the Cabinet room.

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  • The stage is set for plenty of "my way or the highway" showdowns #Congress

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  • If differences don't get ironed out in #Congress, either funding stops entirely or it passes a continuing resolution #debt

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  • Washington will breathe a sigh of relief about the #debt, but more troubles lie ahead

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Last week, I was in Europe, trying to cope with my embarrassment at the spectacle in Congress as we flirted with disaster--a disaster that could have brought down the American economy, the European economy, the global economy, with a swath of lawmakers oblivious to the larger issues at work here, with an entirely manufactured crisis over the debt limit.

With Congress having sent a bill to the president, a lot of people inside and outside Washington will breathe a huge sigh of relief that the trauma is over.

Now get ready for the next set of "my way or the highway" showdowns which, in one destructive case, are already under way, with others due to hit the fan around Oct. 1. And prepare for a wave of partial government shutdowns that won't threaten the global economy, but that will be immensely disruptive for lots of Americans and damaging to an economy still struggling to get out of its funk.

"This time, deals will be harder to come by. So prepare for what might be a series of new Perils of Pauline exercises" -- Norman Ornstein

All with the same fundamental cast of characters, including Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) egged on and boxed in by his tea party activists and acolytes, the Republican Study Committee, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.

Under the debt limit deal, we will have spending caps in place and real reduction in the areas under the purview of the appropriations process. That ought to make it easy to resolve differences in spending bills. But the confrontations are not about spending nor deficits.

Maybe we will see another last-minute compromise like the one on the continuing resolution for fiscal 2011--but recall that that deal did not leave House Republicans feeling triumphant after the details of Boehner's compromise were revealed.

The immediate example of "my way or the highway" confrontation and disruption, largely lost in the brouhaha over the debt limit, is the Federal Aviation Administration, which has not had an authorization in years (a sadly familiar failure of both parties) and was up for another short-term extension while the House and Senate worked out their differences under the regular order.

In this case, it was a high-handed maneuver by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), who stuck it to the Senate by refusing to extend the short-term authorization for the FAA unless the Senate agreed to a set of demands that included cutting off subsidies for small airports in the states of key Senate Democrats such as Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) and Max Baucus (Mont.)--and saying that if Rockefeller and the Senate agreed to make it easy for FAA employees to decertify their union, he would relent.

The result has been a shutdown of major parts of the agency, dangerously retarding the development of a new and up-to-date air traffic control system and causing massive layoffs both of FAA employees and outside contractors.

Think this is about deficits and debt? In the meantime, the money that would be saved by eliminating subsidies for the small airports has been more than exceeded by the lost transportation taxes uncollected by the shuttered FAA. In other words, Mica's middle finger to the Senate and the regular order has actually increased the deficit.

This kind of attitude will be magnified in the coming battles over fiscal 2012 appropriations. Six of the 12 bills have made it through the House, with one, military construction and Veterans Affairs, also through the Senate. Some of the big ones have not begun to move seriously through the body--including Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Another big one, financial services and general government appropriations, has moved through the House committee and will before long hit the floor.

Then there is Interior and environment, which is a good case study to examine as a wave of the near future. As the Washington Post's Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin report, House Republicans added 40 or more riders to the bill, which "would stop the enforcement of water quality standards, abolish rules that protect streams from surface mining, gut a budget to acquire and protect pristine forestland, and slice a portion of money used to operate national parks."

The riders are designed to defenestrate the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental bodies and regulations put in place over the past few decades. The Land and Water Conservation Fund? Cut by 80 percent. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act? Cut 58 percent. Other riders are designed to block the Interior Secretary from implementing environmental laws and regulations.

The Senate, of course, will probably get around to its own version of the Interior appropriations measure, as it will with the other 10 bills. And it is safe to say that it will take a very different tack--likely without any of those 40 riders, or at least with much more modest cuts in programs.

The differences get ironed out in conference--or don't. If they don't by the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, either funding stops entirely or Congress passes a continuing resolution (remember the term "continuing resolution"? It was in the news a lot earlier in the year.)

Now consider the Labor and HHS and the financial services bills. The House Republicans will use those to push other goals, namely, gutting the health care and financial regulatory overhauls enacted in 2010. And the Senate, it is safe to say, will balk.

Will the differences be worked out?

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) got his gavel by promising to out-tea-party the tea partyites. House Republicans, having failed to get everything they wanted in the debt limit showdown, will see appropriations bills as another way to gain leverage to accomplish their goals.

Maybe we will see another last-minute compromise like the one on the continuing resolution for fiscal 2011--but recall that that deal did not leave House Republicans feeling triumphant after the details of Boehner's compromise were revealed.

This time, deals will be harder to come by. So prepare for what might be a series of new Perils of Pauline exercises, with the possibility of partial shutdowns of agencies such as HHS and the Securities and Exchange Commission, among others.

It is very likely that confrontation and showdowns will remain the norm for the next year and a half. At least.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.


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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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