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The fiscal fiasco that resulted in a 16-day partial government shutdown ended in surrender. Not victory. Not compromise. Attempts to even alter Obamacare failed. House Speaker John Boehner declared to his colleagues, “We fought the fight. We didn’t win. We live to fight another day.”
But the budget battle did not end on October 17 when the president signed legislation to appropriate funds to resume full operations of the federal government, end the furlough of hundreds of thousands of federal workers, and temporarily suspend the debt ceiling. The deal struck between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid (on behalf of the White House) simply set new deadlines for future legislative wrangling over appropriations, sequestration, the debt limit, and (in theory) entitlement and tax reform. The deal lacked any actual public policy; it simply authorized status quo operations. Every fiscal challenge that faced our nation before the government shutdown remains an equally significant challenge today: entitlement spending is on an unsustainable trajectory, and federal debt held by the public is on track to reach 100 percent of GDP within a generation.
If Democrats had hoped that this fiscal fiasco would divert attention from “glitches” in the launch of Obamacare’s insurance exchanges, they didn’t win. The glitches appear actually to be structural flaws that have outlived the shutdown and become a scandal themselves, front and center in the media’s eyes. Even left-leaning newspapers are scathing, and congressional oversight hearings are underway.
If Republicans had hoped that they could paint Democrats as obstructionists failing to permit the government to fully function in the interest only of protecting and defending the president’s signature legislative accomplishment, they didn’t win either. Approval ratings fell for the White House and Congress in general, but the GOP took the biggest hit in national opinion polls.
At first appearance, the near-term outlook for Republicans is bleak from both a political and policy perspective. The failed political strategies to defund or delay Obamacare have hurt the GOP brand and frustrated many in the party. As the next set of deadlines falls closer to the midterm elections, the risks of repeated political blunders are greater. Sustained, laser-focused criticism of the Affordable Care Act offers strong appeal only to the existing base of conservatives and does little to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party to new voters. While public support for Obamacare is far from robust, the GOP’s relentless attacks likely only appeal to those who already distrust the president.
Nevertheless, an opportunity does exist. Speaker Boehner deserves great political credit for holding together a fractious caucus during repeated attempts to exert the will of the House and pressure the Senate and the president into bipartisan negotiations. House Republicans voted in virtual unity on every measure brought to the floor during the government shutdown up until the end, when the Speaker brought the Senate’s bill to the House floor for a vote (much as he did at the end of the battle over the fiscal cliff ten months ago). This ability of the House leadership to hold together Tea Party Republicans and pragmatic legislators must now be used to clearly define and commit to a set of conservative, incremental policy reforms.
The first step in pursuing this goal should be pivoting from the battle-tested election strategy of negative campaigning toward the governing strategy of positive policymaking. In short, House Republicans must demonstrate by vote their vision for reform. And the best way to begin is not to vote for draconian changes that uproot programs that millions have come to enjoy or depend on, but to vote for the incremental reforms that can be cast as both conservative and common sense.
House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, now in negotiations with his Senate counterpart Patty Murray for a budget resolution, recognizes both the need to be specific in the policy arena and the inadequacy of merely throwing stones at flawed policies and programs currently in place. More important now than the House-passed budget Ryan authored, with its bold objectives for deficit reduction coupled with broad reform proposals, are votes on specific policy reforms to address the challenges facing Medicare, Social Security, and the tax code. Changes in the Medicare premiums paid by high-income earners and reforms to Medigap plans to improve the incentives for efficient care are two policies that Chairman Ryan has pointed to that also appear in President Obama’s budget proposals.
If Republicans are eager to be bold, they should be willing to cast difficult votes to broaden the tax base, alter the nature of Medicare for future retirees, and strengthen the financial viability of Social Security while working to encourage more private savings. Their calls to President Obama to engage in serious, bipartisan negotiations over entitlements fell on deaf ears, but hiding behind the president’s unwillingness to engage is not the action of a party eager to govern.
Alex Brill is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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