Sen. Rand Paul’s, R-Ky., Wednesday filibuster is deservedly dominating conservative social media Thursday. But longer term, the more important event yesterday was most likely the House passage of a Continuing Resolution that will keep the federal government funded through the end of the fiscal year this September.
House Democrats and the White House had hoped that Republican backbench insurgents would abandon House Republican leadership, forcing Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to work with Democrats on a new CR that raised taxes. But only 14 Republicans voted against final passage while 53 Democrats abandoned Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., giving House Republicans a comfortable 100+ vote margin (267-151) on final passage.
This was a big win for conservatives. A win liberals wanted to quickly minimize. At New York Magazine, under the header Republicans Have Won a Budget Battle, But Not the War, Jonathan Chait wrote:
The great Republican budget victory may yet arrive. It certainly hasn’t happened yet, and it’s far from certain if it ever will.
The first question is whether House Republicans can sustain their refusal to consider their no-revenue, no-negotiation stance. Public opinion may not be the thing that stops them. … The real problem for Republicans will be facing down the industries and communities affected by the cuts — and in particular, the defense cuts. … Defense hawks like Lindsey Graham have already broken with Boehner and called for compromise, including revenue, to replace sequestration.
The deeper problem with Republican triumphalism is that it lacks any coherent definition of what victory means. …
It is true that, if you define the struggle in purely zero-sum terms, Republicans can “win.” What they can win is the ability to keep in place, more or less permanently, spending reductions that both exempt the programs they most badly want to cut and that are designed stupidly so as to create maximum harm for minimum budgetary saving. Yes, Obama would probably find this more bothersome than would Republicans.
Of course, this “victory” would mean giving up a chance to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security. Since these programs will consume a growing share of the federal budget, the Republican strategy would mean leaving in place higher spending. And since they’re so popular — even Republican voters don’t want to cut them — Republicans are determined to refuse a golden opportunity to secure bipartisan cover for something they’ll never have the political standing to carry out on their own. In a policy terms, “winning” means suicidal spite.
What Chait gets right is that “defense hawks like Lindsey Graham” are the ones most likely to cave on tax hikes, giving Obama the elusive Grand Bargain he has been looking for since he passed Obamacare.
What Chait gets wrong is the burning Republican desire “to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security.” Conservatives do want lower entitlement spending. But more importantly they want to reform how these programs operate, not just marginally lower their price tag. As Yuval Levin wrote shortly after the election:
Broadly understood, the two parties’ goals are not exactly about the budget but about the nature of the government we have… The Democrats want to raise revenue and the Republicans want to reform entitlements. Those goals would seem to be easily reconciled — just do some of each, or even lots of each. But it only seems that way because we don’t often think about why the parties want these things. Simply (and surely somewhat too simply) put, the Democrats want more money so that the entitlement system doesn’t have to be reformed, while the Republicans want to reform the entitlement system so that the government doesn’t have to take more of the country’s money or take up even more of the economy. That means that doing some of each, let alone lots of each, doesn’t give both parties what they want, it gives both parties what they are desperately trying to avoid.
For the Democrats, the policy imperative now is the consolidation and defense of the liberal welfare state, and especially its defense from the consequences of its own fiscal collapse. … That means that liberal political power must now be used to raise money to buy the liberal welfare state more time, and it must be used to hold off efforts to change the structure of the entitlement programs.
For the Republicans, the policy imperative is to reform our governing institutions through ideas that use the market economy (rather than fighting it) and therefore allow for major savings and for enabling free and responsible choices while protecting the vulnerable.
The spending cuts Obama has offered fit perfectly into the framework Levin identifies. None of the cuts Obama has put on the table fundamentally reform any of our entitlement programs.
His Medicare “means-testing” proposal does not mean fewer government benefits for rich people. It means rich people pay more for the government services they already receive. That is just a tax hike by another name. Furthermore, Medicare already charges higher income seniors higher premiums. Obama’s biggest Medicare “reform” isn’t really even a reform.
Raising the Medicare or Social Security eligibility ages would save a decent amount of money (about $300 billion each over ten years), but neither of those reforms would significantly change how those programs operate.
Bottom line, there is simply no entitlement reform Obama would agree to that would fundamentally shrink the size and scope of the federal government. The best Republicans can hope for is to pair back federal spending around the edges (as the sequester does) while avoiding any new tax hikes at all costs.
That is what yesterday’s CR vote accomplished. It is admittedly a small victory. But hopefully it is one that can be duplicated over the next four years.