02 October 2013

The Burden of Compromise

On the first day of the partial government shutdown it could be argued that the burden of compromise lay on President Obama and Majority Leader Reid. No matter how unjust the Republican stand against "Obamacare" is, so long as Republicans control the House they share the power of the purse and are under no constitutional obligation to fund any program, no matter how popular it may be. To my knowledge, there is no way to compel the Republican majority to pass the so-called "clean bill" to fund the government except the way the Democrats are currently doing so: by refusing to approve any bill from the House that does not fund the Affordable Care Act and daring the GOP to risk not just an extended shutdown but a default on the national debt. So if a burden of compromise does lay with the Democrats, it's really a matter of how soon you want the shutdown to end. It should also be remembered that the House can't compel the Senate or the President, either, except by the means Republicans are currently using: by refusing any legislation from the Senate that fully funds the ACA and daring Democrats etc. etc. It is just about literally a game of chicken in which both cars may go off the cliff but someone, presumably, will have the satisfaction of blaming someone else for what happens to the passengers. Fear of the cliff is expected to force someone to lose in time for both drivers to escape, but since the thing at stake is blame the normal incentives don't apply with their usual force. In any event, a case could be made for the necessity of compromise from the Democrats, but now the Huffington Post and  National Journal report that since yesterday a theoretical majority in favor of a "clean" bill exists in the House. That is, enough Republican representatives have expressed support for a funding bill that includes the ACA for the bill to pass, presuming unanimous Democratic support. In practical terms, presuming that the reporters are right about all the Republicans under discussion, whether the shutdown will end is entirely up to Speaker Boehner. It's up to the Speaker to allow votes on bills, but it is understood that on this occasion Boehner is abiding by the so-called Hastert Rule. The principle predates former Speaker Hastert, and the practice has been observed erratically by Speakers of both parties. The rule is that a bill will not be brought to the floor for a vote unless it has the support of the majority of the majority caucus. In this case, that means that unless a majority of Republican representatives supports a clean bill, the bill will not be voted upon, even if a majority of the entire House is known to support it. Whether the Hastert Rule is observed is entirely a matter of the Speaker's prerogative. Boehner can't be compelled to permit a vote on a clean bill, but when it becomes clear that one man (rather than a party) is preventing a resolution of the crisis, it should become more clear where the burden of compromise currently lies. However, a remedy for Boehner's obstinacy may exist in the form of a discharge petition. This option allows a simple majority of the House to force a vote on a bill without the consent of the Speaker or relevant committee chairman. Whether the wavering Republicans would go for this option is uncertain. It's one thing to say you support a measure you don't expect to come to a vote, and another to take a stand that exposes you to reprisal (in terms of committee assignments, etc.) from the Speaker and the inevitable primary challenge next year from the fire-eaters at home. These representatives reportedly have already expressed their readiness to compromise; for them the next step requires courage -- or perhaps just a choice between the public blaming Boehner or blaming them for a fiscal catastrophe.

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