For all the predictable drama in Washington, the recent progress on the budget and appropriations has been a pleasant surprise. Just three months after House Republicans forced a two-week government shutdown for reasons that are still unclear, the process through which Congress spends money has worked with surprising ease.
Lawmakers approved a bipartisan budget deal a month ago without much fuss, and last night, the House followed up by approving a spending package of about $1.1 trillion, funding the government through the end of the fiscal year. The final tally wasn’t close – the bill passed 359 to 67 – and the Senate is expected to approve the same package by a similar margin.
The process may not have been dramatic, but there are some larger takeaways to keep in mind. For example, Jonathan Weisman noted far-right activist groups’ opposition to the spending bill, which turned out to be irrelevant.
The conservative political action committee Club For Growth denounced it and said a vote for it would hurt any lawmaker’s conservative scorecard. Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, castigated it as a profligate budget buster that is returning Washington to its free-spending ways.“Has Congress learned nothing from the Obamacare disaster?” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. “We need members in the House and the Senate who are willing to keep their campaign promises, stand up for the people and protect Americans from Washington’s tax, borrow, spend and spend and spend mentality.”
In this context, it’s not entirely clear what “Obamacare disaster” the Tea Party leader is referring to, but it’s nevertheless true that the usual suspects told lawmakers in no uncertain terms that they must reject the spending package. And in response, few on Capitol Hill actually cared what Heritage Action and the Club For Growth said.
This isn’t the first time. Though it seemed for a long while as if outside, right-wing organizations were calling the shots for GOP lawmakers, since the shutdown fiasco, it appears the far-right groups no longer have the Republican leadership on speed-dial. Congress ignored the activists when they demanded a rejection of the budget deal, and then ignored them again on appropriations.
The obvious question, then, is whether this opens the door to progress in other areas. The answer, I’m afraid, is probably not.
To be sure, it’s tempting to think governing might somehow become possible if even House Republicans are blowing off the extremists’ demands on government spending. It raises new hopes that issues like immigration reform – which appeared dead in the face of far-right opposition – may still be viable.
Indeed, let’s not forget that it was just a month ago that House Speaker John Boehner rebuked these conservative organizations in unusually forceful terms. If Boehner is willing to keep blowing off right-wing demands from outside Congress, real progress on a wide range of issues is possible.
But it’s probably best to keep expectations in check. Ezra Klein explained a few weeks ago that the budget deal shows “there are ways in which the two parties can work together. But only when they don’t have to compromise.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said so himself at the news conference announcing the agreement. “From the outset, we knew that if we forced each other to compromise a core principle we would get nowhere,” he said. “That is why we decided to focus on where the common ground is.”That meant no taxes. It meant no changes to Medicare, Social Security, or Medicaid. It meant letting unemployment insurance expire. It meant doing nothing about crumbling infrastructure or Obamacare. It meant leaving most of sequestration in place.
As we discussed at the time, it’s heartening when anything passes Congress with bipartisan support, but the agreement on government spending succeeded with minimal fuss because it just didn’t ask too much of either side.
Every other major piece of pending legislation, however, including immigration, requires Republicans to accept policy provisions they actively dislike – and this is a group that believes “compromise” means “getting my way.”
In this case„ Boehner & Co. didn’t want another shutdown, so they embraced a modest agreement. On everything else, GOP lawmakers see failure as an option.
The recent bipartisan cooperation could serve as a framework for other breakthroughs, but in all likelihood, it won’t.