The Power of the Purse

 

1280px-Sleeping_asian_elephantLast week, Mona Charen published a post on Ricochet, defending the Republican establishment. She began by observing that “The Republican Party is choosing an odd time to commit suicide,” and she rightly drew attention to the fact that “in the Obama era the Democrats lost 13 US Senate seats, 69 House seats, 910 legislative seats, 11 governorships, and 30 legislative chambers.” The only thing that “stood between Republicans and real reform at the federal level was the White House,” she observed, “and the Democrats were sleepwalking toward nominating the least popular major player in American politics.” Then, she rightly noted that the Republicans had “managed to find someone who is even less acceptable,” and she added a few choice words about Donald Trump – all of them, alas, plausible, but (and this may turn out to be important down the road) not all of them, as they pertain to the future, certain.

For the most part, I share Mona’s misgivings. I have followed Donald Trump in the tabloids for decades, and I am no admirer of the man. But I think her analysis of the situation that catapulted him into prominence unsound. Here is what she had to say:

And what sin has brought down this despoiler upon the Republican Party? Why are so many self-styled conservatives complacent about his success? Failure to stop Obamacare? Please. That was never possible with Obama in office. It would have been possible, in fact it was probable, that it would have been replaced if Republicans held majorities in Congress and got an agreeable executive. Now? No. Failure to get control of the border? Illegal immigration from Mexico has slowed to a trickle and, in fact, more Mexicans are now leaving than coming. Failure to defund the Export-Import Bank? Yes, crony capitalism is disgraceful, but . . .

Here are a few words of praise for the Republicans. The Republican Party has become more reform-minded and more conservative over the past 30 years. The Arlen Specters and Bob Packwoods are pretty much gone. In their places are dynamic, smart, and articulate leaders like Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, Cory Gardner, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz, Suzanna Martinez, and Marco Rubio. The party has become more conservative and more ethnically diverse.

Between 2008 and 2014, when Republicans were the minority in the Senate, they blocked cap and trade, the “public option” in Obamacare, and card check. Republicans declined to give President Obama universal pre-K, the “Paycheck Fairness Act,” expanded unemployment benefits, a higher federal minimum wage, varieties of gun control, mandatory paid sick leave, a tax on multinational corporations, higher taxes on individuals, and more. They passed bills authorizing the Keystone pipeline (which was vetoed) and trade promotion authority (the one issue Obama is not wrong about). They endorsed entitlement reform.

The American system is slow and balky by design. It requires maturity and patience to achieve your political goals. Democrats have been remarkably strategic, returning again and again to cherished objectives, whereas Republicans have told themselves that leadership treachery rather than Madisonian architecture accounts for their frustration.

In Mona’s view, the Republicans did as much as they could have done. In her view, the source of our present troubles is not a failure on the part of the Republican establishment to deliver. It is, instead, as she has argued elsewhere, the severe criticism directed at that establishment by the likes of Ted Cruz, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Jim DeMint and his merry lads and lasses at the Heritage Foundation, who asserted that the Republicans had betrayed their constituents.

With this assessment I beg to differ. I believe that the indictment is just and that the Republican establishment is guilty as charged. On Saturday, Mona’s colleague at National Review Andrew C. McCarthy put on display some of the evidence:

“In the House and the Senate, we own the budget.” It was August 2014, the stretch run before the midterm elections, and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was making promises to voters about how he and his party would face down Barack Obama’s lawless presidency. Put us in charge, he explained, and a Republican Congress would defend Americans by using the main tool the Framers gave them, the power of the purse:

That means we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.

But wait, couldn’t that lead to a government shutdown? Weren’t Republicans supposed to be the grown-ups in the room who would “restore regular order” and “make Washington work”? Locked in his own reelection battle, McConnell was having none of it. President Obama “needs to be challenged,” he thundered, “and the best way to do that is through the funding process.” Republicans would place scores of spending restrictions on the president — “that’s something [the president] won’t like,” he told Politico, “but that will be done. I guarantee it.” A GOP-controlled Congress would dare Obama to veto bills in order to preserve spending on his transformational agenda. If a shutdown happened, that would be the White House’s problem.

In other words, McConnell and his fellow Republican leaders talked the brave talk when courting voters who wanted the financing plug pulled on Obama policies that are crushing ordinary Americans — the impeachable non-enforcement of our immigration laws that costs Americans jobs, depresses American wages, and stresses American communities; the unfolding Obamacare debacle that deprives ordinary Americans of the doctors and insurance they had, corralling them into plans with premiums and deductibles so high that the “coverage” is illusory.

Alas, when voters trusted them to follow through, when it came time to walk the walk . . . the GOP went AWOL.

Of course, if McConnell was the only Republican who had advanced such a claim in 2014, one could limit the blame to him. But let’s face it: something of the sort was uttered by virtually every Republican candidate running for the House or the Senate that year. They recognized the wave of resentment in the general public directed at Barack Obama and the Democrats, and they rode that wave with considerable bravado (as they had in 2010). Put bluntly, they promised to make use of the power of the purse, and they did nothing of the sort – not, at least, with regard to the issues about which the voters were worked up.

One could reply by saying that this is all well and good, that McConnell and his colleagues went a bit far, that it is understandable that the voters are miffed, but that the Republicans really could not have accomplished more than they did. One could say, “The American system is slow and balky by design,” as Mona did, and one could blame its “Madisonian architecture.”

There is something to this. Because of that architecture, it is difficult to do much of anything. New initiatives are hard to push through. But it is not so difficult to undo things. One simply has to turn off the spigot by refusing to appropriate money for them, and that is what Mitch McConnell and his colleagues promised and failed to do.

One could respond that they could not risk a government shutdown (though they claimed, while running for office, the opposite). But this response makes no sense. It is the President who shuts down the government by vetoing the budget. “Never mind that,” one could then reply. “They would get the blame. They have gotten the blame every time they tried.”

This, too, is true – but it ignores one thing. Every time they tried they lost their nerve and backed down. Cowards who back down always get the blame. Think about it. Can you think of a single instance in which a man has taken a bold, brave stance and then later backed down in which he did not become an object of contempt?

This matter is more important than it might seem. The truth is that modern liberty depends on the power of the purse. All of the great battles in England in the 17th century between the Crown and Parliament turned ultimately on the power of the purse. The members of Parliament were elected at least in part with an eye to achieving a redress of grievances, and that redress was the price they exacted for funding the Crown. Our legislature has given up that power. Our congressional leaders claim – once the election is over – that they have no leverage. If that is really true, then elections do not matter, and a redress of grievances is now beyond the legislature’s power. Absent that capacity, however, the legislature is virtually useless. Absent that capacity, it is contemptible — and let’s face it: the President and those who work under him have showered it with contempt.

There is a lesson to be learned from the current mess: Congress needs to reassert in a dramatic fashion the power of the purse, and the Republicans need to start keeping their promises. To do that, however, they will have to show a bit of backbone.

I will not defend Donald Trump. I will not assert that those who have backed him in the primaries are conducting themselves in a rational manner. But I will say this: they would not be backing the man if they did not feel betrayed, and they feel betrayed because they have been betrayed.

Look at it this way. In 2010 and 2014, the Republican Party was more successful electorally than at any time since 1928. What have those elected done with the mandate they received? Look above at Mona’s list of their accomplishments. It is, for the most part, a list of things that Barack Obama asked them to do and that they did not do. The real question is this: what concessions did they extract from the President? What did they, using the power of the purse, force him to do on behalf of their constituents? And the answer is: next to nothing. It is no wonder that so many of this year’s primary voters are spitting mad.

If the Republican Party is in the process of committing suicide, it is not due to the party’s constituents. It is due to the leaders who failed them. My guess, for what it is worth, is that in November the Republicans will lose their majority in the Senate and perhaps even the House. That is the sort of thing that happens when one gives short shrift to the concerns of one’s constituents.

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  1. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody
    @HankRhody

    Bravo!

    • #1
  2. katievs Member
    katievs
    @katievs

    I will not defend Donald Trump. I will not assert that those who have backed him in the primaries are conducting themselves in a rational manner. But I will say this: they would not be backing the man if they did not feel betrayed, and they feel betrayed because they have been betrayed.

    Amen. Couldn’t agree more.

    • #2
  3. Hank Rhody Contributor
    Hank Rhody
    @HankRhody

    Checks and Balances are, as it turns out, for chumps.

    Congress makes the laws, except they’ve delegated the making of regulations to the executive.

    Funding bills have to origin in the house, except when everything but a house bill number is stripped and a Senate bill put in it’s place.

    Congress has the power to impeach a president. Unless he’s moderately more popular than a serial killer, and even if he wasn’t they still wouldn’t because he’s black.

    The senate must give it’s advice and consent to Supreme court nominees. We’ll see.

    • #3
  4. TG Thatcher
    TG
    @TG

    Thank you, sir!

    • #4
  5. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    I hope no elephants were hurt in the writing of this post.

    • #5
  6. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Fine work as usual Dr. Rahe.

    Of course you will be challenged by a graph from 2013 where a blue line crossed a red line and neither line exceeded 50% as doom certain Democrats would gain the House and Senate in 2014.

    It is worth mentioning that everyone is running around scratching their heads at near zero correlation between priority polls and actual election outcomes.

    • #6
  7. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle
    @MattBartle

    Well said! You could have added how they gave up on the debt ceiling and basically said that Obama could unilaterally raise it as much as he wanted unless they said no.

    Oh, and his agreement with Iran would take effect unless they said no.

    • #7
  8. J. D. Fitzpatrick Inactive
    J. D. Fitzpatrick
    @JDFitzpatrick

    Locked in his own reelection battle, McConnell was having none of it. President Obama “needs to be challenged,” he thundered, “and the best way to do that is through the funding process.” Republicans would place scores of spending restrictions on the president — “that’s something [the president] won’t like,” he told Politico, “but that will be done. I guarantee it.”

    And the man is currently demanding an apology from Ted Cruz.

    • #8
  9. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    PHCheese:I hope no elephants were hurt in the writing of this post.

    A herd of them ran over a cliff in a tragic mass suicide, but that is the subject of the brilliant post.

    • #9
  10. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Amen.  Trump is a big middle finger to the GOPe.  And they have no one to blame for it but themselves.

    • #10
  11. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    J. D. Fitzpatrick:Locked in his own reelection battle, McConnell was having none of it. President Obama “needs to be challenged,” he thundered, “and the best way to do that is through the funding process.” Republicans would place scores of spending restrictions on the president — “that’s something [the president] won’t like,” he told Politico, “but that will be done. I guarantee it.”

    And the man is currently demanding an apology from Ted Cruz.

    The absolute height of irony and perfectly defines everything wrong with the tone deaf clan in charge of the legislature.

    • #11
  12. Pelicano Inactive
    Pelicano
    @Pelicano

    You’ve hit on a key problem but I think the reality is more complex. Republicans in 2014 promised more than knew they could deliver because that’s what Republican voters wanted to hear in an off year election where their turn out is enough to win.

    But what they promised was never possible. They would be crucified for causing a shut down before a different audience than 2014 voters. In a presidential year the voting mix is less favorable. Thus they were stuck. Don’t promise big things in 2014 and lose then, deliver on a shutdown and lose in 2016, or break their promise and hope for the best in 2016, because a lot could have happened in tbe meantime.

    Tbe basic problem is that too many Republicans didn’t want to face reality: that an aggressive president, with cover from the media and some good will among the public, will beat them every time. That’s the way the presidency has evolved and it’s too late to fix it without a sea change in political culture.

    The Republicans could have leveled with people and said there’s not much we can do til 2017, but elect us anyway because it could be worse. But Republican voters prefer to hear about fighting. And it’s partly their fault for not wanting to hear anything different.

    • #12
  13. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Brent, tell me about it.

    • #13
  14. Ann Inactive
    Ann
    @Ann

    Well said Dr. Rahe. Thank you for that.

    I hope you are feeling well these days and appreciate you taking the time to speak on this with such clarity.

    • #14
  15. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Pelicano: [….] The basic problem is that too many Republicans didn’t want to face reality: that an aggressive president, with cover from the media and some good will among the public, will beat them every time. [….]

    Only because Republicans are generally terrible at PR. They accept false premises. They allow hostile reporters and Democrats to determine the course of conversation. They speak in hollow talking points and rely on statistics during TV interviews that better fit written discourse.

    I will repeatedly remind Republicans of “the War on Women” because it is the perfect example of dismal media relations. An election was influenced by a transparent lie because Republicans responded meekly, apologetically, as if they had something to hide.

    Inviting a “government shutdown” is a viable strategy if Republican leaders demonstrate competence in media relations (both through hostile interviews and around them by means of social media). Public relations was a pivotal aspect of politics long before modern media. It is a basic job requirement for any Congressman. The habitual abject failure of Republicans to fulfill that requirement should not be tolerated.

    • #15
  16. Terry Mott Member
    Terry Mott
    @TerryMott

    Oh, yes.  They had to lie to us.  Don’t you see?  It’s our fault.

    I’m going to try that with my wife.  “Honey, when I lied about going to the grocery and went to the bar instead, I had no choice.  You prefer to hear about groceries rather than about beer.  It’s partly your fault.”

    I’ll let you know how it goes.

    • #16
  17. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Paul A. Rahe: What did they, using the power of the purse, force him to do on behalf of their constituents? And the answer is: next to nothing.

    You might be interested in this brief discussion from a couple weeks ago, concerning Congressmen Jeb Hensarling and Mike Lee’s CPAC panel on restoration of the power of the purse and an effective Congress. If this is a pipe dream, then so is the Constitution.

    • #17
  18. Terry Mott Member
    Terry Mott
    @TerryMott

    Aaron Miller:Only because Republicans are generally terrible at PR. They accept false premises. They allow hostile reporters and Democrats to determine the course of conversation. They speak in hollow talking points and rely on statistics during TV interviews that better fit written discourse.

    I will repeatedly remind Republicans of “the War on Women” because it is the perfect example of dismal media relations. An election was influenced by a transparent lie because Republicans responded meekly, apologetically, as if they had something to hide.

    And here we get to what I believe is the crux of matter.  Too many Republican politicians — and pundits — accept the premises of the Left, whether consciously or not, or at least act as if they do.

    Cruz doesn’t, which is why he’s so despised in D.C.

    • #18
  19. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    Conservatism is a political philosophy, whereas the GOP’s raison d’etre is to win elections. With Reagan, the GOP promoted conservatism, and won big. Since Reagan, the GOP wanted to dilute conservatism, hoping to add independents while conservatives had nowhere else to go.  Conservatives scratched their heads at that dilution, since the fully-conservative Reagan won a landslide while Bush 41 lost, Dole lost, 43 barely won (twice to stiffs) and then lost with two more diluted conservatives.

    I just watched Newt Gingrich argue that conservatives would be foolish to abandon the GOP since that hands the election to Hillary. Which sounds exactly like what we’ve been listening to for the last 15 years … the GOP expects our vote because we’re captives and that’s just tough. Shut up and do what you’re told.

    No one ever said that conservatives would always own the GOP; hell, the last few elections showed that we never really owned it in the first place. In that sense, Donald Trump is the real establishment. He uses the GOP to win elections for his own purposes, just as we conservatives thought they could use the GOP for ours.

    That’s why I’m much more receptive to a third party in the future. (Not this year; building an infrastructure takes time.) Most third parties come from the fringe; but Reagan conservatives were a majority. You could build on them.

    • #19
  20. Pelicano Inactive
    Pelicano
    @Pelicano

    Aaron Miller:

    Pelicano: [….] The basic problem is that too many Republicans didn’t want to face reality: that an aggressive president, with cover from the media and some good will among the public, will beat them every time. [….]

    Only because Republicans are generally terrible at PR. They accept false premises. They allow hostile reporters and Democrats to determine the course of conversation. They speak in hollow talking points and rely on statistics during TV interviews that better fit written discourse.

    I will repeatedly remind Republicans of “the War on Women” because it is the perfect example of dismal media relations. An election was influenced by a transparent lie because Republicans responded meekly, apologetically, as if they had something to hide.

    Inviting a “government shutdown” is a viable strategy if Republican leaders demonstrate competence in media relations (both through hostile interviews and around them by means of social media). Public relations was a pivotal aspect of politics long before modern media. It is a basic job requirement for any Congressman. The habitual abject failure of Republicans to fulfill that requirement should not be tolerated.

    Yes, poor PR is part of it. But I think it’s also an easy excuse. If for no other reason than an intellectual challenge consider the possibility that many people–maybe most–understand what Republicans have to say and just don’t like it. No amount of smooth talk is going to work then.

    • #20
  21. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    The greatest contribution the Republican leaders of a Republican Congress could have made was a return to the so called Regular Order, as they promised. Instead of buckling down and doing the hard work of passing the many appropriation bills, they wasted their time doing, heck I can’t even remember. Failing that, and I use that word in its truest sense, we got continuing resolutions that gave the President opportunity to declare victory.

    Unlike the poor benighted fans of the Chicago Cubs, many Republicans and conservatives are no longer content to wait until next year. They are expressing their disapproval the only way they can, by voting no.

    In 1948, Harry Truman ran his campaign against the Do Nothing Republican Congress. In 2016, Trump is doing the same thing. He’s just not saying those words.

    Much was given to the majorities of 2014. Much was expected. All we got were T shirts that read, “I sent my Congressman to Washington and all I got was a one month closure of the Export-Import Bank.”

    • #21
  22. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    KC Mulville:Conservatism is a political philosophy, whereas the GOP’s raison d’etre is to win elections. With Reagan, the GOP promoted conservatism, and won big. Since Reagan, the GOP wanted to dilute conservatism, hoping to add independents while conservatives were captive with nowhere else to go. Conservatives scratched their heads at that, since the fully conservative Reagan won a landslides while Bush 41 lost, Dole lost, 43 barely won (twice to stiffs) and then lost with two more “conservatives-but…”

    I just watched Newt Gingrich argue that conservatives would be foolish to abandon the GOP since that hands the election to Hillary. Which sounds exactly like what we’ve been listening to for the last 15 years … the GOP expects our vote because we’re captives and that’s just tough. Shut up and do what you’re told.

    No one ever said that conservatives would always own the GOP; hell, the last few elections showed that we never really owned it in the first place. In that sense, Donald Trump is the real establishment. He uses the GOP to win elections for his own purposes, just as we conservatives thought they could use the GOP for ours.

    That’s why I’m much more receptive to a third party in the future. (Not this year; building an infrastructure takes time.) Most third parties come from the fringe; but Reagan conservatives were a majority. You could build on them.

    Does my heart good to see you active.

    • #22
  23. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    BrentB67:

    KC Mulville:

    Does my heart good to see you active.

    Welcome back, KC!

    • #23
  24. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville
    @KCMulville

    Brent, Aaron,others – thank you. You’re very kind.

    • #24
  25. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Pelicano: Yes, poor PR is part of it. But I think it’s also an easy excuse. If for no other reason than an intellectual challenge consider the possibility that many people–maybe most–understand what Republicans have to say and just don’t like it. No amount of smooth talk is going to work then.

    Certainly, the nation is progressively less conservative with each passing generation. It will be another twenty years before the children of voters awakened during the Tea Party movement become political shakers. There are many ways in which current Republican voters break from the previous generation, such as non-traditional views regarding the sexes and marriage or assumptions regarding the role of government is social securities.

    But, as Mark Levin reminded everyone at CPAC, Reagan was reelected by margins unimaginable today. That was not so very long ago, though it might feel like it. And Reagan’s central message was that government is more often the problem than the solution.

    I doubt Obama would have won his first presidential election as handily as he did if any Republican politician had the spine to point out the obvious truth that many were voting for him as a token black — the opposite of Martin Luther King Jr’s legendary dream of “a man […] judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.” Obama was an empty suit, but Republicans feared to say so.

    • #25
  26. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    The GOPe can be summed up in one word: fear. They fear everything except Conservatives. Now they must fear them too.

    • #26
  27. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    The jaw-dropping fact in the Levin speech hits five minutes in:

    In 1984, Reagan won 49 states — every state except Minnesota. […] and he lost Minnesota by less than 4,000 votes against Mondale — That was his home state.

    To someone of my generation (1980- ), that sounds like something out of a fairy tale. If true, I strongly doubt that even half that approval of limited government cannot be regained by charismatic, principled leaders today.

    • #27
  28. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    I’d be more inclined to accept this narrative if primary voters were flocking to Cruz, who was the main champion of taking a harder line in the government shutdown fights.  I think it does explain a lot of his support.

    I suspect that the Trump surge has little to do with the inside baseball fights of the past few years, that many voters paid little attention to.  Trump is resurrecting the old Perot & Buchanan voters, who mistrust all Washington politicians and are against immigration, globalization, trade deals, and the culture of political correctness.

    • #28
  29. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Joseph Stanko:I’d be more inclined to accept this narrative if primary voters were flocking to Cruz, who was the main champion of taking a harder line in the government shutdown fights. I think it does explain a lot of his support.

    I suspect that the Trump surge has little to do with the inside baseball fights of the past few years, that many voters paid little attention to. Trump is resurrecting the old Perot & Buchanan voters, who mistrust all Washington politicians and are against immigration, globalization, trade deals, and the culture of political correctness.

    I agree. Here on Ricochet we have to remember that we are not normal. We are political junkies. Most voters don’t pay that close attention.

    • #29
  30. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Aaron Miller: To someone of my generation (1980- ), that sounds like something out of a fairy tale. If true, I strongly doubt that even half that approval of limited government cannot be regained by charismatic, principled leaders today.

    It’s true.  Mondale won Minnesota + DC for a total of 13 electoral votes to Reagan’s 525.

    Nixon did just as well in ’72: 52o to McGovern’s 17 (plus Libertarian John Hospers got one vote from a “faithless elector”)

    It can also go the other way, in ’64 Johnson beat Goldwater 486-52.  Goldwater carried 6 states, his home state of Arizona plus the deep South.

    • #30

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