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He is Not a Player; He Always Votes “No”
Back when I was a state legislator in Illinois, I was standing one day in the rotunda of the State Capitol, listening to some lobbyists discussing various legislators. One was dismissed quickly as having no influence. “He is not a player. He always votes No”
I was reminded of that comment as the drama of the debt ceiling extension played out in Congress. A drama in which the most negative Republican members were left out of the final deal. Who retaliated a couple of days later, bringing the House procedures to a halt by refusing to vote on a usually routine procedural matter.
It takes a particular mind set to be a perpetual No in a legislative body. A mindset characterized by belief in an ideology, a conviction that one possesses the Truth and implementing that Truth is the goal. Any watering down of that Truth is not acceptable.
It is a mindset that is counter-productive in politics where the goal is to achieve the possible, move forward, and make things better, rather the perfect. A goal that requires an open mind, knowledge of how things work, motivation to get something done, and a willingness to consider alternatives. What works is good. Pragmatism takes the place of ideology.
The Republican “Freedom Caucus” was left out of the final deal because their Truth offered nothing that a majority would agree to. Their strategy was to keep saying No expecting that the pressure of a potential government default would force others to vote with them.
They regarded Democrats as “hostages” with whom there was no need to negotiate. When in fact the nation’s economy and standing in the world was the hostage and there was little appetite on the part of a fair number of their fellow Republicans to let the hostage die.
The fundamental error of the Caucus members was to think their power to keep Republicans from reaching a majority with just Republican votes was also the power to keep the full House and Senate from reaching majorities without including them.
Until the two principals who could make decisions and deliver the votes to support those decisions (Speaker McCarthy and President Biden} got together and began to talk seriously with each other, nothing real was happening. The early drama was “performance” politics, acting to make a point with little connection to the final goal, getting a debt ceiling extension through both the Republican House and the Democratic Senate that the Democratic President would sign.
The first act was the effort by the Republicans to pass a bill in the House with just Republican votes, which meant the Freedom Caucus members had to be involved and provide votes. The leadership knew the effort was for show only. What they passed with just Republican votes in the House would have no influence on a final product that also needed the approval of the Senate and the President. Particularly since Freedom Caucus members insisted on including many of their projects that had little support outside the group as the price for their votes.
One of McCarthy’s allies was clear about the performance aspects. “The whole purpose of this is to compel the president to negotiate and to demonstrate to Washington, D.C., that Kevin McCarthy has the votes to raise the debt limit, and that we have shared priorities among all aspects of the Republican conference.”
McCarthy understood it was an act. As one reporter wrote, McCarthy, in his efforts to round up votes from his supporters, “repeatedly told them to ignore the substance of the measure, which would never become law, and instead focus on the symbolic victory of passing any legislation to show Mr. Biden they were serious about their demand for spending cuts.”
Freedom Caucus members failed to do a reality check. They did not recognize that when the play moved to the larger stage with different players, they no longer had the deciding votes. That their House Republican bill was just a performance, an opening bid that Republicans could point to as “our plan”.
Rather, they thought they had participated in and shaped the final deal. To them, it was no opening bid. It was their final offer. They would accept no changes coming back from the Senate.
The real action started when McCarthy and Biden got together and relatively quickly agreed on extending the debt ceiling and limiting certain budget expenditures moving forward. McCarthy would supply 150 Republican votes in the House and the Democrats would supply any remaining votes needed.
A few days later, the bill passed the House 314 to 117, and passed the Senate 63 to 36. Significant enough margins to tell Freedom Caucus members they are irrelevant.
“What do you agree to?” is the central question of legislative politics. Yes is the vote that moves things along. Without enough Yes votes to make a majority, there is no action. The problem that has to be solved, doesn’t get solved. In this case the United States would have defaulted on its debts destabilizing the world economy.
Only those willing to provide the necessary yes votes on final passage have any influence over the contents of the bill. There is no reason for those in charge to include what you want unless they pick up your vote in return.
Since there are no perfect solutions, you are always faced as a legislator with the choice of opposing something you don’t like that might pass regardless, or negotiating for a change that makes the bill “ less bad” in return for your Yes vote. On the other hand, those in charge want to keep the language as close as possible to what they really want and still get enough yes votes for passage.
But once they have enough Yes votes, your vote is no longer needed. You take or leave whatever the others have agreed to.
The Freedom Caucus, after seeing themselves left out, chose to throw a temper tantrum and engage in another round of performance politics. They got mad. They brought the House to a standstill by refusing to vote on a procedural motion that needed every Republican vote to pass.
They shut down the House for several days and threatened to do so again. The motion being considered was a Republican Party “messaging” bill designed, not to get anything done, but to provide talking points for Republicans on conservative news outlets. And needed every Republican vote to pass.
One of the leaders of the caucus, Matt Gaetz, tweeted proudly, “House Leadership couldn’t Hold the Line … Now we Hold the Floor.” But to what end? They are no closer to achieving any of their goals, enacting any of their ideas into law. The bills they blocked were Republican bills.
Their thinking was to force McCarthy to choose between looking for votes from Democrats and sticking to a “monogamous relationship” with the Freedom Caucus. They should have learned. When something has to get done, it will get done, wherever the votes have to come from. A small minority may be humored for a while, but not forever. Particularly when members of their own party have no use for their antics.
If you are not moveable, there are other solutions, other ways to get to a majority.
And aide to two former Republican Speakers commented, “These guys want to be relevant more than anything else.” Drama and performance don’t make one relevant. Delivering votes, getting to Yes, does.
If the bills to fund government get passed before the end of the year and a shut down is avoided, we can expect the same drama and the same coalition of Yes votes that passed the debt ceiling extension and kept the nation from defaulting.