John Boehner, Not A Problem-Solver

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JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 30, 2010

John Boehner, Not A Problem-Solver

Jonathan Rauch says that the best interests of President Obama and the country lie in a GOP takeover of Congress:

The remaining challenges are daunting: the economy (especially employment); financial reform; energy and the environment; above all, an impending fiscal train wreck.

In the face of those challenges, here is a two-word prescription for a successful Obama presidency: Speaker Boehner.

The most important political change of the past half century is the Democrats’ and Republicans’ transformation from loose ideological coalitions to sharply distinct parties of the left and right. In Washington, the parties are now too far apart ideologically for either to count on winning support from the other side.

However, the country’s biggest problems are too large for one party to handle, at least in any consistent way. ...

Under those conditions, the only way to achieve sustainable bipartisanship is to divide control of the government, forcing the parties to negotiate in order to get anything done. That pulls policy toward the center, which encourages reasonableness. And the very fact that both parties sign off on any given policy makes the public perceive that policy as more reasonable, which makes it less controversial and more sustainable.

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan replies to this with -- surprise! -- some political science:

Under the gridlock zone model of Congress, legislative action on any issue is currently impossible when the status quo lies between the filibuster pivot in the Senate (i.e. the 41st most conservative senator) and the veto pivot (the most liberal Democrat whose vote would be needed to override an Obama veto) -- a filibuster blocks any move to the left, and an Obama veto blocks any move to the right. Here's a figure illustrating the idea from Keith Krehbiel's Pivotal Politics:

Pivotal

If the new median voter in the House or the new filibuster pivot in the Senate is more conservative than the current filibuster pivot, then the "gridlock zone" expands to the right, blocking action on more issues even if those proposals would move the policy status quo toward the center. The relevant change in policy is likely to be more gridlock, not more policy compromise on important issues.

To put the answer differently, divided government is not going to solve Rauch's list of problems -- employment, financial reform, energy/environment, and long-term deficits -- because Republicans don't agree that these are actually problems, at least not in the way that non-Republicans would define them. Republicans have embraced pre-Keynesian economic models which hold that economic downturns are self-correcting. They won't consider any remedies other than permanent upper-income tax cuts. On energy, Republicans either deny that carbon dioxide emissions are a problems or insist the problem is not worth solving. On deficits, they have clearly signaled that they will reject any solution that involves any tax hikes whatsoever.

Financial regulation is a (very) partial exception -- you're seeing, so far, one Republican open to problem-solving. And, of course, his cooperation is largely premised on the belief that Democrats might be able to ram through a bill on their own if Republicans don't deal, a fear that would disappear if Republicans did take control of the House.

We had a natural experiment of Rauch's thesis from 2007 through 2008, when Democrats controlled Congress and Republicans held the White House. No major national problems were solved.

Basically, you can solve problems with the contemporary GOP if those problems involve too much taxes, too much spending, or too much regulation. But the problems of high unemployment, carbon dioxide emissions, and systemic financial risk are market failures. While there are multiple ways to approach those problems, none fall within the parameters of right-wing ideology.

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posted in: jonathan chait, washington, brendan nyhan, jonathan rauch, keith krehbiel, congress, republican party, senate

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