Why does the federal government budget under pressure in high-stakes showdowns like the debt ceiling deadline, especially when Republicans control Congress under Democratic presidents? And why do the imposed spending constraints not last? On this special edition, Matt Grossmann talks to Joshua Huder of Georgetown University for a deep dive into the context and history for the debt ceiling showdown. Rather than review the day-to-day dynamics of the current struggle, they review what has happened under previous standoffs and agreements, why Republicans take budgeting to the brink, and the legacy of the Budget Control Act from the last time they won.
Guests: Joshua Huder, Georgetown University
Matt Grossmann: The causes and effects of budgeting under threat, this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Republicans have used the debt ceiling deadline to extract concessions from Democrats, and it’s not the first time. Why does the federal government budget under pressure in these high-stakes showdowns, especially when Republicans control part of Congress under Democratic presidents, and why do the imposed spending constraints not last? This week, I talked to Josh Huder of Georgetown University for a special edition. He’s working on a book manuscript about the history of congressional reforms.
We take a deep dive into the context and history for the debt limit showdown. Rather than review the day-to-day dynamics of the current struggle, we review what has happened under previous standoffs and agreements, why Republicans take budgeting to the brink, and the legacy of the Budget Control Act from the last time they won. We also set the context of the current House, including threats to Kevin McCarthy’s speakership, why the discharge petition doesn’t seem to work, and how much Congress has reformed to satisfy the holdouts. I think you’ll enjoy our conversation.
All right. So give us a little bit of a lay of the land regarding budget negotiations, outside of the context of this debt ceiling deadline. What would things look like with a new Republican majority in the House and a Democratic president, and should we expect major changes in the trajectory of spending and taxes when something like that happens?
Josh Huder: You absolutely should. One of the things that happens, especially when you have the divided government, is that you find that it’s better not to have the presidency in many cases. Appropriations, revenues lie with Congress. The president can’t just enact whatever he wants like you can in a parliamentary system. So the fact that Congress drives these debates is not too surprising, and the non-majority nature of Congress puts a lot of power in the minority’s hands. That’s only amplified by the filibuster.
So what we find is that when you have divided government budget showdowns, the president’s party does pretty poorly. We saw that under Obama, we saw that under Trump, and we are going to see that under Biden, where Democrats will probably offer more concessions just to raise the debt ceiling than you would see under a unified Congress. Technically, right now, we have a split Congress, but in reality, Democrats don’t really control either chamber when it comes to these sorts of things. From a raw institutional baseline, you’re looking at a Republican House. You’re looking at a chamber that needs nine Republican votes in order to advance any budget, actually appropriations type style legislation. So from a raw institutional baseline, you’re looking at significant changes from the 117th to 118th Congress.
Matt Grossmann: Is that something that is always worked out in a big bipartisan negotiation involving the president eventually, or do these divided government situations sometimes go in a normal, more appropriations-driven process?
Josh Huder: Well, it depends on when you’re talking about. So if you were to talk about these bipartisan agreements through a budget like in the 1980s, yeah, it might not involve the president as centrally as you would otherwise. For the last 10 to 20 years, though, it has. The president has been the central negotiator, been far more influential on budgets than he has been in previous appropriation cycles.
Part of that’s due to the fact that the parties are more willing to play hardball on appropriations. They’re more willing to play hardball on budgets. We’re well past the era when there are bipartisan budgets through the normal budget process. So that’s really allowed the president to take the mantle as party leader of his particular party, and the opposition turns their party leadership to craft negotiations. That’s been the default mode of negotiation for over a decade now and arguably for the last 20 years in many respects.
Matt Grossmann: So why does there seem to be a party difference with willingness to go to the mat on these debt ceiling negotiations and use of the debt ceiling to force concessions, or are Republicans right and Democrats do use this nearly as much as they do?
Josh Huder: Well, it’s a bit different. So Republicans seem to do this with Democratic presidents, because it works. I think one of the things that it’s particularly useful for Republicans is that this issue animates conservatives a lot. They are the ones with the most political incentives to hold the president accountable. They’re the ones that have also lost the most when it comes to actually winning policy. So it animates them to a huge degree. They have not gotten what they want. They want to hold the president accountable. So they often enforce this or try to enforce this by forcing their party leaders into a position where they have to hold the debt ceiling hostage, essentially.
Now, whether they actually want to achieve this or actually achieve much or not is up in the air. Some of these results and some of these negotiations often don’t give them exactly what they’re looking for. But nonetheless, for conservatives, it seems to work. It gives the appearance of them holding the president accountable, and for them, that’s a huge, huge indicator of what they want.
When it comes to when Republicans are in charge, Democrats do similar things, but it’s a bit different. One of the things that’s been very, very difficult for Republicans is just getting the votes to raise the debt ceiling. You have this portion of the Republican conference that is ideologically against debts, deficits. That’s still part of the negotiation. Now, whether they actually care about these things is a debate for a different time. But when these votes come up to the floor, they do talk about them in terms of debts, fiscal restraint, fiscal responsibility, et cetera. So they don’t have a majority to raise the debt ceiling by themselves, where Democrats did. That’s a huge, huge difference.
So when Republican leaders would come to Nancy Pelosi and say, “Hey, we need some votes to raise the debt ceiling,” absolutely Nancy Pelosi’s going to ask for some concessions. “We’re happy to help you raise the debt ceiling if,” right, “you go along and help us out with this sort of thing.” That’s a different style of negotiation. Democrats have the votes to do these things, and Republicans hold it up and obstruct. Republicans did not have the votes to do these things, to raise the debt ceiling, and so they had to ask Democrats. When you come to Democrats, you have to pay the pied piper, so to speak, when it comes to passing and getting these bills off the floor. So yes, Democrats used it, but it’s different political circumstances.
Matt Grossmann: So the parties seem to have learned different lessons from past debt ceiling negotiations, and part of it might just be that something very different happened in 2011 and 2013, when Republicans tried to use these deadlines to gain concessions. So take us back to that era, and tell us what happened and how the parties interpreted it.
Josh Huder: Yeah, that’s a great question. So in 2011, they actually won something, right? In 2011, this is where we had the massive budget agreement, the one that put in place the “Supercommittee” that was going to find $1.2 trillion in budget savings through some sort of agreement that was yet to be determined. It put in place the Budget Control Act caps that were going to be put in place in 2013 to 2021 if nothing happened. So that would’ve been an automatic sequestration of outstanding appropriations across the board, evenly split between defense and non-defense.
So in 2011, they actually won stuff. In 2013, they didn’t really win stuff for holding up the debt ceiling. In fact, this was a full capitulation. If you’d remember, in 2013, the debt ceiling was round up and collected in the big, broader budget debate of that particular time. This is when Republicans were refusing to support government funding unless they defunded Obamacare or repealed Obamacare.
That did not work. What ended up happening is that as soon as the debt ceiling came up to the actual brink, Congress moved very quickly just to raise it. So they didn’t win much, other than the appearance of, again, holding the president accountable. Very effective for people like Ted Cruz, for example, who’s filibustering one of these things, but broadly not very effective for the majority party in the House. John Boehner, for example, did not think this was a fantastic thing and probably wished that it didn’t happen.
But again, what the parties learn is that this is a leverage point. It’s a piece of legislation that is very, very important. It must pass, and it is a point at which a partisan minority or a partisan opposition can use to hold presidents accountable. So that’s been going on with increasing frequency in 2011. I would say it’s different now than it was in previous iterations. The debt ceiling has always been a partisan issue. For example, the history of the debt ceiling is very partisan. Both parties have politicized it. Majority of the opposition party almost always refuses to vote for this thing, and that’s been true since at least the 1950s. So that part is not unusual, but the fact that they’re willing to use it and take us all the way to the brink of a debt ceiling default is far more hardball than it has been in previous iterations in previous decades of this particular policy.
Matt Grossmann: So was there a new regime started in 2011, or was it just an extension of what the parties had done earlier? In particular, is there a dynamic from 1996, from the previous Clinton administration and Republican Congress that they were basing it on?
Josh Huder: Right. So again, it’s a yes and a no. Back in the 1950s, we had a few instances where the debt ceiling was used to create policy changes. So for example, my colleague Laura Bluffs points out an instance in 1957 where raising the debt ceiling was coupled with deep cuts to appropriations in the Air Force. There’s some economists that believe that those cuts were so deep that it actually helped cause the recession in 1957, 1958. So the fact that the debt ceiling’s being used to accomplish other policy goals is not that unusual. But again, it’s different now than it was in previous eras.
When partisan really started to ramp up in the 1980s, you saw debt ceilings being used to create other types of budget and fiscal constraints. So for example, in 1985, we had a budget standoff between the Reagan administration and the Democratic House and the Republican Senate. Basically, Congress did not like what the president was proposing, so they had to raise the debt ceiling. The House passed the debt ceiling increase. The Senate attached a whole different piece of legislation as an amendment to that that was eventually what was called Gramm-Rudman-Hollings. This is the first budget sequestration, and it basically said, “If Congress does not find policies that meet the target deficit goals in the next six years, sequestration of discretionary bills will occur.” So that was our first real jump into debt ceilings being used for budgetary constraints. Remember, debt ceiling is just increasing the overall amount of money we borrow, not actually changing the amount of money we spend on a year-to-year basis.
So that’s when it starts getting linked, and then when you start to see a lot of actual partisanship and pieces in partisanship, you see more threats to the debt ceiling. Gingrich, for example, threatened not to raise the debt ceiling unless Clinton conceded to demands. Democrats’ opposition to raising the debt ceiling became more hardened under President Bush.
So we have this [inaudible 00:11:53] for a couple reasons, really. First, the increase in partisanship means maximizing legislative leverage to win extractions or simply make it difficult for the opposition. So they accomplish many policy and political goals for the opposition when in an extremely partisan environment. Second, the organization of Congress makes brinkmanship more likely. It’s not unusual for ideological outliers to have unreasonable budgetary demands in exchange for increasing or doing routine policy things. But under previous eras, where party leaders were not the sole deciders, they just were ignored more often. Committee chairs would simply move forward with bipartisan coalitions. “Well, if all my members aren’t going to help me, then I’ll just find some members who will accomplish what I want.”
The current process gives these ideological outliers much greater leverage and negotiations. The party leaders want to appear as effective champions for their conference, and so they wait until the absolute last second, until all avenues are completely exhausted, before they finally concede anything. So this style of negotiations that we have in Congress and the organization of the institution almost encourages brinksmanship, because party leaders have to listen to the wings of their party or at least give them some sort of credence if they want to maintain their position as the leaders of that particular conference.
Matt Grossmann: So you mentioned that in 2011, Republicans won these budget caps that we operated under thereafter. But of course, we broke the caps, and the parties agreed to change them. So why weren’t they able to stick? Why didn’t Republicans go with their victory, so to speak? If you look back on it, was there really a change in the trajectory of spending that we can attribute to that moment, or was this a hollow victory?
Josh Huder: Well, it changed, but it changed really briefly. So if you look at the deficit projections and the debts projections over at CBO over the course of those years, when you see sequestration and the budget caps go into effect in 2013, you do see a reduction in overall deficits. This would’ve been amazing to see. In 2009, 2010, CBO was projecting like incredible budget deficits for as far as the eye can see. Sequestration goes into effect, and for about three or four-ish years, you see decreases in the overall budget deficits. So there was a budgetary impact. It did reduce spending overall.
Now, what kind of effect does this have on the overall budget picture? Well, very little. When you’re talking about discretionary spending, you’re talking about $1.4 trillion or so out of a $5 trillion budget. So you’re like, “Oh, well, we’ll reduce that $1.4 trillion by 130 billion,” for example, or whatever it may be that particular fiscal year. Well, that’s not very much when you’re talking about 5 or 6 trillion.
It’s also not in the programs that are creating debt and deficits. So despite the fact that budget deficits did decline very slightly over those four years where the budget caps were really holding down discretionary spending, it did very little to affect the overall spending levels. In fact, overall money spent relative to GDP was still higher during those years than it was in the previous 50 years, for example. So all the budget caps really did was constrain discretionary spending, while doing nothing to actually address the big programs that are driving deficits and debts, moving forward.
They didn’t stick because they were no longer politically useful. Republicans couldn’t hold to those particular numbers. They didn’t have the votes to pass bills under the budget caps. So we continually just came back and revised them every two years. Toward the end of President Trump’s tenure, we were revising them to massive levels. We were catching up to the money that we had lost the previous four years. So they didn’t stick because the political purposes for them had basically stopped. So I would just leave it at that.
Matt Grossmann: Yeah. Part of the context there was that I don’t know if there was an expectation, but there was at least a hope that there would be some kind of grand bargain for addressing the real roots of high deficits through tax reform and reforms of entitlement programs. Part of what seems to have happened is that those hopes are entirely gone. So what happened there? How did we constrain this debate to just talking about discretionary spending?
Josh Huder: Well, as you well know, these are the third rail of politics. These are career killer positions. Everybody likes to say they want to fix the deficits and the debt, until they realize that you have to raise taxes and cut benefits. That’s really the nuts and bolts of it. There’s this inaccurate, but widespread belief that the budget can be fixable by simply raising taxes on the rich and cutting programs like foreign aid, like, “If we just got rid of those programs and just did these to the ultra wealthy, the budget would balance.”
The reality is that there’s not nearly enough money to do that. The tax increases that you have to do in order to get anywhere close to enough revenue would have to be very widespread. The benefit cuts that you would need to accomplish, actual savings in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, are actually very widespread and would be very real changes to people’s lives, like raising the retirement age, for example.
So these are really painful things to do, and you have to do both. Doing just one really isn’t that plausible. If you’re only going to raise taxes, that’s going to be a big tax increase. If you’re only going to cut spending, that’s going to be effectively gutting these entitlement programs. So what you have to do is you have to do both. Until we find a majority who’s willing to raise taxes on themselves and cut their own benefits, it’s going to be extremely hard to do.
So when we talk about the grand bargainers, we’re really talking about this realm of possibility that doesn’t take politics into consideration, for the most part. There’s this idea that members should do the right thing, and doing the right thing is well and good. Don’t get me wrong. I think members should stand up for causes that they believe in, but doing the right thing also means ignoring constituents. It also means severing the representational link. It also means failing to take into consideration the impact that it’ll have on their lives in order “to do the right thing.” Not saying that this shouldn’t happen in certain circumstances. There are obviously cases where it should. But I think that the idea is thrown around far too casually and done more so outside of Congress than inside, that people inside Congress have real ideas of what kind of pain this would cause, and that’s why they’re very resistant to ideas of these major grand bargains getting off the floor.
Matt Grossmann: So the debt ceiling has sort of brought forward the discussion of at least the overall levels of spending maybe in a few categories, but we still have an end of September deadline for actually funding the government. So let’s say everything worked out here. The parties came to agreement in as most specific terms that they could. Is that going to minimize conflict in September, and what will be the big fault lines afterwards?
Josh Huder: That’s a great question, and there are different schools of thought on this. I break them down to the politics camp and the process camp. The politics camp looks and says, “Well, look where we’ll be in September. We’ll be in the same place. We’ll have Republicans in the House. We’ll have 51 Democrats in the Senate. Appropriations bills to pass spending or a budget agreement will still require 60 votes. Democrats are still going to hate the non-defense cuts. A sizable portion of Republicans are still going to hate voting for spending bills, generally speaking. So basically, the fact that nothing’s changed means we’re headed for a shutdown, and the fact that we’re having these talks now is not going to prevent or sidestep that reality a few months from now.” So that’s the politics camp. It’s very pessimistic.
Then there’s the process camp. The process camp will look at the sequence of things, of how these budget negotiations normally go and how we spend money in the United States, and they’ll say, “Well, if we get a budget agreement now, then we have budget numbers that the appropriators can then work on.” In other words, you’ve just cleared the first hurdle, first very, very important hurdle of the budget and appropriations process. Once you clear that first hurdle, once appropriators have a number, they can actually write bills with real numbers in them, and appropriators can write legislation to whatever number you want or, in this case, whatever number you don’t really want. But they can still write that legislation and present it to the chambers for them to pass or reject.
The problem is, most of the time in most recent budget history is that appropriators have not had numbers to write. No budget has been around. They don’t have any sort of agreement on how much discretionary spending we’re going to have in a given fiscal year. So there’s nothing to do. They’ve write these fake bills with fake numbers, knowing that the real numbers needed to be negotiated, and it’s like placeholder legislation.
So getting through that first wicket, clearing that first hurdle is a very important step. September might look a little bit more optimistic, knowing that you have a budget number and things could be a little bit more routine. Honestly, I land in that second camp. I don’t think you’re going to ever find a system where you’re going to get on-time appropriations anymore. That’s just not what we do. No, Congress is not going to hit that September 30 deadline. It’s just not in cards. There’s still big differences on those 12 appropriations bills. Labor, AHHS education bill, that’s still very partisan. There’s still a lot of concerns about how large the defense budget’s getting among Democrats. These are going to be struggles, but it’s better to have a number than not. So I think it’s not going to be perfect, but it’s more ideal than the situation where you have no number and you’re going through this all over again from scratch.
Matt Grossmann: So Democrats had been hoping that they would get some moderate Republicans to side with them and use a procedure, a discharge petition to get a debt ceiling, a clean debt ceiling or an almost clean debt ceiling on the floor in the House. So this seems to always come up, although they added some additional procedure this time, but it never seems to work. So why does it always come up? Then why doesn’t it ever work?
Josh Huder: Well, if there was going to be a bill or a discharge process that was going to work, it was going to be this discharge process. I’m a procedure geek. So I totally geeked out on this particular thing. This was a shell bill that was going to be amended through statements put into the congressional record after the fact. I was like, “This is just one heck of a procedural innovation.” But that aside, it’s never going to work. Discharge petitions just don’t work very often, and they don’t work because they’re not very effective devices. They’re just extremely cumbersome. They’re very, very difficult to do. That’s on the issues where it’s well-suited.
So for example, what’s a well-suited issue? Well, it’s an issue that Congress hasn’t addressed or that the majority’s failed to bring up that there’s a majority for in Congress that doesn’t have a strict deadline attached to it. So for example, reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank, addressing immigration, talking about campaign finance reform, these are issues where Congress, if they don’t act, “don’t act,” the majority can get onboard with those particular programs and reauthorize them or go and change them in some particular way.
For an issue that has a deadline as hard and as devastating as the debt ceiling, this is a nightmare, because all the time requirements that are required in order to reach a discharge petition that could get a vote on the floor in time, it’s just very, very difficult to do. You have to collect enough signatures. It’s got to wait for seven legislative days. It has to be called up by the Speaker within two days of that particular thing. Then you have to have those 218 votes on the floor, not to mention you have to have an agreement. It’s extremely hard to have a discharge petition for a legislative bill that has not been agreed upon. That’s essentially what Democrats are trying to do right now. They’re trying to find enough signatures to pass a bill that has yet to have any sort of negotiation between Senate leaders and moderate Republicans in the House.
The other question is do these moderate Republicans have enough votes in order to clear this particular thing? Does Don Bacon or Brian Fitzpatrick have five or six votes in their pocket? They haven’t demonstrated that yet, nor have they demonstrated that they’re negotiating with Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer in any real way. So that’s extremely difficult to do.
But the reason it’s probably not going to work this time and almost definitely not before the Treasury X date is because they’re being undermined by President Biden. President Biden seems to be negotiating in good faith at the moment. It seems that talks have been advancing. Both sides appear to be walking back many of their very hard line stances that they had even just a few days ago. So if you’re a moderate Republican and talks are advancing and it looks like you’re going to get some concessions, you have no incentive to go and sign onto a discharge petition. Really, the reason you have no incentive is because party leaders will end your career if you do these sorts of things.
The amount of pressure that members face on a discharge petition is fundamentally different than any other vote that you’re going to have. Members and party leaders, they often are okay with you not voting for a piece of legislation. You don’t support the party’s policy goals because of your constituency or political problems, that’s fine. That’s totally acceptable. But where it draws a line is you’re going to give the floor to the opposition? That is not okay, and that’s a surefire way for you never to receive a good committee assignment, to lose your campaign financing and resources back in your district, to lose the support of leadership in terms of the party network. It’s just going to be a devastating decision. So they face a ton of pressure right now and very little incentive at the moment to sign on to this particular petition.
Matt Grossmann: So when Kevin McCarthy could barely win the speakership after many votes, he agreed to some changes in rules and conference rules and even gave some rules committee seats to some Freedom Caucus-approved members in exchange for these final votes that he needed to be Speaker. There was talk that this was somehow handing over the speakership to this faction or that it was creating a weak speakership, but it doesn’t seem to have turned out that way so far. So are these rules changes, these new rules committee members, are they having any effect yet? Why is it that it doesn’t seem to have weakened the speakership so far?
Josh Huder: Well, yes and no. They’ve had an effect, but it’s not necessarily in the operation of the institution. So it’s been far more political than procedural, in other words. The functioning of the House has largely not changed. You’re still seeing massive omnibus bills. You’re seeing closed debate and deliberation on the floor with the exception of one bill, a single bill. You’re seeing lots of legislation crafted and pulled together in the Speaker’s office. The way the House is functioning right now is basically unchanged. We have not seen any deviation in that.
Politically, we’ve seen a much slower pace of legislation in the House, much more deliberative in terms of how quickly, how much legislation we’re going to pass on a given week. It appears that conservatives are using their seat not to change how the house operates, but what it considers. So they’re basically using this as leverage against McCarthy to get more of what they want into legislation than the House considers.
Stephen Smith had a really good point about this when the reforms actually came down and the agreement that McCarthy had with all of these conservative members finally was made light, brought into light, and he basically argued that this wasn’t conservatives trying to really reform the institution at all. It was really trying to take hold of the reins of power within the institution. In other words, they’re trying to use the process to their political ends, as opposed to being run over by leadership. That seems to be very true so far. So in terms of how the House operates, very, very, very little difference, if any at all. But in terms of how strong conservatives are within that negotiation, within those bills that do come to the floor, it seems like they do have more weight than they had in the past.
Matt Grossmann: So there was also talk that this was just going to be a few weeks of a speakership or that it would always be under constant threat, because it only took so many members to try to do an effort to remove the Speaker. Where are we on that? Is McCarthy’s speakership … How threatened is it? Is it something that once it developed would come to pass quickly, and would it change anything if McCarthy doesn’t make it through this Congress as Speaker?
Josh Huder: It’s really tough to say at this point. I think one of the things that’s been a little surprising is how effective McCarthy has been. He’s been very, very skilled, it appears, to bring together a very, very fractured caucus, very, very slim majority, and able to usher legislation through. So I think many people are a little bit surprised that he’s been as effective as he has been, at least so far.
One of the things that is hanging over his head is this motion to vacate, and I think this is really not that big of a deal. I think the press makes a huge deal out of this, but it’s not going to be triggered, at least in a way that actually removes McCarthy from the speakership. First, if anybody’s going to trigger it, it’s going to be the House Freedom Caucus or a lot of very conservative Republicans. Anytime that you have that, one, I don’t think you’re going to find that a majority of the Republican Party is going to be onboard with that particular motion. So if they wanted to depose Kevin McCarthy through this particular mechanism, you’re going to have to get Democratic votes, and Democrats are probably not going to be onboard with a potential Jim Jordan speakership, which is where that group is probably headed.
So it’s very, very unlikely that this is going to happen through any sort of mechanism like the motion to vacate. Under what circumstances does McCarthy lose the majority of his conference? That’s tougher to say, and it’s tougher to say because right now, Kevin McCarthy has been very effective at passing messaging bills. These are bills that collect the entire conference behind a particular policy. Now, these policies are dead. They’re never going anywhere in the Senate. They’re not policies that President Biden would ever sign. They’re simply there for political purposes, and that the Republican Party has been at least so far capable of doing.
The harder decisions are going to be when you have to start taking these policies all the way to the finish line, when you have to take them all the way into becoming law. So what we haven’t seen yet so far is how is Kevin McCarthy going to manage to take legislation from a bill into law, when that bill is not something that his conference wants at all?
So that’s going to be a much, much more difficult thing to do. It was the thing that was the ultimate killer of John Boehner’s speakership. It was the thing that killed Paul Ryan’s speakership. It was this must-pass legislation that had to become law that they put on the floor, despite the fact a significant chunk of the conference did not want that legislation. So basically, the real tests have yet to come, and once that happens, could McCarthy lose a majority of his conference? Yeah, they could. If that’s the case, he’ll step down, just as John Boehner did, just as Paul Ryan was preparing to do at the end of his speakership. That’s how he’ll lose it. Now, when he loses it, I don’t know. I think in September, we’ll have a much better idea of whether or not he’s going to have a second year of his speakership or a second term of his speakership than we do right now.
Matt Grossmann: What about on the positive side? You mentioned that he may have been more effective than people expected. If he does get through this after some unified party first messaging votes with winning concessions, not really having to give up much, is our impressions of him going to change quickly, and should they, or are we maybe underestimating the strategy of the extremists, that they may have actually had a plan here that may work better than people thought?
Josh Huder: Yeah, certainly some of the extremists had a really good plan. The people who are holding out against Kevin McCarthy, the folks like Chip Roy for example, they got a lot out of that deal. There are a lot of people who did very, very well. Now, what Kevin McCarthy’s been able to do has been very, very skilled, in my opinion. I think he’s taken a page out of Nancy Pelosi’s playbook and done it well. He’s mimicked it really well. He’s balancing the interests of his caucus through what I would call centralized law-making. In other words, you bring a bill up, and you give a little bit of something to everybody in a piece of legislation or during a legislative week.
So Pelosi did this all the time. When it was reauthorizing FISA, she also gave Progressives two immigration bills on the same week. When she had to impeach Trump, she also repealed the Republican state and local tax deduction provisions that were in there that were really of a major concern on Pelosi’s moderates. She also passed the USMCA, the NAFTA 2.0 bill that had been sitting out in no man’s land for the better part of a year. So she was very skilled at managing her caucus through this, and McCarthy’s taken a similar approach. He’s cutting discretionary spending for conservatives and also bringing permitting reform for moderates. So on that side, I think he’s done much better than people expected.
But again, we’re going to see when the rubber hits the road, when we actually start playing with legislation that’s going to become law. When you start playing with live ammunition, it’s going to be a lot different, because then you’re going to have to see how you manage things that are going into law. That’s going to be harder for him to balance. How does he do on the debt ceiling? How does he do on appropriations? How does he do on the Farm Bill, the National Defense Authorization Act? These are all bills that he’s going to have to consider. So we’ll have to see what the Republican majority looks like after those things. Are they willing to accept half a loaf on these pieces of legislation that will ultimately have to be negotiated with the Senate, or are they going to hold him accountable for things that are largely out of his control, like previous Speakers? We’ll just have to wait and see.
Matt Grossmann: So as you said, the usual outcome has been centralized power in the majority party, but some of the holdouts to Kevin McCarthy said that they were trying to open the process, especially the amendment process, to be more open. You can see a potential meeting of the minds with the minority party and the extremists in that they may not be very interested in actually passing much legislation, and they may want to take a lot of these messaging votes and not really care about being put in a bad position. So is there any hope for a more open process, or was that just the talk that you always hear, and we’re going to go back to this same process?
Josh Huder: Well, I’m a skeptic when it comes to any promise to open the process. I think every Speaker promises … except Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi never promised it, probably smartly. At least the second term, she didn’t promise her. The Speakers always promise to open the process, and they never deliver. That’s been the mantra of every single Speaker going back to Gingrich. “We’re going to come in. We’re going to open the process, allow members to be engaged, and we will let the process play out.” It’s an utter lie. They’re just not doing it. Once the political realities of opening the process become real and you start to see them on the House floor, the process gets closed down, and they try to manage the outcomes as best as possible, because that’s what most of their members really want. They don’t want that weird amendment from Mr. Amash from Michigan. He’s got different ideas about defense programs than we do, for example.
So I don’t think that it’s really going to happen, but the real tell will be when appropriations bills hit the House floor. This is a promise that Kevin McCarthy made, that appropriations in particular will be considered under an open rule. Now, this is an invitation for chaos. Whether or not he sticks to it, it’s going to depend on how his members feel. I think they will be as disturbed by this process as potentially Kevin McCarthy will be after they see the amendments that will be voted on in those bills, because don’t forget, appropriations was the last holdout. It was the last segment of legislation that had open amendment processes before the entire thing was shut down. The reason that it was shut down was because a bunch of Democrats offered a bunch of poison pill amendments that put Republicans in moderate districts in very, very difficult spots, and they hated taking those votes.
So is this going to be an open process? We’ll find out in a month when these bills come to the floor, if they come to the floor under an open process. But I really don’t see it opening up too much. I think we’re going to see the same sort of process that we’ve seen in the past, because here’s the thing. Despite the fact that Democrats and Republicans have very different coalitions, they manage the House similarly, and that’s been a continuation for decades. So Gingrich just followed Speaker Wright’s path. Hastert advanced a lot of Gingrich’s stuff. He was more strict than Gingrich was. Same thing with Pelosi. Pelosi was more extreme than Hastert was. It’s just a continuation. There’s an institutional accumulation of power that goes, and that crosses party lines. I don’t think that it’s going to reverse without a serious faction actually wanting to reform the chambers.
Matt Grossmann: So we are usually talking about how Congress is doing a lot behind the scenes, and you’re just not hearing about it from the media. That does turn out to be mostly true historically. The last few Congresses have been quite productive, even by media standards. But it sure doesn’t seem like this Congress is doing very much in terms of actually leading to policymaking. Maybe we were just waiting for this moment, but maybe we’ll just see a Congress that enacts a big budget agreement and a farm bill, if we’re lucky, and not much else. How do you see things going, and why isn’t there grounds for these other paths to move forward?
Josh Huder: Yeah, I think you’re right about that. This is the recipe for worst Congress ever. So Norm Ornstein wrote an op-ed, and I think it was 2013. The op-ed title was very straightforward, just said, “Worst. Congress. Ever.” That was one of the worst Congresses ever. There were shutdowns. They got nothing done. Republicans in the House, Democrats in the Senate just yelled at one another. President Obama was like, “I don’t know what to do with this.” Just very little got done. Even by the behind the scenes politicking that you normally see, very little policy was made in the 113th Congress.
We’re sort of in that spot. We’re sort of in the same place. Republicans have the House again. Democrats have the Senate again. Democrats control the White House again, and you don’t see too much opportunity or too many avenues through which they can thread the needle to get policy through. They’re going to do these things that you just mentioned. They’ll pass a farm bill. They’ll pass a National Defense Authorization Act. They’ll hopefully pass a major budget agreement. But outside of that, it’s going to be a lot of more minor legislation, potentially significant, but much more minor in nature. There are bipartisan majorities, for example, on Ukraine aid. If those come to the floor, I would expect them to continue to garner bipartisan votes. There are bipartisan majorities on things like financial regulations. So if you’re really into deregulating swaps or something, there’s a majority for you in Congress.
But this is stuff that does not get front page news, and I think that’s the most important tell. We’re not doing major agreements. We’re probably not doing really major legislation under this Congress. There’s politicking and a lot of position-taking, because with such a small majority in the House and such a small majority in the Senate, nobody really has the votes to push much or force the other chamber to take on. That’s standard number one that you need in order to make bills move. You need a large majority. You need the House or the Senate to force them to take it up. That’s going to be very hard to do in this environment.
Matt Grossmann: What about the last Congress? It of course came in with very high aspirations from Democrats to pass a lot. Then it went through this period where everyone thought it was a failure. Then we got a few agreements at the end, particularly the Inflation Reduction Act, that brought back those historic Congress stories. So with a little bit of distance now, how should we think about it? On the one hand, their big initial enactment, the Recovery Act, is being called by some Democrats a contributor to inflation. It might have some rescissions in this budget agreement, so may not be holding up that well. On the other hand, the last one that they implemented apparently is now actually going to be two or three times as big as initially thought because of the size of those tax credits. So how should we think about the last Congress’s policymaking?
Josh Huder: Well, it wasn’t the New Deal or the Great Society. Let’s get that out of the way. There are a lot of Democrats who are saying, “Oh, well, this is the New Deal 2.0 or the Great Society Number 3,” or whatever you want to call it. It’s not those things. It just simply was not on par with those Congresses. That’s to be expected. You look at the New Deal Congresses. You look at the Great Society Congress. They had 300 Democrats in the House in some of these New Deal Congresses. They had 70 votes in the Senate in some cases. You’re never going to come close to that. So no, it’s not comparable to those programs.
I think what is notable is that they passed far more liberal policy than you probably would’ve expected, given the razor-thin margins in both chambers. The American Rescue Plan, that was a surprisingly aggressive piece of legislation right at the outset of President Biden’s tenure. The IRA was also a little bit far more liberal than you would’ve expected. You never would’ve imagined Joe Manchin signing onto $400 billion in climate investment, for example. I think if somebody was playing bingo, that wasn’t in the cards in that particular thing. But keep in mind even by those standards, they are not enduring in the same way. Remember, the IRA came out of a budget that proposed $3.5 trillion in changes, and what you got is about 400 billion total, a little bit more than that. It was more liberal than you may have expected, but it wasn’t the overall grand scheme policymaking that you may have thought of when you’re thinking major historic Congress. Significant Congress for sure, but not major historic, groundbreaking, “We’re shifting the Overton window,” type policy change.
On the other hand, it was a very productive Congress on a bipartisan basis. So you had the infrastructure bill. You had COVID relief. You had Juneteenth. You had the anti-lynching legislation for the first time in congressional history. Ukrainian lend lease programs, it’s a huge policy change and one of the first programs we’ve had since World War II. The CHIPS Act, first major semiconductor bill in order to change manufacturing. The postal reform. When I was working on the Hill, postal reform was not something that was ever going to get done. That was ten years ago, and all of a sudden, postal reform. The post office’s financial problems have been fixed, at least for now.
So it was a very busy Congress, it was just more bipartisan in nature. What actually happened is that CQ reported that the partisan unity votes actually ticked down a little bit in the 117th Congress compared to the previous two decades, the first time that there’s been a decrease in partisan voting for the first time in 20 years. So that reflected President Biden’s emphasis on a more bipartisan approach to Congress. It also reflected Nancy Pelosi’s support for that program by putting a lot of bills that he supported that maybe their caucus didn’t overall support, like the USMCA, for example, or the SALT tax deductions. His support for those programs actually did have an effect on the overall politics and the productivity of that particular institution. So I think from a production standpoint, it was pretty impressive. From a liberal standpoint, it was more impressive than you probably would’ve anticipated, and a significant Congress, but it’s probably not a New Deal.
Matt Grossmann: So I know you’re working on a long history of congressional reforms. What are the big lessons so far that might inform present-day discussions of congressional reform?
Josh Huder: I think it depends on the chamber. So we’re talking about very, very different types of reforms and very, very different types of places. The Senate, we’re on the cusp of a big change. We’re waiting for a sizable Senate majority, a unified government for the filibuster to basically disappear. The Senate majority doesn’t even have to be that big. 54 votes maybe might get you to the point where you can go, “When we have a completely majoritarian Senate,” which, by the way, would be long overdue. Holy cow. The filibuster needs to go. It serves no purpose anymore. So on the Senate side, we’re on the cusp of something changing, because it’s right in line with the type of politics that you see in the Senate. On the House, I would not hold your breath. Republicans were the most poised of the two parties to really instigate or implement change in Congress, and they don’t appear ready to do so. That appears to be more like jockeying for political power.
One of the things that I think the reform discussion often misses is that we often think of reform as trying to fix something. So in some cases, that’s been true. Reform has been focused on fixing an issue. So for example, in 1880, it was about clarifying the House rule book and reducing 155 rules into 40 that you could actually understand. In 1946, it was about reducing the complexity of the committee system and simplifying the committee system so that you only had a few standing committees instead of 50 standing committees in either chamber. But the kind of reform that we’re on the cusp of is the kind of change that happens only after something breaks.
So when you think of the kind of change that you would need in order to get away from the type of centralized lawmaking that we see today, you’re talking about the overthrow of Joe Cannon, which was a reflection of the broken Republican Party that the Progressive movement basically fractured. You’re talking about the overthrow of the committee system, which was a reflection of the broken Democratic Party in the mid-1960s and 1970s, as more liberals were elected and conservative Democrats were pushed out. This sort of overthrow of centralized lawmaking is going to emerge from fractured parties.
On the one hand, that doesn’t appear to be the case. We have very unified parties on some issues. So for example, Republicans are very unified on taxes. Democrats are very unified on social issues and climate change. On the other hand, the parties do show some signs of breaking on some particular issues. For example, they both break on some really basic things. Neither party has a majority of the passed budgets today that actually pass appropriations bills. Now, budgets are majority bills. They only need a majority in the House and a majority in the Senate that pass the budget in order to start passing appropriations bills.
But neither party is even trying to do that anymore, because they don’t agree on very basic budget problems. They’re increasingly divided on defense issues. We have more Republicans who are against spying programs and against large defense budgets. Same thing with Democrats. You’re starting to see the Democrats fracture on defense issues and defense spending. Justice and police programs are starting to fracture the parties in some ways.
So I think what you’re starting to see is there’s definitely some signs that the parties are getting a little bit more heterogeneous on issues than they were in the past. While it’s clearly not showing up in vote studies, because we still have very, very highly partisan parties in Congress, I think you are starting to see the stress of the parties under centralized management, because they’re starting to have very, very different priorities on the left and the right wings of both of these caucuses. Once those do break, I think you will see some of those reforms that you might expect, major reforms that change the way the House operates for decades. But when that happens, we’ll wait and see. You have to see someone and see legislators and entrepreneurs start to connect institutional change to these sort of political changes and problems that the parties are having right now. We haven’t seen that yet.
Matt Grossmann: So Josh, you work at the intersection of practitioners and academics. So what do you think that practitioners need to learn from academics who study Congress and policymaking and the reverse? What don’t we know that the practitioners know well?
Josh Huder: Well, I think the first thing that practitioners should learn from the academics is about how the structures affect everything. I think one of the big things that practitioners understand very well that academics don’t, on the other hand, is how relationships affect everything. So for example, a practitioner knows, “Oh, well, why did this bill get through?” It’s like, “Oh, because John and Ben are really good friends, and Ben did a thing for John. John did the thing,” or whatever. It’s very simple. It’s straightforward. They have a relationship. They’re able to communicate. They have a repertoire of trust built up between the two of them, and they’re able to get things accomplished.
Now, the other side of that is they don’t see the mechanics of it. Why is Ben John’s friend? Because John is a committee chair, and Ben wants to be his friend. So Ben works really hard to be his friend in order to get things that he wants out of the process. I think that that’s the intersection that is the biggest disconnect between both groups. On academics, they tend to see the structure as purely the structure. They look at it in very sequence, and don’t get me wrong. I love sequence. I love structure, I love rules. But I can also see from a practitioner’s side how relationships help grease the wheels of these structures.
On the flip side, I think academics could take a cue from them to understand the social relationships that are at work here. Speakers can’t just dictate things to their caucus, but they do have a lot of leeway and a lot of advantages in terms of being able to manipulate the process, being able to structure it in a certain way. So their ability to restructure the process is in part and parcel their relationship with their members. I think that that’s lost as well. So I think that that intersection’s probably the best, the best that each group could take from one another. Academics could probably better understand how individuals and relationships affect the process, and practitioners could probably better understand how structures really do dominate a lot of how these relationships interact.
Matt Grossmann: So you also are at the intersection of historians and people who pay a lot of attention to the long history of Congress and often say that, “Actually, we have been here before. It’s like these other three examples,” and the people who have a more journalistic and very contemporary interpretation of what’s happening now and want to know what’s happening with the current leadership and dynamics. What about that divide? When are the folks that say, “This is part of a long trajectory,” should we listen to them more, and when are the folks that say, “Actually, things have really changed, and we really need to think about what’s happening now in its own terms”?
Josh Huder: Well, I think it’s funny, because those two groups are often the same ones. They’re concentric circles in many respects. I am very much one of those people that history does repeat itself in different ways, which sounds weird, but I do think there are cycles of this. We’ve seen centralizing cycles. We’ve seen decentralizing cycles. We’ve seen “We’ve been here before” type stuff. At the same time, this is all terribly new. We know that Speakers, for example, centralize power and are very, very influential players within the House of Representatives. Now, the way that Joe Cannon ran things and the way that Nancy Pelosi ran things were very different, but a similar effect.
I think that one of the things that we need to understand is that, yes, it does repeat itself, but it’s a little different. I think the Speakers that you see today are very much like the czar Speakers that you saw at the turn of the 20th century. They are very authoritarian. They have a lot of power and influence. They have a lot of ability to manipulate the process and manipulate negotiations to their advantage. But it’s very different than what you saw the turn of the 20th century, where they controlled committee assignments and they literally chaired the Rules Committee.
So on the one hand, I think, yes, this is all very new, these things that we’re saying. The Speakers today have more, for example, control over legislative content than at any point in American history. They write the bills in their office, they literally craft them in their office, and then they structure debate in such a way that basically prevents any changes to it. That is extremely centralized when you’re talking actual content of legislation. They may not have been as politically powerful as the czar Speakers, like Canon and Reed and all that, but they’re still extremely authoritarian. So I think that one thing that we need to take away is that, yes, we are in a similar place, but it’s a new similar place. How it’s reformed is going to be similar and different, but I think that we’re going to see a lot of parallels across history, as we have before.
Matt Grossmann: Anything we didn’t get to that you wanted to include or anything you want to promote that you’re working on now?
Josh Huder: Well, I think one of the things that we should talk more about is legislative norms, and I am working on a project right now about it. But it plays a really profound role and unfortunately does not get the kind of attention that legislative scholars probably should give it. This was something that was a big thing to talk about in the 1950s and the 1960s, the way that norms did it, and we seem to have lost that grasp and lost that track in legislative studies. We just don’t talk about it as much anymore, because the old norms that they discussed in the 1950s are dying and dead.
They’ve been killed by partisans, and what’s been the reality is that they’re simply being replaced by new partisan norms, partisan norms to support the party leader, for example, partisan norms to always vote for the rule on the House floor, for example, partisan norms to always vote for the majority leader’s priorities, even though you as an individual senator have all of the tools at your disposal to introduce and pass legislation on the floor or at least force legislation to be discussed on the floor. These are also norms. They also structure behavior, and they structure the way these institutions operate. They’re just extraordinarily different than anything that the 1950s and ’60s institutionalists were discussing. More attention should be paid to that, quite honestly, because it is that intersection between the kind of social interaction relationships that make lawmaking happen inside Congress and the kind of behavioral and structural constraints that dictate how these institutions operate.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, all linked on our website, How the House Freedom Caucus Gains Power in Congress, Does Anyone Speak for the Poor in Congress?, Are Divided Governments the Cause of Delays and Shutdowns?, Compromise Still Works in Congress and with Voters, and The Future of the Biden Agenda in Congress. Thanks, Josh Huder, for joining me. Please check out his podcast, Congress Two Beers In, and then listen in here next time.