Does the Budget Deal Mean Congress Is Fixed? No, No, and No

Unresolved partisan tensions mean getting a bill through both chambers will remain the exception, not the rule, in the year.
Don't expect much of a thaw on Capitol Hill. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The successful budget deal forged by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, and its wide margin of approval in the House, have had many observers suggesting the political system may have turned a corner in its dysfunction.

Its small-bore and cramped ambitions notwithstanding, the deal is an important achievement, avoiding the worst and most damaging consequences that would have flowed from the second tranche of sequester cuts. And its symbolism is itself important, bringing together a rare match across the divide with both Ryan and Murray behaving responsibly and saying all the right things about the need to compromise under divided government.

Reporters especially grooved to John Boehner's open-throated defiance of groups like Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, while heralding the return of Boehner as the speaker in charge. So what is the reality here? Is this a new era of problem-solving, bipartisan cooperation, and a dominant speaker?

In a word, no.

Here is a little exercise. Ask yourself: If the exact same Ryan/Murray deal had instead been crafted by Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, would it have gotten 300-plus votes in the House? One hundred and sixty-nine Republican votes? One hundred Republican votes? The answers are no, no, and no. Kudos to Boehner for giving free rein to Paul Ryan, who has deep credibility with House Republicans, made deeper by his vote against the deal to end the shutdown. It is true that the experience of the shutdown gave pause to a number of House Republicans who understood afterward that they had blown it, giving up three priceless weeks of negative coverage of the rollout of while damaging the GOP brand. But Ryan made the deal at the front end and the back end. And the bottom line remains that Boehner and the rest of the leadership team are still viewed by a sizable share of their colleagues with suspicion that they are not "real" conservatives.

Future problem-solving? Soon after the deal, the self-same Paul Ryan was speculating on which demands House Republicans would be making this spring when the debt ceiling nears—not whether he and his colleagues would avoid another confrontation threatening America's full faith and credit, but what the terms would be. And that underscores a continuing reality. Even if the Tea Party or other radical forces in and outside the GOP, including lawmakers and groups like Heritage Action, were beaten back on the budget deal and dissed publicly more than once by the speaker, they are still driving and dominant forces in the party. Past experience and current dynamics tell us that Boehner is not going to hit the accelerator and drive through these forces again and again to humiliate and cow them, but will balance the one compromise with a set of actions that defer to their impulses.

The speaker's dilemma is that he still needs the ongoing support of a sizable collection of members who do not want to swallow hard and compromise. But there are several bills coming forward that require making deals. The farm bill will be ready in January, if Frank Lucas, the House Agriculture Committee chair is to be believed, but it will include cuts in food stamps deep enough to cost the votes of a slew of Democrats but not deep enough to mollify the House conservatives who set $40 billion in food-stamp cuts over 10 years as a litmus test. It should pass, but it will be a tough slog.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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