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.
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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 Healthcare.gov 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.

The dozen appropriations bills that have to flow quickly from the budget deal will still include very controversial cutbacks in key programs, making it hard to find a coalition for passage. Even for budget issues, then, talk of a new impetus to act responsibly is premature.

Which is not to say that all future compromises or problem-solving efforts are off the table.

A deal might be reached on extending unemployment insurance, with funding perhaps from spectrum auctions. The business community, for the first time, is energized toward problem solving, and willing, at least in part, to put money into protecting GOP problem-solvers as well as going after radicals.

The business lobby's willingness to weigh in on key issues puts some into play that otherwise would not be. With Obama and many congressional Democrats now indicating a willingness to consider an immigration solution in multiple parts, there is a tiny chance of movement on that issue. There is a slightly better chance of some kind of infrastructure deal, and possibly an energy deal as well. But if there are deals, they will likely require Boehner to go back to the pattern of passing things with a deeply divided Republican Conference. And despite his tough talk about Michael Needham at Heritage Action, et al., Boehner is not eager to do that.

Turn to the Senate, which shows its own signs of dysfunction. Senate Republicans flirted with killing the budget deal by filibuster, and they show few signs of looking to solve problems, especially given the tensions over the filibuster change and the primary contests facing a critical mass of those up for reelection in 2014. In the end, three-quarters of them voted no on cloture. Thad Cochran, Lindsey Graham, Mike Enzi, and Lamar Alexander are all moving further to the right in the face of stiff primary challenges; Alexander voted for cloture but in general is becoming more dyspeptic and less statesmanlike. More significant, GOP leaders Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn are both feeling some heat from the right, especially McConnell. And with McConnell facing serious disapproval from Kentuckians for his role in the deal that ended the shutdown, there is little chance he will want to be a dealmaker in the new year. Underscoring that reality, McConnell piled on after Ryan to say there will be ransom demands on the debt ceiling.

Perhaps after primary season, Alexander and his colleagues will move back to their more typical problem-solving mode. Perhaps GOP senators will lose their obsession with Obamacare, and their fervent belief that they need to do nothing in other areas and just watch the health are plan disintegrate—their surefire path to majority. Indeed, the insurance industry's willingness now to fund a huge campaign to cover uninsured Americans suggests that the Affordable Care Act will work better than they think.

But then, what is Plan B for McConnell and his colleagues? There are paths to more functionality in 2014, but they are long, winding, pothole-filled, and have limited access.

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Norm Ornstein is a correspondent 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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