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.