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Disruptions Are Coming

First, I want to give kudos to Speaker John Boehner for walking the walk and talking the talk on opening up the House to amendments on the Continuing Resolution debate. It was time-consuming, raucous, often unwieldy. That is what you expect in a real and open debate. Of course, it did not exactly meet the definition of deliberative — many amendments got no debate, others all of two minutes — but it was much more than has been the norm in the House for many years. It was not easy for Boehner to pull off. It meant some embarrassing defeats for the majority leadership, and for the Speaker himself — not all at the hands of or the connivance of the minority Democrats.

But Boehner knew all of these downsides going in, and stuck to his guns. Good for him, and I hope this is the harbinger of more. But to pull it off on a regular basis is going to take more than determination, guts and the willingness to suffer an occasional defeat. The House is currently scheduled to have the fewest days in session in recent history, to make the body “family friendly.” But an open and freewheeling debate process requires more days in session, and more late nights, not fewer. Something has to give, and I hope the majority leader and speaker redo their schedule — making it more like three weeks on and one week off, five days a week, not two on and two off and four days in session.

I have one other suggestion for Reps. Cantor and Boehner: How about a new series of prime-time real debates on major policy conflicts? Let’s not just rely on the debates that come from open rules on bills, but actually have one- or two-hour debates about the major issues of our times. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be Democrats against Republicans. The House did try this several years ago, but made it much too stilted with teams of five, rigid rules, each lawmaker getting slices of two minutes and then rebuttals, with no flow. Keep it simple: designate two House members on a side, let each have time to make a case and then allow a certain amount of time for rebuttal, and then have a more freewheeling discussion among the four before opening it up to a larger group. My guess is that there would be a significant audience, given the gravity of our problems and the differences in approach. Given that the debate could go from C-SPAN to YouTube, and might trigger television news shows like the NewsHour to do their own segments tied to the House ones. This is a low-cost way to make the House more relevant to Americans, and more in keeping with what a deliberative body ought to do.

Before we get to that point, of course, we have to get through the next couple of weeks. Will there be a shutdown? Many astute observers, like John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times, think they will find a way to step back from the brink. Certainly, nearly all Republican leaders in Congress are saying no — a difference from 1995, when many key Republicans in Congress relished the prospect of a showdown with President Clinton. The current leaders don’t want to repeat history.

But count me among those who expect one or more disruptions over coming days and months. Why? First is timing. There are only nine days before the current CR runs out, and the Senate will be away for half of them. Of course, negotiations are going on behind the scenes, but the differences between the CR that passed the House and the one that will be crafted by the Senate are real, broad and deep, and not easily resolved. It is always an option to extend the CR, but Republicans will not go along with the usual, an extension at existing funding levels, and it will not be easy to get an agreement on any across-the-board percentage cut for even a week or two.

Even if we see a short-term extension, there is a larger issue: the enormous gulf between the two sides. It would be enormous even at the level that House Budget Czar Paul Ryan initially set, cutting $41 billion from non-security discretionary spending, amounting to a 15.4 percent cut for the remainder of the year if done across-the-board. But the Wisconsin Republican and his leadership colleagues were forced to up the ante to $61 billion by their conservative colleagues, in a party where the once-fringe conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, now includes more than two-thirds of the entire House majority. So now we are looking at a more than 20 percent cut if across-the-board. The cuts, after the House worked its will, are not across-the-board. They include many program and funding erasures, in areas from Planned Parenthood support to public broadcasting, but also serious cutbacks in border security, health research, oversight of the financial markets that got us into the economic mess, disease control, emergency management, educational assistance and on and on. Amid a devastatingly weak job market, they would mean major job cuts. Neither the Senate nor the president would accept the level of immediate cuts, or many of the substantive changes.

So what happens if and when the two sides reach an agreement to cut, say $15 to $20 billion, or even $25 billion from the current year’s funding? Will the 87 freshmen in the House who say almost uniformly that they came to Washington to fulfill their explicit pledge to cut $100 billion settle quickly for twenty cents on the dollar? Will Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin and Tea Party leaders around the country applaud them or denounce them if they cave quickly? Will they find a way to put off the confrontation another month or so until the debt ceiling is reached and use their leverage there for a higher-stakes confrontation? And what happens then? No one can answer those questions definitively. But my answers make me believe that the odds of one or more disruptions are very, very high.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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