What Should the GOP House do Now?

Ok, what strategy should Speaker Boehner pursue?

As something of a follow-up to my questions “what will have to happen in the House in the next Congress for you to say that the Tea Party is having an effect on the GOP?  That is to say:  what would constitute a true shift in GOP behavior to you?” I will suggest two broad approaches that the new House leadership could pursue over the next two years.  One I call the idealistic approach and the other I will call the strategic/cynical approach.

1.  The Idealistic Approach.  This would consist of the House leadership pursuing a clear legislative agenda that put forth their vision for the country especially in the general realm of fiscal policy.  If the message of election night was that the population is concerned about deficits, debt and the overall size of government, then, as they say:  show us what you got.

Propose balanced (or close to balanced, to be realistic) budgets.  Propose permanency for the Bush tax cuts.  Oppose raising the debt ceiling.  Pass legislation to repeal Obamacare.  Give us solutions (even partial ones) in regards to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  Lay down a legislative vision in regards to the military and defense policy in general.

2.  The Strategic/Cynical Approach. Call this a continuation of the the strategy that brought the Republicans control of the House in the first place (as James Joyner discussed this morning).   This approach entails being mostly the party of no and would represent agreeing with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s claim that the main goal of the next Congress (from a GOP POV) is to make Obama a one-termer.  I say “mostly” the party of no because as a party in control of one of the two chambers it can’t just oppose. Rather, it will have to pass some legislation, such as the budget.

Now, let me be clear:  I prefer option 1, because I think that it would be better for the country as a whole for the parties to attempt to lay our clear options in terms of public policy.  Further, if a party is going to campaign on certain themes (e.g., fiscal responsibility) then it ought to pursue those themes in government.  I call option 1 the “idealistic approach” for at least two reasons:  1)  it would represent the party putting its money where its mouth is, i.e., pursuing its alleged ideals, and 2) it would represent an idealized version of government and party politics:  the idea that parties run for, and win, office for the purpose of presenting serious policy options to the public rather than just winning office for the purpose of winning yet more offices later.

However, for many reasons, I expect option 2 to be pursued.  A key reason is that pursuing the idealistic approach would mean lots of losing.  The institutional parameters that the GOP finds itself in, regardless of an impressive number of House seats now under its control, is such that whatever is passed in the House does not have to be picked up by the Senate for debate, let alone for a vote (and forget passage).  And, further, even if by some miracle a repeal of Obamacare (as an extreme example) were to pass the House and Senate, there is the pesky problem of the veto pen sitting on the President’s desk.  As such, the question becomes:  to what degree will Speaker Boehner and company be willing to go to the effort of passing an ambitious legislative package only to have it die in the Senate? (My guess:   not too much beyond, perhaps, a few symbolic attempts).

On the one hand this would give the GOP the ability to say:  “we have shown you what we stand for, and the Democrats blocked it, so the voters need to give us the Senate and White House in 2012” but on the other they would be giving the Democrats campaign issues as well:  “we stopped the GOP from taking money away from Grandma (or closing the military base in your town, taking money out of education, etc.) and if you don’t keep us at least partially in power, they will do worse starting in January of 2013.”   In other words, such moves would give both parties substantial campaign issues rather than just giving them to the GOP.  Now, from the POV of the idealistic approach, this would be great insofar as it would be a election about actual, real, concrete policy option (rather than slogans).  However, this strikes me as an unlikely scenario.

Rather, I think that the GOP will use the House to continue to say no as much as possible, eschew the notion of putting forth much in the way of ambitious legislation (because all that does is set them up for failure while providing specific campaign issues for the Dems in 2012), whilst hoping the economy doesn’t improve too much before the Fall of 2012 (hence the cynical part).

Note that the one option that I left out:  genuine cooperation between the House, Senate and the WH to make sensible, efficacious public policy.  Idealism is one thing, but I refuse to range into the realm of fantasy.

At any rate, tell me where I am wrong (although I suspect a specific invitation is not needed!).

I would note that despite popular opinion (as measured by comments on OTB only) regarding my ideological predilections, there was a time when I likely would have been generically on board with the Tea Party movement.  It is not that I have become opposed to things like fiscal conservativism, but rather have become a combination of pragmatic about what they means and cynical about the sincerity of the Republican Party to actually take their own rhetoric seriously.  And yes, some of my views on specific issues have shifted, as often happens over the course of decades.

Indeed, on the rhetorical point, I would note that it is the result of watching the Republicans actually control Congress, rather than listening to them talk about what they will do if they ever get the chance.  Specifically:  I came of political age in the late 1970s/early 1980s.  At that point the Republicans could note, correctly, that they had not had control of the Congress for decades and they could therefore claim that if they ever got control that things would be different.  Well, they did eventually get control and, ultimately, things weren’t anywhere near as different as they claimed they would be.  Part of this is structural and part of it is that there is less political will in the country to do some of the things that the GOP claimed they wanted to do (as I often say:  campaigning is easy, governing is hard).

The Tea Party movement represents a similar political impulse:  the notion that a certain group (now a faction of the GOP, rather than the GOP itself) has not had the chance to do what it has long wanted to do, and now has the chance.  I predict that the aforementioned structural and political realities will impede such desires as effectively as they have in the past.  It is hard enough for a whole party to accomplish dramatic legislation,* even moreso for a faction thereof.


*Consider how long it took (decades!) for the Democrats to pass one of their key legislative goals:  semi-universal health insurance.  It took a massive electoral victory in 2008 and even then it wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as what the base of the party wanted.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. john personna says:

    #3 The Good Governance Approach. Recognize that good solutions have been hammered out between opponents. Perhaps the best programs always come from this. The worst some from ideological conviction (#1) or Machiavellian politics (#2)

  2. ponce says:

    Aren’t they going to cut the $1 trillion worth of waste, fraud and abuse that will allow them to balance the budget?

  3. DC Loser says:

    Well, the first thing they have to do is to fund government operations. Most agencies are under Continuing Resolution. DoD is in that boat trying to fight two wars without an FY11 budget. Now they’re talking shutdown?

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    While I agree with john personna that by far the best scenario would be for the Congress to seek whatever common ground it can find, I’ve already articulated what I think would be a better strategy than the “just say ‘No’” one embodied in Alternative #2. The Republican House leadership could pass a flurry of legislation that, as you put it, enact “a clear legislative agenda that put forth their vision for the country especially in the general realm of fiscal policy”. Not just once keep doing it.

    Much of it, maybe all of it, would run into roadblocks in the Senate or from the President. Politically, it doesn’t matter. Be hyper-active. Then in 2012 you can run against the do-nothing Senate and President.

    Consider: it would definitely be the Senate that was being obstructionist. Spending bills must originate in the House.

  5. How about play the president a tape of his “We won” comment to get the ball rolling.

    Some humility is in order, but Reid and Obama deserve all the respect and cooperation now that they gave out when they had the chance to cooperate and be magnanimous towards their political opponents from a position of strength.