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Possible Explanations for Republicans Not Taking Sweetheart Debt Limit Deal

Republicans are looking a gift horse in the mouth (photo: power fly-eye)

We know that Republicans are, to this point, looking a gift horse in the mouth by not yet taking an extremely favorable deal on the debt limit that would transform government and usher in radical austerity in exchange for a few measly closures of tax loopholes. It could be that they’re simply being tough negotiators by holding out until, they expect, Democrats just fold on everything. That’s certainly a possibility. But there are some other options:

The primary threat

In the same edition of the NYT as David Brooks’ desperate cry to the GOP not to reject the great deal they’ve been offered, Jennifer Steinhauer reports on potential primary challenges for any of the Republicans who evince the slightest compromise. This, we can see, may be pushing some lawmakers into a maximalist position:

“I am taking a serious look,” said Weston Wamp, who is pondering a primary challenge to Representative Chuck Fleischmann, in his first term from Tennessee. Mr. Wamp said he was inspired by his father, Zach, who served in the House for many years. “My experience through my dad was seeing the very best of what public service can mean.”

It is miles to go before the 2012 Congressional races begin in earnest, but already some of the 87 freshmen who helped the Republicans win back the House last year are bracing for a challenge from within the party. At least half a dozen potential primary challengers to freshmen are considering a run, and there is heated chatter about more.

In some ways, the freshmen are responsible for their own predicament. Many won their seats after successfully challenging establishment Republicans in primaries, proving that a combination of gumption and the right political climate could overcome the advantages of incumbency.

Now, to some of the impatient and ideological voters who sent them to Washington to change things, the new House members may be seen as the establishment, and they face the disconcerting prospect of immediately defending themselves in the political marketplace.

Obviously, these freshmen don’t want to give a potential opponent any reason to charge some betrayal of conservative ideology. This speaks to the Iron Law of Institutions, where one’s relative position in the institutions matters more than the position of the institution overall.

Incumbent-on-incumbent

In addition to the primary challenges, many Republicans face the prospect of facing a colleague because of redistricting. This becomes a feedback loop of increasingly maximalist positions:  [cont’d.]

Walden, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) deputy chairman, pointed to races in Illinois and California as setting up particular challenges for the GOP.

In Illinois, Reps. Joe Walsh and Randy Hultgren might square off, while a preliminary map in California would pit Rep. Buck McKeon against Rep. Elton Gallegly and Rep. John Campbell against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

Members looking to portray themselves as tough on spending aren’t likely to want to cast votes in favor of raising the debt ceiling no matter what deal on spending cuts is worked out by the White House and GOP leaders in conjunction.

This takes every incumbent with a tough intra-incumbent challenge off the table for a deal.

Tax Cut Religion

Here’s how Paul Ryan responded to the Brooks piece, saying that his party cannot give up on tax loopholes now because they need them in order to finance more tax cuts later:

RYAN: What happens if you do what he’s saying, is then you can’t lower tax rates. So it does affect marginal tax rates. In order to lower marginal tax rates, you have to take away those loopholes so you can lower those tax rates. If you want to do what we call being revenue neutral … If you take a deal like that, you’re necessarily requiring tax rates to be higher for everybody. You need lower tax rates by going after tax loopholes. If you take away the tax loopholes without lowering tax rates, then you deny Congress the ability to lower everybody’s tax rates and you keep people’s tax rates high.

This is just nonsense, but it speaks to the religious fervor over tax cuts which has taken over anything else of consequence in the modern Republican Party. It also speaks to how learned behavior works. Republicans used the threat of a government shutdown to get a first round of cuts in the 2011 appropriations deal. They’re using the debt limit for the second round. They know they need to protect some other thing that Democrats want, like the cancellation of tax loopholes, in order to further future goals. This is government by extortion, and so far it’s working for them.

But I think the most plausible explanation is that they will take the deal, it’ll just take a few weeks for the members needed to pass it to get used to the idea. And when they take the deal, they’ll have won a great victory for their side.

CommunityThe Bullpen

Possible Explanations for Republicans Not Taking Sweetheart Debt Limit Deal

We know that Republicans are, to this point, looking a gift horse in the mouth by not yet taking an extremely favorable deal on the debt limit that would transform government and usher in radical austerity in exchange for a few measly closures of tax loopholes. It could be that they’re simply being tough negotiators by holding out until, they expect, Democrats just fold on everything. That’s certainly a possibility. But there are some other options:

The primary threat

In the same edition of the NYT as David Brooks’ desperate cry to the GOP not to reject the great deal they’ve been offered, Jennifer Steinhauer reports on potential primary challenges for any of the Republicans who evince the slightest compromise. This, we can see, may be pushing some lawmakers into a maximalist position:

“I am taking a serious look,” said Weston Wamp, who is pondering a primary challenge to Representative Chuck Fleischmann, in his first term from Tennessee. Mr. Wamp said he was inspired by his father, Zach, who served in the House for many years. “My experience through my dad was seeing the very best of what public service can mean.”

It is miles to go before the 2012 Congressional races begin in earnest, but already some of the 87 freshmen who helped the Republicans win back the House last year are bracing for a challenge from within the party. At least half a dozen potential primary challengers to freshmen are considering a run, and there is heated chatter about more.

In some ways, the freshmen are responsible for their own predicament. Many won their seats after successfully challenging establishment Republicans in primaries, proving that a combination of gumption and the right political climate could overcome the advantages of incumbency.

Now, to some of the impatient and ideological voters who sent them to Washington to change things, the new House members may be seen as the establishment, and they face the disconcerting prospect of immediately defending themselves in the political marketplace.

Obviously, these freshmen don’t want to give a potential opponent any reason to charge some betrayal of conservative ideology. This speaks to the Iron Law of Institutions, where one’s relative position in the institutions matters more than the position of the institution overall.

Incumbent-on-incumbent

In addition to the primary challenges, many Republicans face the prospect of facing a colleague because of redistricting. This becomes a feedback loop of increasingly maximalist positions:

Walden, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) deputy chairman, pointed to races in Illinois and California as setting up particular challenges for the GOP.

In Illinois, Reps. Joe Walsh and Randy Hultgren might square off, while a preliminary map in California would pit Rep. Buck McKeon against Rep. Elton Gallegly and Rep. John Campbell against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.

Members looking to portray themselves as tough on spending aren’t likely to want to cast votes in favor of raising the debt ceiling no matter what deal on spending cuts is worked out by the White House and GOP leaders in conjunction.

This takes every incumbent with a tough intra-incumbent challenge off the table for a deal.

Tax Cut Religion

Here’s how Paul Ryan responded to the Brooks piece, saying that his party cannot give up on tax loopholes now because they need them in order to finance more tax cuts later:

RYAN: What happens if you do what he’s saying, is then you can’t lower tax rates. So it does affect marginal tax rates. In order to lower marginal tax rates, you have to take away those loopholes so you can lower those tax rates. If you want to do what we call being revenue neutral … If you take a deal like that, you’re necessarily requiring tax rates to be higher for everybody. You need lower tax rates by going after tax loopholes. If you take away the tax loopholes without lowering tax rates, then you deny Congress the ability to lower everybody’s tax rates and you keep people’s tax rates high.

This is just nonsense, but it speaks to the religious fervor over tax cuts which has taken over anything else of consequence in the modern Republican Party. It also speaks to how learned behavior works. Republicans used the threat of a government shutdown to get a first round of cuts in the 2011 appropriations deal. They’re using the debt limit for the second round. They know they need to protect some other thing that Democrats want, like the cancellation of tax loopholes, in order to further future goals. This is government by extortion, and so far it’s working for them.

But I think the most plausible explanation is that they will take the deal, it’ll just take a few weeks for the members needed to pass it to get used to the idea. And when they take the deal, they’ll have won a great victory for their side.

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David Dayen

David Dayen