In what passes for political humor these days, Nancy Pelosi has ridiculed the GOP as the “REPEALicans.” She did so in response to the House Republicans’ fortieth vote to repeal ObamaCare, while at the same time not getting much else done. Speaker John Boehner defended his party’s record by saying that Congress “ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”In this, the Speaker is absolutely correct; after all, if we want a smaller government, some laws at least will have to be repealed.

However, judged by this standard, Boehner’s Congress is even less successful: they have repealed exactly zero laws. The truth is that repealing laws requires even more legislative skill and cohesion than passing them. In a democracy, by definition, every law on the books has a constituency, and these days that is likely to be a well-funded corporate constituency. Repealing such laws would require both a strong leading ideology and strong leadership; the Republican Party has neither.

This is not to suggest some flaw in John Boehner; rather, the flaw is in the way the House Republicans have defined the Speakership. They have required that their “leader” abide by the “Hastert Rule,” which states that no legislation can be brought up for a vote unless it has the support of the majority of the Republican members. This means that even bills that would easily pass with a majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans cannot be allowed to reach the floor for a vote; a majority of the majority—that is to say, a minority—controls all legislation. This means that Boehner no longer speaks for the House, but only for a faction within his party; He is no longer the Speaker of the House, but merely the Mouthpiece of a Caucus.

To be sure, the Speaker has violated the Hastert Rule on four occasions, especially when dealing with bills whose failure to come to the floor would make the Party look ridiculous, bills like the Hurricane Sandy Relief measure that lead to the spate with Governor Christie. But in order to insure his re-election as Speaker, Boehner had to promise not to do that again, at least not on anything important and particularly not on the critically important immigration bill. Thus, the Speaker had to promise to speak only when spoken thru.

Hence, Mr. Boehner doesn’t get much respect, not because he isn’t a respectable gentleman and a cagey leader, but because his office has been stripped of all dignity. A speaker who can’t defy his own party, and particularly a faction within that party, can’t be much of a leader and no one need pay him too much respect; he is not in control. But that brings in the question, “Who is in control?”

Here’s where things get murky, since the Party itself is in turmoil. Since its humiliating defeat at the hands of a weak President at a time of economic uncertainty—a time that should favor the “out” party—the Party has dissolved into a set of warring factions, each on a hunt for RINOs—meaning those not in the faction. The result has been a circular firing squad in which nobody has the rule and everybody has a veto. The factions run from the “shut it down now!” group, usually members from safe districts; to Rand Paul Populists, who oppose crony capitalism but haven’t figured out what to do about it; to the neo-neocons, who will do whatever it takes to take power. There is little basis for cooperation among these groups.Washington likes to talk about “bi-partisanship” as the ultimate good, and how the Republicans are therefore the ultimate bad. But the problem with the Republicans is not that they can’t work with the Democrats, but that they can’t work with each other, and hence no work gets done, either to pass or to repeal laws.

Without a legislative agenda they cannot craft a political agenda (and vice-versa.) Hence they enter the election cycle strident in their opposition but with nothing practical to propose, beyond yet another round of tax cuts that benefit a small group and budget cuts that disadvantage large groups. This is not normally a formula for success. So does this mean that the Party faces the same prospects in 2016 that it did in 2012?

We do well to recall that as late as 2006, Karl Rove, the Republican master strategist and calculator, was speaking about building a “permanent (or at least “durable”) Republican majority.” Rove had built a solid, and seemingly unstoppable, political and fund-raising machine. Not only that, but his party was in a position to punish donors who tried to hedge their bets and play both sides; not only were the Republicans fat, but the Democrats were being starved (well, relatively, anyway).  Then came the Great Recession, and the whole house of cards collapsed.  Rove, the great vote-counter, had not counted on the most obvious fact of American political and economic life, the Business Cycle.

Since World War II, the American economy has experienced a recession on average of every six years. This is actually an improvement on the pre-war period, when from 1853 to 1942, the cycle was only four years long. But pre- or post-war, the business cycle remains and no one knows how to tame it. And those who do not count on it get crushed by it. Sometimes the cycle is as short as two years, and once it was as long as ten. But there is always The Cycle.

The Great Recession began late 2007, and if we count forward six years we get to “We’re about due.” And in the normal course of events, it is the President’s party that takes the blame for the recession and normal for that party to suffer at the polls. The inevitable recession works in favor of the outs and helps to account for the rhythms of American politics. It would perhaps be unfair to say that the Republicans are hoping for a recession. Nevertheless, it is the natural for the minority party to play the role of Chicken Little, and if they shout, “The sky is falling” long enough, they will sooner or later be right. And they are likely to be right sometime between now and the 2016, or even 2014 elections.

Ronald Reagan and George Bush were able to keep the cycle going for 10 years, but only thru an expansionist policy that, with the help of a compliant congress, tripled the Federal debt in the largest peace time build-up in our history. But Obama does not have a compliant congress, but one determined to impose an austerity budget, just like Greece. Perhaps some are thinking that the more the country looks like Greece, the better the Party’s chances. And Obama, in another of his “brilliant” negotiating ploys, agreed to give the Republicans everything they asked for if only they would shut-up about the debt ceiling for a few months, the precise months when the last election would be held. Now the time has run out and the sequester is in, and the Republicans feel no pressure to do anything about it. Plus, they get to renegotiate the debt-ceiling yet again with someone who has shown no talent for negotiation, neither with Putin nor with Boehner.

Chicken Little notwithstanding, the sky doesn’t really fall; it just gets a darker. But that can be dark indeed, especially for some people. Given the fact that there was no real recovery from the last recession, or at best a very anemic one, a recession in the short-term could be devastating, especiallyfor the 16 million or so who are still unemployed or have dropped out of the workforce. For them at least, a second recession would be a depression. And maybe even for a wider group; this could be Chicken Little’s best day since 1929.

The Democrats seem to be caught in a trap. Even if they had a plan, they could not implement it. They can only hope that either the recession will be postponed or that the public will not hold them accountable. The former seems a fond hope at best. But have they any hope for the latter? The question is, “Which Party will the public hold responsible?” Note that the question is not, “Which Party is responsible?” Whether blame for the business cycle can be assigned to one party or to anybody in particular is not the issue; the issue is one of public perception. Public perception revolves around which account of the crisis the public is likely to believe. Normally, the most plausible account is that the Party in power is responsible, but in an era of divided government, this is no longer clear.

The problem is not that this is a “do-nothing” congress; that might actually be an improvement. The problem is that they are seen to be bunch of do-nothings. As such, they run the risk of “Truman-izing” themselves. In 1948, President Truman was running for re-election in the midst of a recession. The Republicans had taken control of the House and Senate in 1946, and Dewey seemed to be a shoe-in for the presidency. But in July, Truman called the Congress into special session, sent them a bunch of bills they couldn’t pass, and then ran against the “do-nothing congress.” Along the way to re-election, he collected the greatest political souvenir ever, the “Dewey Beats Truman” headline In the Chicago Tribune.

It didn’t have to be that way; the Republicans could have turned the tables on Truman by passing their own economic agenda and sending it to the White House. Then Truman would have been in the position of vetoing it all, creating the plausible story that he was delaying the recovery. In this way, perhaps, they could have made an honest paper out of the Tribune.

To build a plausible story, the GOP needs a plausible agenda. But lacking a ruling ideology, they cannot devise a legislative agenda; voting forty times to repeal ObamaCare is not actually an agenda, and the whole thing has long since passed the point of grand-standing to become political comedy. What they might have done, and what they can still do, is pass 40 amendments to the Affordable Care Act laying out their own plan. The House could pass the laws now that they intend to pass when they come to power; they can repeal the  laws now that they feel must repealed. They can let the country know what their agenda is in specific legislative terms.  True, the Senate would defeat all such bills or the President would veto them, but then the onus would be on the Democrats. As it is, the Republicans are giving the impression that they just don’t care about the uninsured, or high medical costs, or indeed about anything; they may merely convince everybody that they really don’t have a plan, or at least not one they are willing to share with the public.

If the Republicans are relying on a failure for Obama’s policies, they may find themselves blamed for those failures. And if they pass nothing positive, they run the danger of validating the parody of them as “REPEALicans.” They have a great opportunity state their positions legislatively and change the game in their favor. But once again, they seem determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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John Médaille
John Médaille is a businessman in Irving, Texas, and also an Instructor in Theology at the University of Dallas, where he teaches a unique course on the Social Encyclicals for Business Students. He is the father of five, grandfather of two, and husband of one. He is the author of The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace and is finishing up another book, Equity and Equilibrium: The Political Economy of Distributism. John also blogs at The Distributist Review.


  1. This article (and your last one) are pretty good analyses. So what have you done with the real John Médaille who used to write here in olden times?

    Anyhow, to add to your last paragraph, one of stupidest ideas circulating among Republicans these days is to let Affordable Care go into effect, and when people find out how unaffordable and unworkable it is, they will vote for Republicans, who then can repeal it.

    With smarts like that, I don’t know how these people could win re-election for village dogcatcher.

    It’s always the job of Republicans to take the blame, whether they do the right thing or the wrong thing. It’s their ordained role in life. But if they let ObamaCare go into effect, it shows they really don’t care what it does to the American people — they only care about winning elections. Democrats will taunt them by saying if it’s so bad, why didn’t they do something about it when they had a chance. And they will be right to do so. Republicans will have undercut any moral standing they have to repeal it. They will own ObamaCare at that point.

    Besides, if they can’t stand the heat for defunding it now when they are desperate, they won’t be able to stand the heat when they are fat and lazy from being in control.

    Another problem, though, is that although some Republicans have offered alternative reform measures (until they were savaged by the left for doing so) there is a too-large Republican constituency that thinks the status quo ante-ObamaCare is fine. More idiots.

  2. Ultimately – I think the biggest difference between the Democratic and Republican party right now (as far as effectiveness defined as winning elections and moving legislation) is simply that the Democratic Party manages to keep its coalition of supporters together more often. The Republican Party splinters so easily that even when they have the raw numbers to get things done – they don’t get things done.

    But who knows how if the current state of affairs will last? Parties in power tend to sow the seeds of their own defeat. The Republican Party may very well regain power in the next couple of election cycles by defaults – enough of the electorate may reject the Democratic Party that it hands the reins over to the Republicans. Remember, what exactly were the Democrats offering in 2006 and 2008 that was so compelling? Nothing really – except that they weren’t Republicans. And for those election cycles, that was enough.

    The problem, however, isn’t which party is in power in any given moment. It’s that neither one has all that much to offer.

  3. The problem the GOP has right now is that they have a very little bit of power. If they had more power, the DC Establishment wing of the party would be able to steamroll the Tea Party wing. If they had NO power, the two could fight it out to see who will prevail going forward, with neither side having anything to lose. As it is, each side fears losing the little bit of power they currently have, and hopes to position themselves to profit should the party gain more, so they’re warily eying each other and trying not to do anything too risky (meaning anything ambitious).

    As worthless as the GOP is, and as vile as the Democrat party is, the media is the group who is most deserving of contempt for what passes for our government these days. The only reason to hold out any hope for a GOP presidency is that the media might actually pretend to push back against the imperial presidency again, like they did in the distant old days, pre-2009.

  4. “But who knows how if the current state of affairs will last? Parties in power tend to sow the seeds of their own defeat”

    If ObamaCare prevails, it won’t matter. The Dems may need to conduct a minor cleaning up operation, but we’ll be a one-party state. We’re pretty close to it already, with most Republicans existing only at the sufferance of Dems/media/celebrities.

  5. We’ve been a one-party state for some time now; that party just has two branches, mostly for the entertainment and distraction values. The Republicans under Rove, (Bush’s brain) thought they would be the dominant faction, until we hit a bump. We are about to hit another bump. It won’t be pretty.

  6. You guys are discussing the scenario of the coming breakdown. You can’t stop it or change it. Maybe it’s best to just fortify yourselves on some nutritious wendellberry pie. It won’t cure what ails me but it will help me hold on.

  7. Good analysis John. We may have passed the era when anything approaching major reform (on pretty much any issue) is possible. The House of Representatives will likely be controlled by the Republicans for the next half century (at the least). The Senate will flip back and forth between Republican and Democratic control based on the waves of public sentiment. Where the Democrats may have an advantage is with the Presidency and we may be in an era similar to the late-19th century when the Republicans had a similar grip on the White House. A split Congress, which over the past four years has led to an inactive Congress. Power abhors a vacuum and the Obama Administration has used this as an opportunity to promote a number of policies. Where I think you are absolutely right John–and Mitch McConnell’s stated strategy of making Obama a one-term President played into it–is that in plotting Obama’s demise, the Republicans have not come forward with realistic policy initiatives in response to the President’s program, so everything has been reduced to a zero-sum game. I think the other angle is that there is something in the “goody bag” for everyone across the spectrum these days in terms of either government programs or tax advantages which has made change extremely difficult. Those who benefit from direct expenditures cry foul (usually from the left) when programs are cut and those who benefit from tax expenditures holler (usually from the right) when a tax advantage is put under the microscope. Seems there is a lobbyist for just about everything that makes that clear to Congress.

  8. Excellent and entertaining analysis. The repeated repeal votes remind me of the old Saturday Night Live routine “Francisco Franco’s condition remains stable — he’s still dead.”

    Between October 1 and Dec 31 I’m going to be able to sign up for some sort of health insurance for the first time since July 2009, so you won’t find me voting for anyone who wants to repeal it. Here’s a few amendments I would like to see:

    1) Provide an option through the exchanges for policies with a $5000 deductible, low premiums ($100 – $200 a month) and a Health Savings Account (the kind that your money rolls over year to year). Not sure I can afford to put the maximum $2900 into it every year, but I’ll take care of the small stuff, and if I have a massive heart attack, I’ll be covered. I don’t want to have to fight with insurance companies for months over what fraction of what I did or didn’t pay does or doesn’t count toward which deductible or other.

    2) Replace the requirement for all businesses with 50 or more employees to cover their workers with 50 FTE’s, i.e. 2000 hours a week on the payroll.

    3) Replace the zero-sum game of only full time employees get health coverage with 10 hours a week, the employer pays 25%, 20 hours, 50%, 30 hours, 75%. Anyone working less than forty hours will be eligible for something on the exchanges, and this way employers will reduce the expense to taxpayers.

    4) Require hospitals, medical delivery chains and insurance companies to accept and cover patients of doctors in solo general or family practice out in the neighborhoods, rather than limiting such vital connections for patients to see specialists and get hospital care to physicians who pile into the big office buildings next door to the hospitals. (When I had a doctor, I picked someone with a standalone practice in a one-story building I could ride my bike to. When the building needed repairs, turned out the practice was owned by Aurora, and since they didn’t want to fix the building, they moved him to the big office building.)

    5) Allow state insurance commissioners to maintain actions on behalf of residents of a state against shady insurance company practices — which I discovered requires an amendment to the ERISA laws in order to remove federal pre-emption.

    Those would be a good start. Where are we going to find the Republicans who will carry these forward?

    • If the only cost was to destroy our health care system and/or economy, ObamaCare might be worth it if it enabled more people to have health care insurance. But so far nobody has figured out how to keep it from destroying communities, creating new and destructive social pathologies, and enlarging the police state. If Republicans could figure out how to reform those parts of it, they could make themselves worth having.

  9. But so far nobody has figured out how to keep it from destroying communities, creating new and destructive social pathologies, and enlarging the police state.

    Oh? How will it do any of those things? Sounds like an axiom in search of a proof to me.

  10. Like others, I want to say that I am quite impressed with JM’s sociopolitical analyses these days. I don’t always agree, but they are very insightful and thought-provoking. Please keep it up!

  11. Am I wrong to suggest that the most valuable contribution to this discussion has been “wendellberry pie”? It’s almost shocking not to have read such a clever thing before.

  12. Howdy.
    It is, as usual, quite refreshing to read a bunch of thoughtful stuff from thoughtful Conservatives. Indeed, this is the only place where I don’t put conservative in quotes.
    I flog your site to my “conservative” acquaintances, but reason, it seems, is no match for Koolaide and Hysteria.
    Please keep up the good work, I look forward to your brand of Reasonable Conservatism returning to the fore.
    Thanks, Josef.

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