Paul Ryan’s Bad Idea
Speaker Paul Ryan and his House Republican conference have some really good ideas about how to bring the system of checks and balances back to its regular equilibrium. For example: stop relying on omnibus measures to fund the federal government; pass more authorization bills, which keep executive-branch agencies accountable to the legislature; expedite lawsuits against the executive branch so the Supreme Court can consider them sooner; write bills in unambiguous terms so the executive branch cannot take advantage of loopholes; and give inspectors general more power to collect the information they need to conduct their investigations.
Unfortunately, they also recycle an idea that is so awful and destructive that it led to a three-week government shutdown in 2013 and nearly closed the Department of Homeland Security last year—tying the appropriations and budget process to the Republican legislative platform through “funding prohibitions, such as riders.” “Used strategically,” the report claims, “these mechanisms can advance Congress’s intent and reinforce its power of the purse.”
Translation: we should rely on a legislative tactic that has failed multiple times in the past and will likely fail in the future.
Republicans in the House don’t appear to have learned anything from their mistakes over the past three years. The three-week shutdown of the federal government over Obamacare, in which Republicans sought to defund the program in exchange for keeping the government open, resulted in a cataclysmic closing of doors, a loss of $24 billion in the U.S. economy, and public-opinion polls that overwhelmingly blamed the GOP for putting ideology above good governance. The shutdown caused such angst around the country and such bad PR for Republicans on Capitol Hill that they eventually had to backtrack and settle for something far less than what they were hoping to accomplish: a temporary resolution that kept Obamacare in place but tightened the rules.
Fast-forward to February 2015. Congressional Republicans tried the very same strategy, threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security unless Obama’s executive actions on immigration were defunded. Republicans instead saw the same old movie again: the GOP backed down after repeated Democratic filibusters and settled for a clean DHS appropriations bill.
Seven months later, House conservatives sought to mimic Ted Cruz’s Obamacare shutdown strategy on Planned Parenthood—an organization that pro-life conservatives despise with a passion. Twenty-eight House Republicans signed a letter addressed to the Republican leadership outlining their opposition to any government funding bill that included revenue for the organization. Sensing the futility of causing yet another government shutdown—a shutdown that would likely decrease the GOP’s approval ratings further—then-Speaker John Boehner fought the move and reached out to House Democrats to push a temporary funding measure through his chamber. Yet again, tying ideological riders to appropriations failed to result in anything significant.
The latest example of an unproductive rider occurred just this past April, when Sen. Tom Cotton tried to attach an amendment to the water-and-energy bill that would have prohibited the Obama administration from buying excess heavy water from the Iranians through yet another defunding measure. Instead of succeeding in that goal, however, Cotton’s amendment did nothing but unnecessarily increase the amount of time that the Senate had to spend on a bill that is normally uncontroversial and bipartisan. After two additional weeks of partisan bickering between Republicans and Democrats, Cotton’s amendment was eventually killed in the chamber with the assistance of Sen. Lamar Alexander.
When taken together, all of this recent history leads to one inescapable conclusion: attaching riders to spending bills, as Speaker Ryan has advocated in his report, isn’t a good strategy for Republicans. Indeed, the practice has produced nothing but infighting in the GOP caucus, a dwindling approval rating for Republicans in the eyes of the American people, and public embarrassment for the members of Congress who drew up the scheme in the first place. Without fail, these very same members had to backtrack and agree to solutions that were available long before they resorted to time-wasting and generally unsuccessful tactics.
And if using a rider to extract concessions was unsuccessful during midterm and non-election years, it’s difficult to see how the practice would be any more useful during one of the rhetorically bloody presidential election cycles in recent memory.
Daniel R. DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm, and a freelance researcher. He has also written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal, and the Diplomat.