Before President Obama's surprise announcement that he was capitulating to the Castro brothers and reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba, all the talk in Washington this week was focused on the government funding bill. Should conservatives in the House and Senate have supported it? Did John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy and their leadership team give away too much? Did they deceive Congressmen Marlin Stutzman and Kerry Bentivolio in order to get their support for the crucial rules vote? Did Senator Ted Cruz make a rookie mistake in the Senate by upending the timing deal that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had worked out with outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid? Did that have the unintended consequence of allowing more Obama appointees to the federal bench, the Surgeon General, and elsewhere than would have been the case otherwise? Did the twenty-four Republican Senators who voted for final passage of the bill betray their conservative base?
Some of those could be expected to follow McConnell's lead. But what about independent, thoughtful-minded Senators like John Thune and Pat Toomey?
Those were the questions swirling around Washington last week — and they're almost all the wrong questions, because they're focused on the wrong things. If the vote was just about whether the government funding bill that went by the appropriately unwieldy name of Crominbus (and was sarcastically twisted into crumnibus and cramnibus by some), then the bill probably had more bad stuff in it than good stuff — although there was a lot of good stuff that many of my conservative friends preferred to ignore. As Senator Toomey said on the Chris Stigall Show (the top-rated conservative talk show in Philadelphia), "with respect to Obamacare: this bill prevents a taxpayer bailout of the insurance companies. I think that's a big deal. Under current law, taxpayers have to bail out insurance companies if they lose money on the exchanges…It exempts several hundred thousand Americans altogether from Obamacare, which is a big important concession the Democrats are making. It forbids transferring of prisoners out of Gitmo…it cuts the IRS budget. It puts another year moratorium on taxing access to the internet. Keep in mind, in the alternative, if we had just done a CR (continuing resolution), none of those things would have happened."
Those are not insignificant items, but they came at a high cost.
But I think that even Senator Toomey's recitation of good items in the bill misses the larger point — that the process that produced this bill is so profoundly flawed that our focus should be on that process, not just this bill. If the Congress had instead voted for a very simple and clean continuing resolution that merely funded the government at existing levels for a few months into the New Year, and then renegotiated with a new Republican Senate how to fund the rest of the year, which is the position that I originally supported, what would have happened? I concluded that I and most others were not looking far enough into the future on the Congressional chessboard. Had that proposal prevailed instead of the messy Cromnibus, the new Congress and especially the Senate would be right back at the same fight in the new year — with all the same brinksmanship on both sides about government shutdowns back in play. The process wouldn't look any less dysfunctional or any more responsive to the will of the American people. The storyline that would soon emerge is that nothing much had changed. Republican control of both Houses of Congress wasn't any better than having them at partisan loggerheads. Mitch McConnell would be seen as no more able to make the Senate work the way the Founders intended than Harry Reid.
Instead, by accepting the atrocity that was the Cromnibus bill, that's now all out of the way. The decks are cleared. What Senate watchers call Regular Order can be restored. The Senators can debate, amend and eventually pass a budget and the associated appropriation bills. They can publish these bills well in advance of taking final votes on them, so that the hidden goodies for lobbyists can be exposed or, better yet, avoided in the first place because they wouldn't survive open scrutiny. They can work out differences between Senate and House versions of bills with properly functioning conference committees. The American people can see a legislative body functioning closer to the way the Framers of the Constitution intended rather than the circus we've grown accustomed to. In short, Senator McConnell will have the opportunity to show that his leadership can restore the institution that was once called the world's greatest deliberative body. It's a risk worth taking, even when the price is a pork-laden abomination of a government funding bill. But all of this depends upon McConnell's leadership. We should give him the chance to show that he can do it.
# # #