When congressional insiders say John Boehner could lose his speakership if he moves to end the confrontations over the federal budget and debt ceiling, it provokes an obvious question: How could he tell?
Embattled throughout his nearly three-year tenure, Boehner has never seemed more a SINO—that's Speaker In Name Only—than during this crisis. He's allowed the House Republicans' most conservative members to repeatedly escalate the confrontation despite his doubts about their strategy, if that word applies. At times lately, Boehner has hinted he might isolate the Right by building a coalition of Democrats and more pragmatic Republicans before allowing the federal government to default on its debts. But, so far, he's effectively thrown up his hands and surrendered the wheel to the Right's insatiable demand for collision.
It's another question whether anyone else could have done better at taming the unruly passion of the tea-party-allied caucus in both chambers that has goaded the GOP into this brawl. One lesson of the grueling standoff, as I noted recently, is that when Congress devolves into perpetual conflict, each party's more militant voices gain influence at the expense of its deal-makers.
That dynamic is evident in a Democratic Party that has coalesced around a hard-line, no-negotiations strategy meant to lastingly delegitimize threats of government shutdown or default as a lever for exacting policy concessions. "We have to break the cycle of this, and it has to happen now," insists one senior White House aide.
But the shift of power from the center to the fringe has been most vivid in a Republican Party that precipitated this clash. Although Boehner's hapless performance surely has ironfisted predecessors like Joe Cannon and Sam Rayburn spinning, it's not as if Senate Republican leaders, despite their own abundant doubts, have more successfully controlled the most belligerent voices in their own ranks.
The reason the most confrontational congressional Republicans have seized the party's controls is that they are most directly channeling the bottomless alienation coursing through much of the GOP's base. That doesn't mean Republican voters have broadly endorsed the party's specific tactics: In this week's United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, even GOP voters split fairly closely on the wisdom of seeking concessions on President Obama's health care law through the debt and spending showdowns (while almost every other group preponderantly opposed that idea).
But the kamikaze caucus, by seeking to block the president by any means necessary, is reflecting the back-to-the wall desperation evident among grassroots Republicans convinced that Obama and his urbanized, racially diverse supporters are transforming America into something unrecognizable. Although those voters are split over whether the current tactics will work, they are united in resisting any accommodation with Obama.
Veteran Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who has studied the two parties' coalitions since the 1980s, recently conducted several focus groups with GOP voters that probed this passion. He concluded that the roaring sense of embattlement among the almost all-white tea party and evangelical Christian voters central to the GOP base draws on intertwined ideological, electoral, and racial fears.
These core conservative voters, Greenberg wrote recently, fear "that big government is meant to create rights and dependency and electoral support from mostly minorities who will reward the Democratic Party with their votes." Much like Mitt Romney's musings about the 47 percent, these voters see an ominous cycle of Democrats promising benefits "to increase dependency" among mostly minority voters who empower them to win elections and then provide yet more benefits (like a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally). Obama's health care law looms to them as the tipping point toward a permanent Democratic advantage built on dependency and demographic change.
Greenberg's analysis echoes the findings of other scholars, such as Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, whose studies have concluded that the tea party's most ardent priority is reducing government transfer payments to those it considers undeserving. Earlier United Technologies/NJ Congressional Connection polling has found that the older and noncollege whites now central to the GOP coalition mostly see health care reform as a program that will benefit the poor rather than people like them (though, in fact, many working-class whites lack insurance).
House GOP leaders flailing for an exit strategy this week are again suggesting broad negotiations that will constrain entitlement programs such as Medicare. But our latest polling shows older and downscale whites overwhelmingly resist changes in Medicare or Social Security, which they consider benefits they have earned—and pointedly distinguish from transfer programs.
Those findings suggest that the real fight under way isn't primarily about the size of government but rather who benefits from it. The frenzied push from House Republicans to derail Obamacare, shelve immigration reform, and slash food stamps all point toward a steadily escalating confrontation between a Republican coalition revolving around older whites and a Democratic coalition anchored on the burgeoning population of younger nonwhites. Unless the former recognizes its self-interest in uplifting the latter—the future workforce that will fund entitlements for the elderly—even today's titanic budget battle may be remembered as only an early skirmish in a generation-long siege between the brown and the gray.
This article appears in the October 12, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Angry and Afraid. Get more National Journal here:
I am on record advocating two seemingly incongruous positions. First, President Obama can't capitulate to GOP demands to unwind the Affordable Care Act (read here). Second, his position against negotiating with Republicans is politically unsustainable (read here).
Let me unpack both conclusions.
Obama can't cave: You can argue that Obamacare is bad for the country (disclosure: I'm ambivalent. While its goals are admirable, I doubt the government can implement such a complex law). You can criticize the president's no-compromise posture in 2010 that resulted in a partisan law. And you certainly can charge the White House with political malpractice for failing to grow support for the measure over three years. But you can't expect Obama to abandon his signature achievement, which is essentially what the Republicans are demanding.
First, it would be bad politics. For good reasons, Obama's liberal backers already question his resolve. His caving on health care might be their last straw. Second, a capitulation of this magnitude over the debt ceiling would set a poor precedent. It would give minority parties too much power. Republicans should consider the long-term consequences of their actions. What if a Republican president gets elected in 2016 and enacts historic tax reform? A Democratic minority could threaten to ruin the nation's credit unless the president repeals the tax package.
This crisis was engineered by Republicans (as shown by the New York Times story here), and thus voters are likely to direct most of the blame to the GOP. Republican leaders misled their most loyal supporters by promising to overturn Obamacare this month. It was never going to happen.
Obama must negotiate: Obama has at least two incentives to talk. First, there is the matter of optics. Voters want to believe that their leaders are open-minded, a trait they particularly expect in a president who promised to change the culture of Washington. Obama simply undermines his credibility by stiff-arming the GOP. Their obstinacy is no excuse for his. During the last protracted government shutdown, President Clinton talked almost every day with GOP rivals Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole.
Second, Obama has an opportunity to deftly steer an embattled and divided GOP away from Obamacare and to an issue worthy of high-stakes negotiations: The nation's long-term budget crisis. While it's true that the deficit has dropped in recent months, nothing has been done to secure Social Security and Medicare beyond the next 10 years. Punting this red-ink quandary to the next president would mar Obama's legacy.
In April, I wrote that both the White House and the GOP House had incentive to strike a deal that would both raise taxes and trim entitlement spending. The story traced the outlines of such a deal, but the moment was lost. Boehner doesn't trust Obama and is worried about a revolt from his no-compromise caucus. Obama doesn't trust Boehner and is worried about a revolt from his no-compromise caucus. The House speaker reportedly raised the idea of a so-called grand bargain at a White House meeting last week, and got laughed at. That is the exact wrong response.
If Obama is going to blink, it should not be over Obamacare. On government debt, however, a little humility and risk in the short-term might earn Obama the nation's gratitude for generations.
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The federal government shutdown is already affecting contractors and threatens to dampen private-sector employment, at least in the near-term, industry officials say.
Twenty-nine percent of contractors say a shutdown would cause them to delay planned hiring, and 58% said it would have a negative effect on their businesses, according to a survey of 925 contractors this week by the National Association of Government Contractors.
One Federal Solution, which provides information technology, health care and training services to various government agencies has furloughed 107 of its 115 employees because federal officials said they're non-essential, says CEO Abdul Baytops.
"We're concerned about employees losing faith" in the company "even though we have no control over it," Abdul says.
Advanced Systems Development, an information technology contractor, already has furloughed an employee who sets up computer networks for the Environmental Protection Agency because federal workers weren't available to approve new funding for the project, says company Chief Financial Officer Mary Lou Patel.
Daniel Stohr, spokesman for the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents defense contractors, says, "We've already seen meetings (between contractors and Defense Department officials) that have been canceled."
Such cancellations could delay work on ongoing projects, such as new weapons systems or information-technology maintenance, Stohr says. Defense contract workers also could be temporarily laid off because the federal employees who supervise them are on furlough or managers aren't available to move ahead with new equipment purchases, according to the aerospace group.
Besides the Washington, D.C., metro area, states with high concentrations of both federal and contract workers include Hawaii, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Georgia, according to Moody's Analytics.
If the shutdown lasts a week or longer, as many as 250,000 to 300,000 contract workers could be affected in some way, says Fernando Galaviz, chairman of the National Federal Contractors Association. "A week would be like a bad headache," he says. "If it's more than two weeks, they can expect a lot of negative impact."
Galaviz says his members are mostly small businesses that handle tasks such as computer network administration, facilities management and research. "If we have 20 people on a network help desk, (a federal department) may reduce that to 12," he says.
Construction companies that build courthouses, dredge rivers and renovate U.S. park facilities also would be hurt, according to Associated General Contractors, a trade group. Projects could be delayed because government supervisors aren't on job sites to answer critical questions or approve changes, says AGC spokesman Brian Turmail.
Several thousand construction workers could be affected if the shutdown lasts at least a week, he says.
Although most contract workers would be sidelined temporarily, the disruption comes at a pivotal period, with monthly job growth slowing to a pace of 148,000 the past three months from 224,000 the previous three months.
Concerns about a government shutdown have largely focused on the 710,000 to 770,000 non-essential federal workers who are being furloughed, according to estimates by JPMorgan and IHS Global Insight. Each week the government is partially closed would shave 0.12% to 0.16% off annualized economic growth in the fourth quarter, the firms project. But those estimates are based on the lost wages or output of federal employees.
A Moody's study that also examines the impact on contract workers and ripple effects across the economy estimates that a shutdown of even a few days would trim fourth-quarter growth by two-tenths of a percent.
Resolving the serial showdowns over the federal budget and debt ceiling may be more difficult now than during the last shutdown under Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich because so many more House Republicans today represent safely GOP districts, a National Journal analysis has found.
This suggests that even if a public backlash develops against a shutdown or potential government default, Republican members may be far more insulated against those gales than their counterparts were during the two shutdowns in the winter of 1995 and 1996. Today's GOP legislators, for the same reason, also may be less sensitive to shifts in public attitudes that could threaten their party's national image or standing in more closely contested parts of the country.
Comparing today's 232-seat Republican majority with the 236 seats Republicans ultimately held after special elections and party switches from 1995-96 underscores the extent to which GOP legislators have succeeded in fortifying themselves into homogeneously conservative districts. On every measure, Republicans today represent constituencies that lean more lopsidedly toward their party.
On average, Clinton in 1992 won 46.6 percent of the two-party presidential vote in the districts held by congressional Republicans during the 104th Congress from 1995-96. (That two-party calculation excludes the share carried by Ross Perot in his independent bid that year.) President Obama last year carried only an average of 40.4 percent of the two-party presidential vote in the districts held by the current Republican majority.
Back in 1995, 79 House Republicans represented districts that backed Clinton in the previous presidential election; just 17 House Republicans now represent districts that Obama won. Fewer Republicans now hold districts that fall into an even broader definition of competitiveness: In 1992, Republican President George H.W. Bush won 55 percent or less of the two-party presidential vote in 141 of the 236 House Republican districts. Now, only 71 House Republicans, roughly half as many, represent districts where 2012 nominee Mitt Romney won only 55 percent or less.
All of this means that the personal electoral incentives for most House Republicans would encourage more—not less—confrontation as the standoffs proceed, notes Gary C. Jacobson, an expert on Congress at the University of California (San Diego). "The electoral threat of them angering anybody outside of their base is pretty low," he says.
Pressure on Republicans to resolve the standoff without a sustained shutdown or default, he says, is less likely to come from fear of reprisal by voters than "institutional pressure" from the party's core financial supporters in business and the investment industry. "The people I expect to make a difference in this are the Republican finance and corporate types who will be very, very unhappy, and that segment of the Republican Party that is responsive to them will force the House to [relent]," he said. "I think that's the only way out of this."
The same trend toward more protected districts emerges from another measure of partisan competition, The Cook Political Report's Partisan Voting Index. That index uses presidential voting results to assess each congressional district's generic partisan strength relative to national trends.
In 1995, the average district held by House Republicans pointed to a GOP advantage of roughly 6.6 points on the Cook index. Now, that's increased by about two-thirds, with the average for House Republicans standing at a GOP advantage of 11.1.
Beyond those averages, the PVI data also show that the share of House Republicans in overwhelmingly safe districts has soared, while the portion in even marginally competitive seats has plummeted. In 1995, 12 House Republicans represented ruby-red districts whose index score leaned toward the GOP by at least 20 points; now 24 represent such districts. In 1995, 25 House Republicans represented districts with a Republican-leaning index score of at least 15; now 61 represent such districts.
Conversely, back then, more than two-fifths of the Republican caucus (105 members in all) represented at least somewhat competitive seats with a Republican-leaning index score of 5 points or less. Today only about one-fifth of Republicans (53 in all) represent districts so closely balanced.
The risk for the GOP is that such insulation will leave the House inured to potential damage to the party's overall image from any shutdown or default. Results over the past week from the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, a CBS/New York Times survey, and a CNN/ORC poll have consistently found that around three-fifths of adults oppose shutting down the government to pursue changes in the health care law, with some indications that number may be rising as the standoff proceeds.
Rep. David Price, D-N.C., a former political scientist, says that the proliferation of safe GOP seats means that even if Republicans receive most of the blame for a shutdown, as polls suggest, "in these individual districts maybe that's no problem; maybe it's actually to their electoral benefit." If there is an electoral cost for the GOP, he argues, it will come through alienating the swing voters they need to win statewide elections in closely contested states like North Carolina. "This may be just fine for individual Republicans in gerrymandered seats, but it isn't fine at all for [the party's] national ambitions," he said. Speaking of his home state of North Carolina, he added: "This certainly enhances the ability to flip [the ] governorship in 2016, and the same thing applies to the presidency."
But veteran GOP pollster Glen Bolger, in a blog post Monday, warned that his party may face the opposite risk of demobilizing their core supporters if they concede without exacting any concessions from Obama. "Republicans have to get something tangible from this, or the base will be devastated going into 2014," Bolger wrote. "That does not mean no compromise--last I looked, the Democrats control two-thirds of the power in D.C., so the GOP is not going to get everything it wants. But neither should the Democrats expect to get everything they want either."
David Wasserman and Ben Terris contributed to this article.
This article appears in the October 1, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.
Global warming is "unequivocal" and it is "extremely likely" that humans are the primary contributors to this warming, according to a report released Friday morning in Stockholm by the U.N.-created Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world's top climate research group.
"Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes," the report says.
The report says that it is now more certain than ever that "human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming" since the 1950s.
The report says that "each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850" and that in "the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012, was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years."
As for the supposed "pause" in global warming since 1998, the report says that this may be due to changing climate models and that a fuller understanding of this pattern requires further study.
"Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends," the report says.
The report says that it is "extremely likely" that more than half of the observed global warming from 1950 is caused by an increase in greenhouse gases emissions.
What was released this morning is a short "summary for policymakers" of the full 1,000-page report, which will be released Monday, Sept. 30.
The report is "the world's most rigorous and important scientific report in history," says meteorologist Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground, a private meteorology firm.
The IPCC "has put together an amazingly authoritative and comprehensive report on a subject crucial to the future of civilization, a report that will guide policymakers worldwide as they struggle to cope with the growing chaos generated by the great climate disruption that is already upon us," he says.
"There's now no denying that climate change is real and it's impacts are occurring faster and are worse than we could have predicted even six years ago," stated Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C.
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The report is based on research by hundreds of the world's top climate scientists. This one covers the physical science of climate change, and will be followed over the next 14 months by three more reports on climate change impacts, mitigation, along with a synthesis of the previous reports.
The IPCC releases reports every few years that synthesize the latest in peer-reviewed research. This is its fifth assessment and the first since 2007.
Following the report's release, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday: "The heat is on. Now we must act."