Legislative Politics

The House GOP and the Fiscal Cliff: Position-taking vs. Policy-making

Jan 3 '13

This post is co-authored with my colleague, Frances Lee, a veteran Congress-watcher making her Monkey Cage debut.

Some recent stories in the New York Times and Politico suggest that the reason House Republicans were reluctant to vote for the deal the Senate struck to avert the fiscal cliff was because they were concerned that it contained no provisions to reduce spending. As the Times’ Jonathan Weisman put it:

It was further proof that House Republicans are a new breed, less enamored of tax cuts per se than they are driven to shrink government through steep spending cuts. Protecting nearly 99 percent of the nation’s households from an income tax increase was not enough if taxes rose on some and government spending was untouched.

What Weisman and other accounts along these lines miss is that the House GOP nearly unanimously supported the Senate deal by making it possible for Congress to pass the legislation on such short notice. GOP Representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of the procedural rule to permit an up-or-down vote on the Senate deal. Republicans knew that the Senate deal would pass (largely on the strength of Democratic support) if it was permitted to come to a vote. Yet nearly every House Republican voted in favor of bringing it up. After that, most GOP Representatives then voted against final passage. But the final passage vote was, at that point, largely symbolic. When it really counted, the Senate package, which contained no spending cuts, had already been sufficient to win House Republican support.

Meanwhile, if spending cuts were a top priority for the House GOP, they might have won more concessions had they not undercut Speaker John Boehner’s bargaining leverage by refusing to support his proposed “Plan B.” Boehner’s plan, which everyone knew had no chance of becoming law, would have preserved all the Bush tax cuts on incomes below $1 million. Boehner wanted the House to support this plan as a bargaining chip to strengthen his position against the president. Yet even when Boehner paired his plan with a bill containing many spending reductions Republicans favored, he still could not get them to support his proposal, a proposal that was far more favorable in policy terms than the one that eventually became law. GOP Representatives’ refusal to support Boehner’s plan sidelined their own leader from negotiations with the White House and required the Senate to take the lead.

The Senate deal itself was arrived at as the parties exchanged concessions to one another. Democratic concessions were primarily about exempting high-income individuals from tax increases (raising the threshold of those affected to $400,000 or more in taxable income, reducing the estate tax). Republican concessions were on increased spending, such as extending unemployment benefits, and on tax credits important to low-income groups. The structure of the negotiations indicates that the key sticking point was the tax increases on high-income taxpayers, not decisions about spending. When Democrats had given way sufficiently on that point, Republicans could accept the deal. Spending cuts were not necessary to get most Republicans to sign off and permit the bill to pass.

Under such circumstances, what does it mean that so many House Republicans voted against the Senate deal on passage while also casting the necessary procedural votes to allow the deal to pass? Why did they undercut their own leader’s efforts to bargain for spending cuts along the way? Why did they relinquish negotiation to the Senate, permit the Senate bill to pass, and then denounce it for not containing spending cuts?

Long ago David Mayhew told us that much of what Members of Congress do is “position-taking.” Their votes, like their speeches, are largely for public consumption. Collectively, their votes shape public policy. Yet an individual legislator knows that her vote will seldom decide the fate of a given bill. It will however contribute to the shaping of her image. Given that the individual Member of Congress controls his vote but does not control the outcome of legislative battles, he often has reason to vote based on how he would like to be seen. Often the positions a legislator wants to be seen to support and the policy outcomes he favors are closely aligned. Yet when the two diverge he has political reason to vote for what he wants to be seen to favor, rather than the legislative outcome actually he favors. This is especially so, Mayhew argues, because legislators are usually judged on the basis of the positions they take, not on policy outcomes.

The behavior of GOP legislators in the cliff episode is much more understandable as an exercise in position-taking, which laypersons might call “posturing.” The overwhelming GOP vote for the rule suggests that Republican legislators were reconciling conflicting goals. In this case Republican Representatives did want to avoid a certain policy outcome. They wanted to prevent the fiscal cliff, but they still did not want to be associated with voting for a tax increase. The way to achieve this was to keep their hands clean of the negotiation, even at the cost of greatly reduced influence over the deal, and then to allow the bill to pass largely on Democratic votes.

The alternatives open to House Republicans, backing Plan B or amending the Senate bill, would have required far more of them to go on record voting in favor of tax hikes. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) explained the dilemma to David Weigel, “More members want this to pass than want to vote for it.” The National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru noted similarly, in explaining both the failure of both Boehner’s Plan B and the GOP’s later failure to amend the Biden-McConnell Senate bill, “a lot of Republicans didn’t want to appear to be endorsing tax increases for anyone…A lot of Republicans wished the deal included more spending cuts without being willing to vote for a deal with more spending cuts. That’s why this effort failed.”

The evidence suggests that, contrary to some media reports, House Republicans cared far more about limiting tax increases than about limiting spending. After all, it was limits on tax increases, not concessions on spending, that sealed the deal—a deal that nearly all House Republicans accepted, their votes on final passage notwithstanding. Yet the key factor in explaining their behavior was not a policy preference, but a position preference. Many House Republicans were more focused on avoiding being seen to vote for any tax increase than on minimizing the actual tax increases that were destined to occur. The result of their individual position-taking choices led to higher taxes without spending reductions.