New Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson notched a victory in his first big test as Speaker, managing to pass a continuing resolution, or “CR,” to avoid a government shutdown that would have occurred at midnight Thursday morning. The vote was 336-95, with two Democrats joining 93 Republicans to oppose the measure.
But the Speaker needs to act to stop it from being a pyrrhic victory.
Johnson’s bill funds CRs for different parts of the government, with some expiring on January 19th and others expiring on February 2nd. It is expected to pass the Senate and be signed by the president. But it leaves just 21 additional legislative days for the Jan. 19 deadline, plus an additional four days for the February 2nd deadline, to settle appropriations.
Speaker Johnson must beware. There is a restless—and angry—House GOP Freedom Caucus, as well as others, that wants radical change: regular order, which means a consideration of 12, distinct, appropriations bills, with each debated, amended, and voted separately; “no blank check for Ukraine”; actual reductions in spending; restrictions on asylum applications and security at the border; and reform of the “weaponized” Justice Department that Republicans view as being blatantly politicized. If Speaker Johnson does not deliver all or most of that agenda, he may find himself subject to the same motion to vacate that removed his predecessor, Dennis McCarthy. Steve Bannon, the host of the Apple Top 10 populist right podcast “The War Room,” lauded the removal of McCarthy and supports Johnson. But he has said, nevertheless, “the clock is ticking” for Johnson to deliver.
A Quarter Century of Fecklessness
Congress has not acted under regular order since 1996, notwithstanding the Budget Act of 1974 that explicitly requires it to do so. CRs have been “de rigeur” for Congress for over 25 years. The practice has allowed the whole slate of government appropriations to be passed in a single vote with nary a word from the House and Senate rank-and-file. Spending is decided by the members of the House and Senate leadership in closed-door negotiations; back-bench Representatives and Senators are left only to make a wholly performative single vote.
That process occludes accountability to the voters, both for the leadership and the rank-and-file. A legislator can explain to his constituency that while, yes, he voted to take on even more debt to expand unpopular spending like foreign aid, he or she “had to” in order to obtain funding to replace a bridge or build a highway in their district. A debate on separate bills, with amendments in what is called “regular order” would not allow them to ameliorate their unpopular vote to expand foreign aid with pork for their district.
This chart from the Final Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government for Fiscal Year 2023 through September 30, 2023, illustrates at a glance, in gold, the $1.695 trillion deficit the nation accumulated in its last fiscal year. The spending is the principal driver of the nation’s deficits. With the nation facing $34 trillion in debt, and near 5 percent interest rates, the cost of debt will soon reach $1.7 trillion per year, subsuming the costs of even Social Security.
A Shutdown Would Be a Line in the Sand
Speaker Johnson abandoned a significant bit of the House GOP leverage over the budget and other important policy matters by agreeing to a CR, even a relatively short one. And while it’s true the GOP controls just one-half of one-third of the government and thus has limits on its power, its ability to impede overspending by shutting down the government is significant and necessary as leverage over spendthrift Democrats.
A shutdown could have been a “line-in-the-sand” moment; a pivot point for Republican budget hawks to assert that regular order must be restored; that supplemental appropriations for the Ukraine/Russia War would not be funded, and, instead, should be left to the Europeans to pay; that the border must be secured; and that spending—including defense spending—must be dramatically reduced in real dollar terms this year.
The media would have battered the Republicans for ending the status quo, and that certainly would have been a challenge. Instead, the media is now calling the GOP-controlled House “ungovernable.” While shutdown criticism would have come with GOP leverage to advance the budget hawks’ agenda, adopting the CR gave the party nothing.
The GOP Needs a Shutdown Counter Narrative
Speaker Johnson could accept the media’s and Democrats’ slings and arrows that he was elected to absorb. He has sent the Representatives home to their districts, which could be a mistake. But it’s not an irredeemable mistake.
Speaker Johnson could use this time to gear up, communicate the budget hawks’ priorities across national media, and prepare for “the Full Ginsburg“'; that is, to make appearances on all the Sunday morning talk shows. He could prepare to appear on December 3 and lay out a concise, unassailable, data-intensive, summary explanation of why the budget hawks’ agenda must be adopted in the House and passed by the Senate to preserve the fiscal viability of the republic.
That messaging would need to be hammered, repeatedly, in the press, by each of the GOP presidential primary candidates’ campaigns, by every GOP member of the House and Senate in local media and town halls, and on the Hill when Congress returns to Washington. If a GOP Representative or Senator is asked about the weather, he or she would need revert to the GOP budget talking points: “Well, it’s a beautiful day, but it won’t be a nice day for our grandchildren if we keep spending the country into oblivion and leave the border open to all comers.” The messaging would need to be so ubiquitous and unassailable that when the CR runs out and the House has passed all 12 appropriations bills, Senate Democrats and even the White House would be embarrassed not to support them.
And, finally, if Democrats or Republicans buckle and opt to support a CR or a single omnibus spending bill, then Speaker Johnson would have proceeded with a government shutdown. The Speaker himself and his leadership team will need to wield their whip hand to stop break-away Republicans in vulnerable districts from voting with the Democrats to continue the status quo.
In the words of Joe Biden, on another matter: “Whatever it takes. For as long as it takes.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
J.G. Collins is managing director of the Stuyvesant Square Consultancy, a strategic advisory, market survey, and consulting firm in New York. His writings on economics, trade, politics, and public policy have appeared in Forbes, the New York Post, Crain’s New York Business, The Hill, The American Conservative, and other publications.