U.S. Capitol Building
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Back on September 12th, when I wrote Tax Reform and the Politics of Tennessee, I noted that House Budget Committee chairwoman Diane Black was delaying her plans to run for governor in order to hammer out a deal on the budget resolution. This was needed to unlock the budget reconciliation process for tax reform, allowing the Senate Republicans to avoid a filibuster.  Her situation was complicated by a rule the House Republicans adopted in 2014 that says committee chairs must give up their gavel if they’re seeking another office. All summer long, Chairwoman Black struggled with the demands of the Republican Study Committee and the Freedom Caucus, and it wasn’t until they relented on some of their preconditions that she was able to deliver a bill that could pass.

Still, the House resolution insisted that any tax reform bill be deficit neutral and also called for “more than $200 billion in savings from changes to mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare.” There was a lot of drama and a lot of suspense, but most of all there was a lot of energy expended on posturing and threats and hardball negotiations. And it was for naught.

As you would know from watching Schoolhouse Rock, a bill must ultimately pass both chambers of Congress, and that bill must have the same exact language. If the two chambers advance separate bills that are even slightly different, they must come together in a conference to hash out the differences and settle on one piece of legislation that they can both pass.

The reason to negotiate tough terms in the House version is to give negotiators some leverage when they go to conference with the Senate. But on Sunday, the president cut the legs out of the House budget:

President Donald Trump had a tough message for House Republicans on Sunday: Get to work on tax reform and pass the Senate budget immediately — or face a bloodbath in 2018.

Trump sought on an afternoon conference call with the House Republican Conference to urge reluctant conservatives to move forward a budget plan they despise, according to three people on the call.

There are two things going on here. The first is that the president is saying that he wants speed. Going into a conference with the Senate will take time, so the president doesn’t want a conference. The second is that the president is taking the Senate’s side and telling the House to just pass the Senate version despite the fact that it isn’t budget neutral and doesn’t have mandatory cuts to entitlements. The obvious reason to make the House cave is that the Senate doesn’t have the votes to pass the House version.

The upshot is what Politico calls “a major concession for House Budget Chairman Diane Black, who pitched her own budget as the GOP’s most conservative plan in 20 years.” She, in fact, delayed and perhaps imperiled her gubernatorial run to work on this budget, and now it’s gone in the trash bin.

But it’s not just Rep. Black who is getting screwed here. The far right conservatives in the House have been taken for the proverbial ride:

Trump’s presence on the call highlights the sensitivity of this week’s budget vote for House Republicans. Backing the Senate bill would require House Republicans to endorse a budget that is not balanced over 10 years, adds $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit through tax cuts, and does not include spending reductions the House had incorporated in its own earlier draft of the budget.

It’s not the first time House Republicans have been asked to swallow a budget they dislike. In January, conservatives balked when Speaker Paul Ryan insisted they support a budget that did little to tackle the nearly $20 trillion debt in order to advance a bill to repeal Obamacare.

The Wisconsin Republican promised at the time that the next budget bill would incorporate more conservative principles. Instead, House conservatives feel they are again being asked to accept a budget deal they disagree with again, this time so that tax reform talks can move forward.

You won’t have to look very far for Republican pundits and politicians and members of the White House and congressional leadership who are predicting an electoral “bloodbath” for the GOP if they fail to pass tax reform. Some of them may be sincerely believe this, but it’s also their way of bullying the conservatives into accepting the broken promises that were made to them back in January when they passed a shell of a budget for the purpose of repealing Obamacare. Here’s how that looks behind the scenes:

On the call Sunday, [Speaker Paul] Ryan said passing the Senate budget would allow the House to potentially clear a tax bill before Thanksgiving. He said they need to move the tax package to the Senate by then if they want any hope of passing tax cuts by the end of the year, his long-stated goal.

Members of GOP leadership all echoed Ryan and Trump in their call to pass the budget this week, according to the people on the call. Even House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black (R-Tenn.), who fought tooth-and-nail for the House’s more conservative blueprint, told members that she supported the Senate document if it meant quicker tax actions.

Whether it’s appropriate to use the term or not, the ways things have transpired has turned all the House budget negotiations this year into something that looks in retrospect like Kabuki Theater. In the end, none of it meant anything and it was all vain posturing.

If the House caves and passes the Senate budget resolution, the first hurdle to tax cuts will be cleared. The negotiations over an actual bill can begin. But the House will only be going along with this under duress and with a lot of hurt feelings. At some point, they’ll have to vote on something that will actually become law. That will be the time when their principles are truly put to the test.

The same argument will be made; whatever the flaws in the bill, a failure to pass it will result in an electoral bloodbath. But they said the same thing about Obamacare and it was good enough to keep the process going and going and going. But it wasn’t good enough when it came to actually voting on a bill.

So, remember, a lot of what you see go on in Washington may seem important at the time, but it’s often nothing but a show to fool or appease the rubes. And a lot of the rubes are serving in Congress and have no more idea that they’re being played than the rest of us.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com