House Democrats are looking to signal an era of open-minded pragmatism — even before they move a bill to end the government shutdown — with a trio of significant changes to how the chamber will operate.
The rules package proposed by incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is brimming with symbolic tweaks to how legislation will move and what committees are required and authorized to do. But it also imposes three significant practical changes to the theories of economics under which the more representative but less powerful House will approach its work for the next two years.
Pay-as-you-go rules loathed by progressive policymakers are back, after going missing under Republican leadership. The former leadership’s ideological thumb will come off the scale of official public policy accounting. And a harmful pattern of legislative hostage-taking will end — at least in the lower body of the congress.
Progressives have won several significant concessions from their more center-minded leadership — a larger share of the plum leadership and committee assignments to Congressional Progressive Caucus members, for one, and the creation of a blue-ribbon panel on climate change policy that will serve as incubator for the fuzzy, ambitious pile of ideas often referred to as a “Green New Deal” — but some of them still see pay-go’s self-imposed fiscal straitjacket as intolerably foolish. Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ro Khanna (D-CA) have announced they’ll vote against the rules package because it includes the policy.
The arguments for reinstating pay-go are generally defensive. Advocates for the policy see it as a permanent defense against the GOP’s traditional portrayal of Democrats as irresponsibly big-hearted spenders of other people’s money. Their critics point out that conservatives will use that line of attack no matter what you actually do — and argue there’s no such thing as a voter susceptible to the tax-and-spend framing who’s also apt to be persuaded back to team blue just because pay-go disproves the attack. Whichever side of that political salesmanship dispute you find more compelling, the pay-go rule’s tangible, material effect has always been to shrink and undermine social policies without delivering a corresponding check on excesses of military spending or corporate largesse.
The other main economic policy maneuvers in the rules package are to end debt ceiling brinksmanship and so-called “dynamic scoring” of tax policy. Neither are controversial within the caucus.
The House’s rules for nonpartisan budget accounting from the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) have always allowed individual members to ask for a “dynamic” forecast on any given policy proposal. But former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) changed the rules, requiring JCT and CBO staff to deliver such guesswork in all their reports. The scoring rules reflect a conservative version of the same political logic that animates pay-go among center-left types.
His move consummated a longstanding conservative ambition, dating back to right-wing economist and Reagan economic adviser Art Laffer’s snake-oil approach to selling tax cuts for the rich to a country made up predominantly of poor and middle-class people. Mandatory dynamic scoring of legislation was meant to protect members from blowback when they vote to give their rich donors a tax break. The CBO and JCT’s reports on such measures would be warped to reflect Laffer’s dumbed-down version of the right’s economic orthodoxy that governments can pull in more revenue through lower tax rates, causing that long-disproven fantasy math to look official, credible, and uncontroversial.
Dumping Ryan’s bad budget math should help lawmakers and voters alike have a clearer conversation about what things actually cost — and who would actually benefit from them. But the Republican-held Senate can keep employing the Laffer-Ryan misdirection. And the overall tenor of political argumentation and dispute in the Trump era suggests that something as dry and practical as budget facts can’t penetrate the lizard-brained tribalism of the age anyhow.
The end of dynamic scoring may, therefore, prove a hollow victory. But the debt limit rule — self-executing and aimed at a perennial congressional squabble that is apt to destabilize the economy in pointless ways — is more likely to have a tangible effect on how the country runs over the next two years. When GOP leaders latched onto the statutory limit on borrowing as an opportunity to attack the Obama administration over its relatively modest post-Recession spending, they caused the country’s credit rating to take a hit and injected volatility into global capital markets. There’s no reason for the U.S. economy to take hits like that, or even to risk taking them; the reinstated “Gephardt Rule” automating debt limit hikes when the House passes legislation forecast to require them should therefore shelter the economy.
The exchange, of course, is that an opposition party that only controls the lower chamber of Congress is renouncing one of the weapons proven capable of forcing a sitting president to make concessions. That’s a microcosm of the rules package’s wider character.
By reinstating PAYGO, automating most debt limit hikes, and restoring the basic rules of mathematics to federal budget projections, the Democrats position themselves as adults in the room. But it’s a bit like a lonely pre-school teacher declaring that it’s nap time while 40 toddlers careen screaming around the room. Insisting on arithmetic fundamentals doesn’t actually purge the Laffer-Reagan lie from the body politic.
One of the rules package’s true novelties reflects the same genteel, get-stuff-done spirit that animates the three reversions to once-standard practice on economics. The rules create a new, formal “Consensus Calendar” whereby any legislation co-sponsored by two-thirds of the House can leapfrog committee consideration and get a floor vote. Pelosi is required to put at least one item from this new legislative carpool lane on the House schedule each week.
Taken together, the changes suggest an insight into how the Democrats intend to wield the significant but limited power voters gave them in the midterms. Party leaders are wagering that voters will embrace Democrats even more tightly if they deliver a buttoned-up, pragmatic, serious-person diligence. But since they’re facing off against a chaos engine whose mere thumb-twitches create and destroy whole news cycles, it’s a pretty big gamble.