Kevin McCarthy's Big Mistake

 In an exclusive interview with Politico, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy offered a glimpse of his agenda for the next Congress. Some of McCarthy's specific proposals offers hope for people who would like to see functional government capable of addressing America's problems. Yet, his overall vision seems to dash those hopes and demonstrates that even when there might be ground for bipartisan accomplishment, today's political mentality crushes it. 

Encouragingly, McCarthy mentions a bunch of fairly novel ideas that might make government more functional. Things like a two year budget cycle, greater use of the internet, scoring bills twenty years out, rethinking Congressional committee structure, and syncing the House and Senate calendars. 

He also mentions a few policy ideas that should be grounds for bipartisan compromise— including increased highway spending and corporate tax reform. When combined with the news that liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the conservative ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, have a creative bipartisan bill devised to increase biomedical research funding, one can almost envision some semblance of bipartisanship and functionality returning to the Capitol. 

There is just one problem— McCarthy seems to go out of his way to dismiss bipartisanship. The swipes he takes at President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are understandable. Far more troubling, however, is that all of his plans seem predicated upon Republicans controlling the Senate, and Republicans working better on a bicameral basis. 

But this vision ignores one very simple fact: Republicans aren't going to have a filibuster proof majority in the Senate. The best case scenario for them would be a gain of 9 Senate seats, which would leave 54 Republicans. 

Additionally, for Republicans to win even a simple majority in the Senate, they'll have to defeat  many of the most moderate Democratic senators, including Mark Pryor, Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich. That will make it almost impossible to get 60 votes for something without getting some relatively liberal Democrats to vote for it.

It also assumes unified Republican support for bills, which may be hard to achieve considering that 9 Republican senators (Ayote, Burr, Coats, Johnson, Krik, Toomey, Burr, Rubio, and Grassley) will be up for reelection in 2016 in states that President Obama won at least once. 

Now some items can pass as part of the budget reconciliation process, which will only require 51 votes in the Senate. But even so, what makes McCarthy's statements so mystifying is that many of his ideas practically cry out for bipartisan agreements. 

Democrats should want to see government achieve greater efficiency— they want to show that government can work. Many would also be open to legislation that achieved some Democratic priorities (like increased transportation funding or biomedical research funding), in exchange for some Republican priorities. Tax Reform and corporate tax reform are also popular with Senator Ron Wyden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. 

McCarthy's agenda isn't inherently so ideologically conservative as to be a non-starter with the other party. And yet, instead of envisioning achieving these goals in a bipartisan fashion, McCarthy seems to imply that they will be doomed unless Republicans have unified control of Congress. While that might be posturing resulting from being in the midst of campaign season, it may also sadly reflect the new mentality in Congress. 

By all accounts, McCarthy has a good relationship with many Democrats, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. He also should understand legislative realities enough to know that nothing can be achieved in the Senate without bipartisanship. 

Yet, instead of envisioning bipartisanship, McCarthy discusses trying to achieve greater unanimity among House Republicans, which will only be possible with bills that are highly conservative, and unlikely to get anywhere near 60 votes in the Senate. 

This vision is a far cry from the way that government functioned for much of the period between the late 1940s and the mid-2000s. It is also a sign that even relatively young members of Congress (McCarthy is 49) don't understand that young Americans want to see functional government. 

This is doubly troubling because McCarthy seems like the type of creative thinker who could help devise big bipartisan agreements. Theoretically, he also has political incentive to do so, because his only hope of ever being elected statewide in blue California would be to demonstrate the ability to work with the other side to accomplish things. 

McCarthy's comments reflect a broken institutional culture, and a mentality developed in a political system that allows the most extreme ideologues to dictate to lawmakers, while the majority cynically abstains. As the always thoughtful Michael Smerconish recently noted, "They [politicians] figured out long ago that the best way to get elected and then stay in office was to placate the extremes."

Until this mentality changes, it seems like any semblance of real achievement won't be possible. If McCarthy attempts to accomplish his goals in a partisan fashion, Democrats will respond in kind by resisting and obstructing, not because the specific policies are necessarily so odious, but because he will have contributed anew to the mutually reinforcing cycle through which partisanship and politics guide all legislative decision making.