Political coalitions: reforming Congress

Against small-brain “They just need to legislate”

I’ll take a break to talk about GOP leadership.  Why does the base  instinctively hate Mitch McConnell, yet the Beltway GOP loves him?  Who is he, and whom does he represent?

I’m not a professor of economics, so I’ll be speaking in shorthand, and I’ll be taking conclusions for granted which might not be obvious.  In short, I’ll be applying certain political muscles that I have, which make this more of an art than a science.  But the science is there, and I would recommend reading Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation,” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Evolution_of_Cooperation).  It’s time for some game theory.

McConnell is a skilled politician, but at the end of the day, he is a stand-in for a loose coalition of members.  He himself is an empty vessel.  Typically we describe Senator Murkowski, or Collins, as the “middle” of the GOP caucus, as if these ladies are marginal members.  But why then are they so important, and why do they (and did they) routinely have a veto over Senate business?  They are better viewed as the core, the very center of the GOP caucus under McConnell.  The marginal members are the individuals who don’t win at patronage bingo, or they are paid in a different way.  Marginal members include Senator Ron Johnson, or Josh Hawley.  I haven’t done an analysis but I suspect that socially conservative senators in “purple” states are obtaining way less pork for their home states than others. 

Why?  Because these senators are running the “upper left” quadrant play to put together a political coalition where McConnell, Murkowski, and Collins really are marginal.  Social conservatism and economic populism has a home in the GOP in a way that it doesn’t in the Democratic Party (the party of woke capital, and drone strikes with rainbow flags on the missiles).  This is why commentators in 2017 thought Trump would marginalize McConnell and seek supermajoritarian compromise with Democratic Senators like Bernie.  Unforced error on Trumps part to fail to do so.

So why might Hawley and Johnson obtain less pork?  And why might there be stories about how “unlikeable” these people are?  Because McConnells office is probably putting out a narrative to explain why these folks don’t deliver the pork, or deliver big legislative cosponsorships, etc.  The real reason is that the leadership wants to replace these individuals, and is choking off benefits, knowing that Johnson and Hawley can’t caucus with the Dems.  And in the primaries and in select general elections, the Chamber of—sorry the GOP tanks candidates like Roy Moore, knowing that a deep red seat with a more pliable candidate would only be a few years ahead.

What might empower individual House and Senate members and force realignment?  One answer is earmarks.  Earmarks put a price on disagreement, and allow deep red disagreement to be bought by purple or blue initiatives.  Senator Cruz would not be able to explain a vote for a Dem omnibus, but what if he gets Texas high speed rail out of the deal?  His voters would understand that.  What about a bill to withdraw from NATO that redirected dues to Arkansas?  That would put Senator Cotton in a tough spot.  The Chamber (libertarian but increasingly woke capital) caucus doesn’t want this, which is why they oppose earmarks.  Earmark bans empower Congressional leadership, and hamstring individual members.  Earmarks are ball bearings.  And it makes sense that a House liberal majority (not even Dem but genuinely left wing) would force an impotent House caucus to reverse the earmark ban.

 If we’re going to lose every fight we might as well scramble their own internal caucus negotiations (by getting them to 50%+1 faster) and we might get some pork in the process.  It’s win-win.  But it’s not win-win for McConnell, who sees more power slip, and his lapdogs in Congress (or the genuinely ignorant of economics, like possibly Chip Roy) oppose the move.

Why was Hawleys move on Judge Rao so lambasted on the right?  Some was undoubtedly just pro-Rao partisanship.  I had heard some talk of the “Jewish seat on SCOTUS” and some thought his attacks scuttled her chance at RBG’s seat.  But the fact that there was major ad spend in Missouri attacking Hawley for daring to briefly (briefly!!) hold up her nom, even for daring to ask questions, was telling.  Spending millions to attack a Senator of your own party, a full FIVE years before his reelection, is the height of wasted money.  But it indicates how scared the Chamber lobby was.  Someone wanted to send a message.  And I have heard that McConnell did visit relevant parties in this ad spend as it was dropping.  Undoubtedly he called in a favor.

And why does the Beltway like McConnell? It’s not because he’s a bad person, but precisely because he is virtuous in his own way. Undoubtedly he keeps promises. He keeps things quiet. Tells people only what he needs them to hear. In short, he can take money from Google, say, and then launder that money into something that will move Senator Cruz, perhaps with a hundred intermediate chess moves. Promise the money to Collins in a primary, have Collins support a Cruz amendment to something, and voila. There’s nothing wrong with this, but earmark bans and communication centralization mean that the broker is McConnell, who can extract rent and keep out certified coalition builders.

One of the major ways the Chamber lobby protects itself is in primaries.  Primaries are the one chance for the base to make its voice heard.  Why do deep red states have such terrible Senators?  Because the McConnell caucus spends the most money on primaries in safe red jurisdictions.  It makes economic sense.

What can be done?  A few things.  First, Senators like Johnson need to be protected.  Second, core Chamber GOP members like Liz Cheney need to be picked off.  Third, the patronage network needs to be broken up, and that means challenging Senator Thune and others who might make good on promises McConnell can’t keep due to his inevitable retirement.  Fourth, the cost for agreeing with the libertarian caucus needs to be raised considerably.  Raising costs changes the behavior of bugmen with no principles, just as it changes the behavior of ants or lizards. I would say this means that core Senators like Romney need to be required by their state pressure groups to add social conservative riders to ever single economic bill that crosses their desk.  Routine bills need to be held up, and we need to prep the base for the left-McConnell alliance attacks on “obstructionism.”  I don’t even mean real obstructionism, but the kind of Neomi Rao pausing that Hawley did.  I would also say the core Senators like Hawley need to occasionally be entirely inscrutable and arbitrary.  Block a bill for no apparent reason!  But in private tell McConnell that he needs to whip the caucus to block a certain nominee, or needs to make a statement about x y or z.  Sixth, these Reps and Senators need to meet with Dems, and need to caucus on issues— in many respects the Freedom Caucus is controlled opposition and needs to be viewed as such.

Seventh, McConnell needs to be forced into coalition errors— he needs to be seen as a bad broker for the Chamber caucus. This means breaking the astroturfed “Cocaine Mitch” nonsense (which a McConnell staffer openly brags he created), and explaining how McConnell slow walked judicial nominations and lost the 2020 elections with his COVID screwup. It also means members of his caucus need to cautiously leak information to scuttle Chamber or libertarian ideas, and make it look like it is Senate leadership. This has the added benefit of endearing McConnell to the actual populist GOP base, so he might lean into it in any given situation. On an infrastructure bill, for example, undoubtedly there will be a cheap labor sop at some point. We need early warning, and someone can say a McConnell staffer told them (if this is credible, as these games are dangerous). We need alternatives that will precisely invert the coalition calculus of the whipping at the time, a kind of prion proposal that will operate on the raw protein, replicate itself, and defeat the initiative.

So much more could be said, but I wanted a brief overview of economics and Congress, with concrete recommendations.