Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell surprised a lot of people when, less than an hour after the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia was announced, he declared that his seat shouldn’t be filled until a new president is sworn in in 2017. That would leave one of the nine seats on the court vacant for a full year or more, assuming even a relatively rapid confirmation of someone nominated immediately by President Obama’s successor.
Surprising as it was, McConnell’s willingness to subject the court to a year of frequent 4-4 deadlocks — which could necessitate a re-argument of a case — is just another symptom of the overall dysfunction that virtually guarantees Washington will accomplish little or nothing in the next 12 months. That’s because, of the three branches of the federal government, there are now two that appear likely to be be seriously hobbled until 2017.
With the Judicial branch in limbo, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan appeared on Fox News Sunday afternoon and said, in effect, that the Legislative branch isn’t likely to get much done, either. He suggested that no progress is possible on issues including government spending, the national debt and the federal deficit while President Obama is in office.
Ryan laid out a five-point GOP agenda that includes, among other things, tax reform, energy development, regulatory reform, entitlement reform, repealing the Affordable Care Act (of course) and strengthening national security.
“We don't think the nation's heading in the right direction, and we believe we owe it to our fellow citizens to offer an alternative,” he said. “If we had a pro-growth economic policy, there is no doubt in my mind that we could get this economy growing faster, people could get better jobs and get a rise in wages, but for our government. That’s why we’re going to roll an agenda out there and give the country a choice.”
Given the broad swathe of policy areas that Ryan wants to address, it’s inconceivable that there aren’t some areas of agreement, or at least principled compromise, where the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress could come together and strike a deal. But Ryan didn’t even suggest the possibility of seeking common ground. Instead, he jumped straight to 2017.
“You’ve got to have a president to sign bills into law,” he told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo, according to a transcript provided by his office. “That’s why you need a new president. That’s why we’re putting an agenda out there in 2017 showing how we would do that. We’ve passed five budgets that specifically show how we would balance the budget, how we would pay off the debt. We can do this, but you have to have a Republican president to do this, and that’s the whole point of our agenda.”
Of course, President Obama has shown a willingness to sign compromise legislation when he gets it, often to the chagrin of his Democratic allies in and out of Congress. What Ryan is essentially saying here is not that progress — at least incremental progress — is impossible, but that he has no expectation of trying to achieve it. Evidently all that the GOP-controlled House will produce, at least this year, is maximalist GOP placeholder legislation — like ACA repeal — that gives Republicans everything they want and offers Democrats nothing in return.
It also means that American voters who might like to see progress on big issues like immigration reform, tax reform, the federal deficit, and really anything else of significance, also get nothing.