What the Speaker Election Means for Defense Spending
While there have been a number of reports of conservative opposition to Speaker Boehner’s re-election, he is almost certain to gain the majority needed on the first ballot. If conservatives weren’t able to stop his election in 2013 following a much worse election cycle, it is highly unlikely they’ll somehow summon up the extra 17 votes they need now. However, the number of ‘no’ votes by new members will be worth counting as they can safely be added to the existing members of the ‘Hell No’ caucus of the House GOP. It can safely be assumed that any new ‘no’ votes for Boehner will be part and parcel of this troublesome group.
Why is this worth watching for defense analysts? Simply put, it is somewhat difficult to see a scenario where the defense sequester will be lifted without House and Senate Republicans being able to keep their caucuses in line. This is because while the choke point on legislation has shifted from the formerly Democratically controlled Senate to the White House, the fundamental inflection point (something President Obama can agree to) hasn’t changed all that much. As evidenced by the passage of the cromnibus over liberal objections, if the White House agrees to something, most Hill Democrats are likely to come around. However, the fundamental problem remains that Congressional Republicans have been unable to accept a compromise offer from the White House. In order to get to a point where that deal gets made, the Republicans need to be cohesive enough to first offer a Republican alternative and, more importantly, say yes to a compromise with the President. Every ‘no’ vote for Boehner is basically one fewer vote available for a coherent Republican alternative and almost certainly a ‘no’ for any eventual compromise.
This can create a basic math problem for leadership. Given the distribution of the House (246 Republicans, 188 Democrats, 1 empty seat), leadership can only lose 29 Republicans before having to rely on Democratic votes to pass legislation. This is an improvement over last session, when a mere 18 members could hold up Republican legislation. However, it is unclear whether the new members are more or less inclined to support compromises agreed to by leadership. While much was made during the election cycle about mainstream Republicans controlling elections, there were still reasons to be skeptical.
There’s one last reason to worry about ‘no’ votes for Speaker Boehner for defense hawks. Namely, that the entire idea of lifting sequestration for the Department of Defense does not have clear support within the Republican Party. Budget hawks, particularly in the Tea Party movement, view any increase in government spending skeptically. It remains to be seen whether they or the more pro-defense spending party establishment dictates the form of the Republican budget. Thus the battle for defense spending will likely be joined even before any negotiations with the White House (which will no doubt have an opinion of its own). Rebellious freshmen willing to oppose the sitting Speaker are less likely to fall in line on a sequestration deal, particularly if it relies on deficit spending or dodgy funding.
All that being said, the vote won’t be particularly suspenseful. Keep an eye on the roll call and wait to see how things play out before worrying. This session’s beginning won’t be very interesting, but it will provide some indications on the more important and more uncertain fate of defense spending in FY 2016.