Republicans have controlled the House of Representatives for just over 100 days. In that time, they’ve worked with Democrats to prevent a government shutdown, and worked alone to pass a budget. They’ve put the big entitlements on the table, and proposed slowly phasing out one of them — Medicare — altogether. In so doing, they’ve fundamentally shifted the center of the debate on Capitol Hill significantly to the right.
Along the way some individuals have enjoyed the limelight, others have suffered embarrassments, and yet more have just gone along for the ride. But in the end it’s not about the personalities — John Boehner, Harry Reid, or even Barack Obama. It’s about the very things that have born the brunt of the impact of the new direction in Washington. Here are our top five winners and losers at the 100 day milestone.
Toxic food containers have earned a well-deserved bad reputation over the years, and have thus been banished from liberal precincts across the country — including Congress back when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House. But she’s not anymore. And as soon as she was out, Styrofoam was back in. One of the GOP’s first moves was to replace the biodegradable coffee cups in the House cafeteria (more on which later) with cheaper, but environmentally poisonous Styrofoam. We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, you can’t strike a macho pose if you’re drinking your coffee out of something recyclable.
2). D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray
With the exception of maybe Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, it’s hard to think of a newly elected politician who’s gotten off to a rougher or more embarrassing start than Washington’s new mayor, Vincent Gray. His brief tenure has been marked by corruption and incompetence for which he alone is to blame. But to some extent the turmoil on Capitol Hill actually bailed him out. The deal to avert a government shutdown included policy riders that advance the DC school voucher system, and block the city from spending local tax revenue on abortions. Bad for DC, but they allowed Gray to put on a show by getting arrested at a protest outside the Capitol, which has helped him rehabilitate his suffering image.
3). Kabuki Theater
There’s never been a shortage of posturing and preening in Washington, but the art of political Kabuki Theater reached new heights this year during down-to-the-wire negotiations to avoid a government shutdown. Congressional leaders and the White House hashed out the substance of the final deal behind the scenes. But their public representation of those negotiations entailed Tony winning performances. They announced the deal at the latest possible moment giving Republicans cover to argue they held out for as long as possible, and letting Democrats communicate that they’d been more than reasonable. When private talks stalled, aides tried to seize the initiative by leaking vigorously. And members coordinated statements meant to reflect the health — or lack thereof — of negotiations. It was quite a show
4). Port of Charleston
Earmarks are out of style in Washington, D.C., but the Port of Charleston in South Carolina is none the worse for wear for it. As a result of an intervention by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Army Corps of Engineers will study and prioritize a plan to deepen the port, triggering the sort of government spending that Republicans tend not to object to — spending in their own states and districts. The study was threatened when it was left out of a deal Democrats and Republican reached to avoid a government shutdown. but Graham threatened to block all of President Obama’s nominees unless this project was accommodated. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took his side on this one, and it looks like the $50,000 study will get funded after all.
5). Budget Shenanigans
Reporters, Republicans, and rank and file representatives all learned recently how numbers add up on Capitol Hill: very strangely. It started out predictably enough: Democrats mocked Republicans for claiming their plan to cut $61 billion dollars was actually a plan to cut $100 billion — until Democrats decided to play the same game and claim their plan to cut $10 billion was actually a plan to cut about $50 billion at which point everyone switched places in confusion. After weeks of negotiating and broadening the field of potential budget cuts, they settled on $38 billion. Or was it $78 billion? Actually, if you’re just looking at this year, it was only about $350 million. But who’s counting! Or rather, who can keep track after all that.
1). Future Medicare Beneficiaries
If Paul Ryan and House Republicans get their way, they’ll begin phasing out Medicare in 10 years. If you turn 55 on the day that plan passes, or you’re older than that, you’ll supposedly get to keep Medicare as it exists today. But if on that day, you’re 54 years and 364 days old, no such luck. You’ll get a voucher to buy private insurance. The story isn’t much better for regular 55 year-olds, though. As time goes on, people in traditional Medicare will age and die. As the pool gets older, unhealthier and smaller, doctors will have less and less incentive to see those patients, and they’ll end up getting handed vouchers as well. Too bad, so sad. Fortunately, the House GOP budget is going nowhere — so maybe the real losers in this story are Republicans, who took a huge political risk, endorsing an extremely unpopular policy that’s going nowhere.
2). The Art of The Deal
Time and again since the GOP’s ascent to power last year, the White House has found itself at the bargaining table with Republicans. And just about every time it’s gone something like this: Republicans start with a sky high, fundamentally conservative opening bid. The White House responds by
challenging accepting the premise of the GOP’s offer buying completely into the Republican framing, and offering a less-extreme version of the same plan. We saw a harbinger of this in the tax cut fight last year. Then when the GOP said spending should be cut by $100 billion, Democrats said spending needs to be cut, just not that much. Then when Republicans said Congress should devote all of its energies to deficit reductions, Democrats agreed, jobs be damned. Finally when Republicans said they wouldn’t increase the debt limit without spending concessions from Democrats, the White House said “sure, that’s fine.” We look forward to more of this in the next year and a half, and to watching the Overton window in politics move swiftly to the right.
3). Biodegradable Food Utensils
Competition in the cafeteria services industry is zero sum. And that means if Styrofoam is on the rise, biodegradable food utensils must lose. And lose they did. It wasn’t just non-toxic coffee cups that got the boot. The House cafeteria no longer offers biodegradable silverware either. That’s a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, plastic isn’t good for the environment. On the other hand those biodegradable forks and knives really sucked. So good riddance. While the GOP was at it, they also scrapped the composting program Democrats set up to turn those biodegradable materials into soil additives for Capitol landscaping. So that loses, too.
4). Sharia Law
Poor Sharia law. It was just minding its own business when suddenly it became a favorite target of conservatives in Washington and around the country. They convinced themselves and right wing voters of an Islamist plot to slowly impose Sharia on the U.S. legal system. It’s now a bad word on Capitol Hill, and states are passing laws to prevent judges from considering Sharia law when they craft their rulings. So in addition to getting kicked around like a political football, it probably couldn’t creep into the legal mainstream even if such a plot existed.
5). Old People
In 2010, elderly Americans voted in historic numbers to elect Republicans who convinced them that Democrats had put government hands on their Medicare. Specifically they ran tons of truthy attack ads claiming the savings Democrats found in Medicare to help pay for health care reform amounted to benefit cuts. So Republicans come to power and what do they do? They pass a budget that would slowly unravel Medicare altogether. Oh, and they decide those cuts the Democrats passed weren’t so bad after all and decide to keep them. Then some of these same Republicans decide they also want to increase the Social Security retirement age. Toss this in the “fool me once” category.