House Republicans' Rational Idiocy

I wrote last week about why House Republicans engage in behavior that is collectively idiotic but individually rational. They're at it again today. With a fiscal cliff compromise bill having passed the Senate early this morning by a vote of 89-8, House Republicans are now sending strong signals that they won’t go along.

Many House Republicans are saying they want to amend the Senate bill to add spending cuts. But it is hard to see how any amended bill would pass the House. Democrats are sure to prefer passing the Senate bill unamended to amending it with spending cuts that move it farther to the right. They also won’t like House Republicans’ power play. So, an amended bill is unlikely to get any Democratic votes in the House.

That leaves Speaker John Boehner trying to round up 218 Republican votes for an amended bill. But just weeks ago, he couldn’t round up enough Republican votes to pass his “Plan B” tax plan, which stopped income tax increases for those making less than $1 million. Even an amended version of the Senate bill will collect more taxes than that.

Are House conservatives like Tim Huelskamp and Jim Jordan really going to vote for an amended bill? Why would they? If Boehner won't bring the Senate bill up for a vote, then nothing at all is likely to pass the House.

To recap: The Plan B fiasco left Republicans opposing Democratic plans to avert the fiscal cliff and offering… nothing in return. After Plan B fell apart, Boehner said that the Senate would have to act first, and the House would consider what the Senate passed. Now, the Senate has acted with near-unanimous bipartisan support, and the House is poised to respond by rejecting that plan and offering… nothing, again.

This makes the Republican Party look terrible: irresponsible, incompetent, obstinate. You can expect the stock market to open sharply lower tomorrow and Republicans to take all the blame for the voluntary economic damage caused by the fiscal cliff.

But this course still makes sense from the perspective of individual Republicans in the House. Voting for Plan B, or for the Senate fiscal cliff deal, or even for an amended version of the Senate deal, can open a Republican incumbent to attacks from conservative primary challengers and anti-spending groups like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.

Opposing everything and offering no plan to avert the fiscal cliff won’t encourage such challenges from the right. And if you represent a reasonably safe seat -- as the vast majority of Republican members do -- boosting the party’s national vote share, or governing in the national interest, is apparently no competition for the instinct of political self-preservation.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. E-mail him and follow him on Twitter.)


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.