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What Paul Ryan's House budget woes tell us about the continued crack-up of the Republican Party

Win McNamee/Getty Images

April 15 was supposed to be the day when House Republicans, under the leadership of Speaker Paul Ryan, were going to have a budget framework approved. But April 15 is almost upon us. And the House GOP is nowhere near consensus.

Instead, Republicans are fighting the same internal battles they were fighting last October, when a House Freedom Caucus Revolt ousted then-Speaker John Boehner for being just another Washington insider, part of the "pay-to-play culture that permeates Capitol Hill."

While much of the Republican drama this year has focused on the anti-establishment revolt that has left outsiders Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as the party's two leading presidential frontrunners, the same insider-outsider battles are continuing to play out back in Washington. The 2016 budget process is looking more and more like another dysfunctional charade laying bare the internal party conflicts.

As in the presidential nominating contest, the divisions are posing serious long-term questions about how much longer the increasingly divided GOP coalition can hold together.

The slow train wreck of the House budget process

Last October, when Ryan reluctantly became House speaker after a short period of chaos, he acknowledged the dissension in the ranks. "We will not always agree," he said after being elected, "not all of us, not all of the time. But we should not hide our disagreements. We should embrace them. We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated. If you have ideas, let's hear them."

Ryan did his best to win over the House Freedom Caucus by providing a sympathetic ear for their concerns. In exchange, they agreed to support him, and they let the spending deal Boehner was working out with Democrats go forward, on the assumption that this would "clear the barn" for a new framework in 2016. The hope was that with Boehner, the weak-willed establishment compromiser, gone, Republicans could finally grow a spine and exact the big cuts they really wanted — and defund and kill Obamacare once and for all, as they had promised.

By March, however, it was increasingly clear that this was not going to be the case. Ryan had put together a budget framework. The House Freedom Caucus didn't like it. To them, it still looked too much like the framework from last year, the one where Boehner and the White House compromised. It didn't cut domestic spending programs by $30 billion.

In explaining why he couldn't support the budget, Rep. Dave Brat, the Virginia Republican who had defeated Eric Cantor in a primary in 2014,  put it this way at a Heritage Foundation Forum (referring to the 2015 deal): "We've got to go back to our constituents with a straight face and say, ‘We made up for the crap sandwich. We made up for the barn-clearing."

Never mind that under Ryan's leadership, the House Budget Committee (along with the Republican Senate Budget Committee) decided to break with 40 years of precedent and not even bother to hold a hearing on the president's budget. Never mind that the budget resolution was now more explicit about repealing Obamacare

The deeper problem for Ryan and the rest of the Republican leadership is that House Freedom Caucus is more and more the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party. And its reflexes have now been trained to distrust whatever leadership does. Any whiff of compromise smells like the cronyism of politics as usual. Hence that sour "crap sandwich" stench of budget politics under divided government.

Budget guru Stan Collender put the problem more directly:

Unfortunately for the HFC, there aren't enough votes in the House in favor of budget resolution with the cuts it wants. Unfortunately for Ryan, there aren't enough votes in the House for it to pass without them. … In other words, to deal with its current budget problems, the House GOP leadership is proposing a plan that can't possibly succeed and will make the House Freedom Caucus feel like it's been played for suckers. That will make the rest of this year's and next year's budget debates even worse.

Without a House budget framework, the Senate probably isn't going to bother with one either (what would be the point?). Senate Budget Committee Chair Mike Enzi (R-WY) has already announced he's going to postpone any Senate budget resolutions. Instead, the appropriations process will lop along again without any strategic framework, which means that in all likelihood, Congress will once again be faced with the same end-of-the-year up-against-the-deadline crisis it faced last year.

And at that point, the House speaker will face the same impossible choice Boehner faced last time around: Make a deal with the Democrats to get a spending agreement that can actually become law with the signature of a Democratic president and lose your speakership, or shut down the government by demanding cuts and an Obamacare repeal no president named Obama (or Clinton) will ever sign.

It's a no-win choice. Shutting down the government further damages the rapidly sinking Republican brand. Keeping the government running by making a deal with the Democrats further pisses off the anti-establishment renegades just weeks before the next speaker election.

Of course, if Democrats somehow do take back the House, it's far easier for a speaker to cut a deal. If it's a true Republican bloodbath, the internal party reckoning can be postponed because the GOP can just go back to being the party of no. But that still seems very unlikely.

A new insider-outsider dimension of conflict is emerging in the House

One way to better understand what's happening in the House is to take a big-picture look at voting patterns. Normally when analysts look at voting patterns, they look at things like party unity scores, which measure how much partisans vote together, and first-dimension DW-NOMINATE scores, political science algorithms that attempt to array all members on a single liberal-conservative dimension.

But the problem with these measures is that to describe House Freedom Caucus members as "very conservative" only tells part of the story. They are different types of conservatives than John Boehner conservatives. They are fundamentally anti-establishment. They view themselves as outsiders, crusaders against political corruption and corporate cronyism. They are deeply skeptical of all forms of centralized power. To them, it seems, whomever is charge is probably corrupt.

Over the past few years, a few folks have picked up on one way to measure this new dimension of conflict. While most analysts rely on first-dimension DW-NOMINATE scores to measure polarization, the algorithms that generate these scores also produce a second-dimension score. And the political scientists behind DW-NOMINATE, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, "suspect that the second dimension is tapping into establishment vs. outsider divisions in both parties." They note that this dimension "pops up on votes such as raising the debt ceiling, domestic surveillance, and government funding bills."

FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and Harry Enten have also been using the second dimension DW-NOMINATE score as a proxy for establishment versus anti-establishment conflict on issues such as surveillance and immigration. Enten, for example, recently noted that House Freedom Caucus members tend to be both conservative and anti-establishment. Julia Azari has also made a similar argument.

Consider what's happening on trade policy. Last July. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a leader in the HFC, demanded concessions from Boehner in advance of a vote on trade promotion authority. The following day, Jordan pronounced that "[y]esterday will be the day that we look back at as the day that conservatives finally started getting organized in the House."

A fellow Republican noted of Jordan, "He's mobilized some pretty significant opposition, which is a little strange because on the substance of this you're basically bringing guys over to [side] with the AFL-CIO." In other words, the far right and the far left converged against the establishment center. They may oppose the trade agreement for different reasons, but they came down in the same place on the vote. And while Boehner did not give in to Jordan's demands, the fight is not going away anytime soon. Trade policy has become a major issue dividing both Republicans and Democrats.

Measuring the new outsider conflict

If discussions of dimensions and algorithms make your head spin, think of it this way: Most of the time, members of Congress just vote their party line. But sometimes, other considerations enter into play. The second dimension tries to explain the votes that don't make sense on what we've come to think of as the liberal-conservative dimension, on issues like surveillance or trade or budgets, where the most conservative and most liberal members of both parties find themselves in agreement against the center.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, second-dimension scores picked up race and region issues, with Southern Democrats voting like conservative Republicans. But as the parties realigned based on race and region (with Southern conservative Democrats becoming Southern conservative Republicans and Northern liberal Republicans going extinct) the second dimension explained less and less of voting behavior.

Below, I've plotted the correlations of first- and second-dimension DW-NOMINATE scores for the House over the past nine sessions of Congress. If you start in 1999-2000, you'll see that scores for both Democrats and Republicans across both dimensions are highly correlated that session of Congress. Whatever the second dimension is picking up, it's only a slight variation on the standard liberal-conservative set of conflicts, since within both parties the most conservative members generally have the highest second-dimension scores.

Graphic by Lee Drutman. Source: VoteView.org.

Now follow the linear regression line for Republicans across the nine Congresses, and you see it turn clockwise. The correlation between the two dimensions begins to disappear (the line goes flat). Then the correlation turns negative. By 2011-'12, something new has happened. The most conservative Republicans start to look more like the most liberal Democrats on this second dimension of conflict. Put another way, there are a growing number of votes where the extremes of both parties are voting together against the center.

This has happened before

I recently argued that American politics had hit "peak polarization." My argument was that a new dimension of conflict was emerging, that many of the same forces that had fueled the widening gap between the two political parties were now fueling fights within the two political parties, and that these new fights would ultimately create coalitions in American politics, eventually realigning the two parties.

In arguing that politics had hit peak polarization, I noted the many similarities between now and the early 1910s, when politics last began to depolarize after an extended period of bitter polarization. There was then, as now, a strong populist anti-centralized power energy that swept across both parties, causing internal rifts.

By the 1910s, that populism had found its way from the grassroots to Washington. In 1910, as now, an insurgent Republican faction in the House led a successful revolt against a sitting speaker. And in 1912, the Republican Party split into two for the presidential election, with Teddy Roosevelt running as a third-party candidate against Howard Taft.

Now, looking more closely at voting patterns, I see another similarity, pictured below. In 1907 (and further back, though not pictured), the correlation between the two DW-NOMINATE dimensions in both parties is high, suggesting the second-dimension scores are not picking up much that's not also being picked up in the first-dimension scores.

But then the same change happens that's happening now. Outsiders in both parties start looking similar to each other on the second dimension of conflict. An outsider-insider dimension emerges. And in the historical record, a period of depolarization follows.

Graphic by Lee Drutman. Source: Voteview.org

Graphic by Lee Drutman. Source: VoteView.org.

One rough way to measure the prevalence of this insider-outsider dimension is to take the difference in DW-NOMINATE correlations between the two parties. If the correlations point in different directions (like they do now), the differences between the two parties are going to be high. When the second-dimension scores are picking up a variant on the traditional liberal-conservative conflict, the differences should be low. I consider this difference a measure of "cross-partisan outsider voting." Admittedly, it's a somewhat crude measure. But I'm pretty sure it's picking up some version of this conflict.

The graph below plots this "cross-partisan outsider voting" measure over time. This measure of cross-partisan outsider voting rises in the 1900s and 1910s, peaking around 1923, then steadily declining until 1995, when Republicans retake the House. If history repeats itself, the rise of this insider-outsider conflict should precipitate depolarization.

Graphic by Lee Drutman. Source: VoteView.org.

Looking at this graph over time, one might also observe that Republican control increases cross-partisan outsider voting while Democratic control decreases it. Most likely, this is because Republican control has generally involved stronger centralized leadership, which creates more of an outsider backlash over time. Democrats, meanwhile, controlled Congress largely from 1933 to 1995 with a coalition of Southern conservatives and Northern liberals, whose disagreements stymied centralized control.

The patterns in the Senate look similar (see below), though they tend to lag behind the House. Since members of Congress often work their way up from the House through the Senate, the conflict in the House is a good preview of the future conflict in the Senate.

Graphic by Lee Drutman. Source: VoteView.org.

Could Republicans actually govern the House in 2017?

It's very, very likely a Democrat will be in the White House for the next four years, and almost equally likely that Republicans will hold the House for the next four years as well. Perhaps we will go through the same budget dance over and over again, in which a last-minute bipartisan compromise is worked out after the normal process breaks down, the anti-establishment conservatives go crazy, the existing speaker resigns, a new speaker is elected with new promises, and that new speaker subsequently disappointments because no other deal is possible.

But what happens if Republicans have a narrower majority in 2017 than they do now (which seems increasingly likely)? And what if a greater share of the Republican caucus is made up of HFC or HFC-aligned conservatives, making a speaker more reliant on them (also likely, since HFC members tend to come from safer seats)?

After all, no Republican could look at the 2016 primary as anything other than a referendum against the "establishment." Consider, for example, that the Republican who won the primary in John Boehner's district (OH-8), Warren Davidson, is an HFC-type conservative, whose website tells voters that "if the status quo frustrates you, not just in Washington, but within the Republican Party, send Warren Davidson to Congress." This is a very safe Republican seat. Davidson will almost certainly be in Congress in 2017.

At some point, there will be probably two options for a Republican speaker who actually wants to be able to govern without being held hostage by an insurgent outsider faction. Either make an official pact with Democrats to elect a bipartisan speaker and explicitly govern from the center, or agree to the HFC process demands and promise to let the committee process play out on its own, and then force a last-minute deal when/where it breaks down. The old promise — to govern as a coherent party — will no longer be an option because the party will be too divided.

This is why I think we are about to enter a period of depolarization. Polarization increases when parties are coherent and homogeneous enough to delegate to strong leaders, who then discipline members into line. But this is breaking down. On a growing number of issues, outsiders in both parties disagree with insiders (sometimes for the same reasons, often for different reasons). We see it on the budget. We see it on trade, on surveillance. Perhaps we'd see it on a moderate immigration deal.

And as it becomes harder to lead parties, Congress will inevitably become more decentralized, which will lead to further depolarization as more issues that might otherwise have been suppressed by strong leadership percolate up.

Looking at the voting data over time, it becomes clearer that something is changing. The current levels of polarization were never sustainable. Now it's looking more (to me, at least) like they won't be sustained.