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Mike Johnson: Louder Than Words

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) promised that he was going to be a good soldier, and that he would be up to the challenge of leading the House of Representatives. However, actions are more important than words, and his actions so far have made clear he's got no real interest in governance.

As we have already noted, Johnson decided to bring a bill to the floor of the House providing $14.3 billion in aid for Israel. Yesterday, it passed 226-196, with a dozen Democrats joining 214 Republicans in voting for it and two Republicans joining 194 Democrats in voting against.

Let's now review why this is nothing more than political theater. First, nobody really believes Johnson's promise that he'll bring a Ukraine funding bill to the floor next. Second, it was not enough for him to bring an Israel-only bill, one that will never pass the Senate; he also jammed in a provision cutting funding for the IRS. That makes it doubly unacceptable for Democrats, including Joe Biden. Third, Johnson's stated reason for cutting the IRS funding is to "balance" things out (i.e., spending $14 billion on Israel is offset by cutting $14 billion from the budget). In truth, cutting the IRS funding will actually increase the deficit, as the CBO confirmed yesterday, depriving the government of more than $25 billion in revenue. Johnson knew this even before the CBO weighed in; what he was really doing was using Israel as cover for giving a giant gift to the donor class (who will be the subject of fewer audits, and will be able to get away with more tax cheating, if funding is cut).

The item we wrote earlier this week, about Johnson being duplicitous, comes to mind. That said, while we believe he is dishonest, even by politicians' standards, we don't think he's stupid. He has no expectation that the bill passed yesterday will ever become law. So, what's he trying to achieve here? We see three possibilities:

  1. He thinks the donor class will be pleased, at least for now, with empty gestures. It's possible they might be, but even if so, empty gestures won't get it done for long.

  2. He thinks that the base is stupid, and won't grasp what's going on here. This is very plausible, although every time Johnson or another Republican goes on TV to say "Hey! We tried to give money to Israel!" a Democrat or a more moderate Republican is going to go on TV and say "We're not going to throw Ukraine under the bus" or "We're not interested in helping the Speaker fatten the wallets of the rich, and we're bothered that he used the tragedy in Israel to try to do so."

  3. He thinks this will give him leverage. If he thinks this, however, he's naive. Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have already said it's a no-go. If Johnson was interested in leverage, he would have included one thing the Senate and the President want, one thing the Republicans really want, and one thing the Republicans want but are willing to let go. With this bill, there's one thing everyone already agrees on (the Israel money) and one thing the Democrats will never go for (the IRS cuts). There aren't any actual bargaining chips. Sure, Johnson might be able to demand less money for Ukraine than Biden wants, but that possibility was already on the table, without this silly political theater.

And therein lies the rub. If Johnson had pushed a bill with the Israel money, plus 60% of what Biden wants for Ukraine (about $50 billion), plus $20 billion for border enforcement, that bill might well have a presidential signature already. Certainly, it would be very hard for the Senate or the White House to say "no." And then Johnson could have claimed a relatively easy victory, crowing about money for Israel/the border while also bragging that he slashed the Ukraine ask. This would have been a good start to his speakership.

Instead, Johnson chose the "show horse" route, putting the rest of Washington on notice as to what kind of leader he is. So, the Senate is just going to amend his bill and send it back to the House, where he'll either have to swallow hard and take his medicine, or else be the guy who blocked funding for Israel. Meanwhile, the senators also passed three bills yesterday to fund the federal government next year; the ones that cover military construction and veterans affairs, agriculture, and transportation and housing. Put another way, the more experienced politicians are seizing the initiative while hemming Johnson in.

In short, the Speaker is setting himself up to get an education, and one that will be conveyed much more quickly than when he got his two degrees at Louisiana State University. (Z)

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