The Tea Party Influence

Up with the "Merry Christmas" bill, down with the Medicaid rider.
Mon May 20, 2013 8:30 am

On Friday, a joint conference committee from the House and Senate announced a budget deal for the 2014-2015 biennium. The result, assuming that it passes the full House and Senate next week, comes in at about $195.5 billion—more than last time around, and although it doesn't break the spending cap, it does allow for about $2 billion dollars to be withdrawn from the Rainy Day Fund to pay for water. 

No major surprises, in other words. It's a deal that addresses one of the fundamental questions of the session: does Texas, or the Tea Party, have control? And to answer that, let's take a closer look at one of the other details of the conference committee's deal: a rider that would have made it easier for Texas to accept federal funds to expand eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. 

Whether or not Texas should do this has been one of the ongoing dramas of the past few months. Democrats, of course, have been for it. The Tea Party-type Republicans in the Texas Legislature, who reach for their adrenaline injections whenever they hear a word related to Obamacare, are obviously against it, and Governor Rick Perry, agrees with them. 

Regular Republicans, though, have taken a more nuanced view. There is a fiscally conservative case for expanding eligibility for Medicaid, which is that given how much the state and local governments currently spend on uninsured care, expanding coverage would save the taxpayers money. There's also a fiscally conservative case against expanding eligibility for Medicaid, which is that Medicaid, as it stands, is an inefficient system, and that money allocated to it is money that can't be more effectively allocated. 

Both of these arguments are reasonable, and a couple of fiscally conservative Republicans had come up with plans that attempted to address both by positing a "Texas solution" to Medicaid. John Zerwas, a representative from Richmond, authored a bill that would have allowed for a "cost-neutral" expansion--in other words, that would have cleared the path for Texas to take the federal expansion, but only under terms designed to improve the efficiency of the overall expansion. That died in the House Calendar Committee .

That left only one prospect for the Medicaid expansion: a budget rider authored by Tommy Williams , a Republican senator from The Woodlands, which stipulated that Texas could only take the expansion if the state's Legislative Budget Board ensured that any state-federal deal included similar provisions—wellness incentives, co-pays, health savings accounts, and so on. It was, in other words, a fundamentally conservative rider, and it wasn't controversial in the Senate. 

It wasn't controversial among the reasonable people in the House, either, of either party. It was Lon Burnam, one of the more vocally progressive Democrats, who added Williams's rider to the House version of the budget bill, and Zerwas told the Texas Tribune that he would defend it to his Republican colleagues. The rider wouldn't have accomplished as much as the bill he had authored, Zerwas noted; it didn't even call for the budget to include additional funding for Medicaid, "but beggars can't be choosers." 

But the rider was probably the most contentious issue faced by the conference committee. Some House Republicans—the subset that is generally summarized as the Tea Party—had been going around warning their colleagues that they wouldn't support any budget that included "language for a framework to possibly expand eligibility" Medicaid, as Brandon Creighton, the ringleader of this group, had put it in a letter to his colleagues.

The Tea Party-type Republicans don't make up a majority of the House, of course; they don't even make up a majority of the Republican caucus. And yet on this matter, at least, they prevailed; the conference committee quietly killed the rider. One interpretation of this is that the Republicans in the Texas House have gotten very serious about critical theory, and agreed with Creighton's implicit argument that insofar as language creates reality, any language that allows for a debate about Medicaid expansion would have created a far more grave risk that such an expansion would indeed occur.

The more plausible interpretation, however, is that the tail was wagging the dog, because a number of House Republicans are afraid of being challenged in the Republican primary. This is unbecoming and does give some credence to the longstanding complaint, on the Democratic side, that Texas Republicans are simply unreasonable. The Democrats shouldn't, however, be feeling too self-righteous about this; for all the hype about "Texas turning blue," it's still the case, apparently, that the biggest challenge to Texas Republicans is coming from other Republicans, rather than Democrats. 

Setting aside the partisan back-and-forth, the session thus far does give a more clear idea of the Tea Party's leverage in the state GOP. The House's insistence on yanking the Medicaid rider shows that their influence is real. The overall conference budget, though, shows that it's limited. It spends more than the more hard-line Republican groups would have liked overall. It puts $3.9 billion back into public education; that was the number Democrats had set as their target, and it was not opposed by the business lobby or the mainstream Republicans. Perhaps more to the point, the budget now includes $2 billion in funding for water. That might not have been the top concern for the industry lobbyists this session, but of all the various stakeholders in Texas, they were arguably the people most determined to advance that issue. As pollster Jim Henson explained in April , although business people are very attuned to the state's looming water problems—they need water to run their businesses—it's never emerged as a popular priority, on either side of the aisle. 

In other words, the Tea Party can, occasionally, carry the day, but only on the issues that have effectively been ceded to them. The question is whether issues are being ceded to them because mainstream politicians see their influence as being greater than that.  

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