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Herding Cats

Populist contradictions in Mike Johnson’s first major bill.

Former Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Patrick McHenry talks to then-Rep. Mike Johnson before the House of Representatives holds an election for a new Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol on October 25, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Imagine you’ve just been elected speaker of the House by a conference that can’t agree on anything, including who should be speaker of the House.

What would your top priority be in your first weeks on the job?

House Republicans did finally agree on something when they elected Mike Johnson, of course, but it took weeks of political agony—and ultimately pure exhaustion—to force them into alignment. He was the fifth choice of his colleagues, behind Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, Jim Jordan, and Tom Emmer. No speaker in modern American history has begun from a position of such weakness.

So imagine you’re Mike Johnson, having just been handed the gavel. You’re desperate to restore order to the House majority and prove that you can lead. What’s your first order of business? A government funding bill? Aid to Ukraine? Weapons for Israel?

No. Your first major order of business is simply to prove that you can get 217 votes on major legislation from your fractious, ungovernable, two-parties-under-one-banner laughingstock of a conference. Which is just what Johnson has undertaken to do.

Circumstance has placed Israel atop his legislative agenda, so that will have to be the vehicle by which he proves he’s capable of herding cats. On Monday, he unveiled his proposal for supporting the Jewish state in its war on Hamas, offering $14.3 billion in aid that would be offset by cutting funds previously allocated to the IRS to beef up its tax-collection mechanisms.

Democrats were mortified by that so-called “pay-for.” “The idea that somehow you would basically condition support for Israel on giveaways to wealthy tax cheats takes your breath away,” Sen. Ron Wyden complained. Others rejected the bill out of hand because it includes no funding for Ukraine, against Joe Biden’s wishes.

And not just Biden’s. The most outspoken advocate in the Senate for tying aid to Israel and Ukraine together is Johnson’s Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell. The Senate majority leader went so far as to appear publicly with Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. on Monday at an event in Kentucky to emphasize his support for “swift and decisive action” against “the tyrants who have terrorized the people of Ukraine and of Israel.”

Nothing says “GOP” in 2023 like watching the party’s leadership crack up over foreign policy during the new speaker’s first week in office.

For Mike Johnson, though, the virtue of separating funding for Israel from Ukraine and attaching it to budget cuts for the IRS is less a matter of ideology than of desperate expediency. He needs something that can pass the House with Republican votes exclusively to prove that the House majority can, in fact, govern like a House majority.. If there aren’t 217 votes for funding Ukraine and Israel together, and there aren’t, and if there aren’t 217 votes to fund Israel without a gesture toward fiscal responsibility, and there aren’t, then the bill will be crafted in whatever way is required to get those 217 votes.

The legislation is best understood as a “team-building trust exercise,” in the words of lobbyist Liam Donovan. With a number of appropriations bills and another shutdown standoff on the near horizon, Johnson seized the opportunity here to make the members who elected him happy. The goodwill he’s earned by doing so will come in handy when the Senate promptly deposits this bill in the trash and forces House Republicans to compromise on bankrolling Ukraine as well.

All of which is to say that the new speaker’s first bill is best understood as a political gambit, not as a serious substantive proposal.

But if we do take it seriously as a substantive proposal, it seems like an awfully strange bit of policymaking for a party whose activist vanguard consists of “America First” nationalists.

“Mike Johnson’s Election Marks the End of Reagan’s GOP,” Matthew Continetti wrote on Tuesday in a piece published by Time magazine. We can quibble over the exact time of death of the Reagan revolution, but the fact that it perished at some point in the past eight years is no longer debatable.

So what is the GOP—Donald Trump’s GOP—doing conditioning aid to Israel on slashing the budget of the IRS? That’s starve-the-beast Reaganite fiscal conservatism in its purest form.

In Reagan’s day, “starving the beast” meant reducing tax rates and federal spending until agencies shrank to the point that they could be drowned in Grover Norquist’s bathtub. (The U.S. has amassed some $30 trillion in sovereign debt since Reagan left office. The beast doesn’t starve, it turns out, it just borrows and keeps gorging.) Hostility to taxes has remained so durable philosophically on the right for so long that even Trump made tax cuts a domestic priority in his first year as president.

But Trumpism has little use for fiscal conservatism as a project. Nationalists don’t want to starve the beast, they want to harness it and apply it to their own ends. And they have no principled objection to redistribution, they just want to make sure that benefits flow to favored constituencies. There was little ideological discomfort when Trump supervised a historic amount of federal spending during the pandemic, and not just because it was a once-in-a-lifetime emergency. Big government from the right is what Republicans signed up for when they nominated an authoritarian in 2016. Trump was simply fulfilling that promise.

If we take Trumpy populism seriously as an intellectual project (ahem), there should likewise be few qualms about a well-funded IRS siccing its agents on rich people. What does the “common man” care about a millionaire being turned upside down and having the coins shaken from his pockets? More revenue from the rich means more social welfare programs for struggling “real Americans,” no?

Democrats defended beefing up the IRS’ budget last year explicitly in those terms. Because the rich can afford armies of lawyers and accountants, the agency needs more resources to do proper legal combat with them. Without those resources, auditing the wealthy simply doesn’t pay. When Congress starves the tax-collecting beast, in other words, the beast doesn’t starve. It simply shifts from “hard targets” like the wealthy toward easier prey, like small-business owners.

One would think, then, that if Mike Johnson’s conference was keen to tinker with the IRS as a condition of funding Israel, they would leave the agency’s budget intact and instead pass a bill restricting the use of the new funding to enforcement against taxpayers earning, say, $1 million or more. It’s weird that a populist party led by a European-style post-liberal chose to go further, as if it were still led by Ronald Reagan.

Weird, but not that weird.

For starters, the right’s obsession with seeing its representatives “fight” all but compelled Johnson to seek some concession from Democrats even on a matter as urgent and righteous as support for Israel. Ultimately it didn’t matter what that concession was. If the GOP is going to spend money, it needs to get something in return with respect to one of its ideological hobby horses. Full stop.

As for why the IRS in particular was targeted, we should be mindful that the GOP remains an unruly coalition in which fiscal conservatives are a small, shrinking, yet still essential part, especially in the House. If Mike Johnson’s goal with this bill was to get to 217 votes, some concession to that conservative rump had to be made. “I support Israel but I am not going to continue to go down this road where we bankrupt our country and undermine our very ability to defend ourselves, much less our allies, by continuing to write blank checks,” Rep. Chip Roy said on Monday. He wanted a “pay-for” for his vote. Defunding the IRS is catnip for deficit hawks like him.

… never mind that, in this case, the tax revenue lost by reducing the agency’s enforcement budget will end up increasing the deficit on balance

Populists in the conference, meanwhile, hold a grudge against the IRS that has nothing to do with the merits of soaking the rich. MAGA diehards who began their political journey as Tea Partiers remember the agency’s scrutiny of conservative political groups during Obama’s administration. That grievance lingered for years, even into the early days of Trump’s presidency when Obama holdover John Koskinen remained the head of the department. Suspicions of political bias deepened when tidbits of Trump’s own tax returns began leaking to the press.

A populist political movement that’s conspiratorial by nature and broadly anti-government in outlook will never find much to dislike about targeting the IRS. Whatever is lost in tax revenue will be compensated for karmically by inflicting a wound on the “deep state.” That’ll teach them to abuse the power of government by harassing their political enemies.

And I do mean “them.” As always with the New Right, when “we” do it, it’s fine.

Still, populists and fiscal conservatives have good reason to doubt that additional funding for the IRS will be used for its intended purpose of targeting the rich. Last month, news broke that the agency is changing its protocols for auditing lower-income Americans after it discovered that recipients of the earned income tax credit were more likely to receive scrutiny—even though their audits produced little in terms of extra revenue. That policy left African Americans targeted for review disproportionately relative to the general population. If you worry that the IRS will apply its new enforcement resources not toward more rigorous audits of the very rich but toward more frequent audits of the “common man,” the lowest-hanging fruit on the taxpayer tree, well, you should.

So it’s not that strange after all for congressional leaders in a populist party to fear and loathe the IRS. And as a tactical matter, the IRS provision makes good sense for Johnson: Do House Democrats really want to have to explain to voters that they tanked funding for Israel because they couldn’t bear to see money taken out of the tax man’s pocket? At least some do not.

What is a little strange, though, is the other part of the bill. Why is this MAGA-dominated Republican conference basically unanimous about handing billions in U.S. tax dollars to Israel?

If you know your history, you’ll never fully adjust to the weirdness of an “America First” movement championing the Jewish state. 

You can despise their opposition to funding Ukraine—boy, I sure do—but you must concede that that’s a more or less coherent product of their worldview. The tax revenue America collects is supposed to benefit Americans, not the Ukrainian military. To argue that helping the latter means helping the former, you need to argue at a relatively high level of abstraction about geopolitics, far-flung national interests, and the alleged threat from Russia.

And even if you can make that argument, you’re left to explain how assisting Ukraine is a more urgent priority than assisting Americans domestically. What if we spent that $100 billion we’ve appropriated for Kyiv on, say, interdicting fentanyl trafficking instead?

Dumping billions into foreign aid is galling to America First-ers in principle but really galling when it’s spent to diminish Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin is an icon of post-liberalism, the world’s foremost right-wing antagonist of the Western liberal order. American populists are watching Joe Biden and Voldymyr Zelensky discredit the global authoritarian project on the battlefields of Ukraine and have to live with the knowledge that their own tax dollars are paying for it. Of course they oppose funding for Ukraine.

But why don’t they oppose aid to Israel for similar reasons? The $14.3 billion proposed by Mike Johnson could theoretically also help reduce fentanyl trafficking, no?

What exactly is the populist argument for treating Israel and Ukraine differently in terms of U.S. foreign aid?

There’s a strategic difference between the two, one might say. By supporting Israel, we’re merely antagonizing Hamas. By supporting Ukraine, we’re antagonizing one of the world’s great powers in Russia—and getting nothing for it. 

But that’s too simple. The damage Russia has suffered at the hands of a united West has doubtless been sobering to China. We may have purchased significant deterrence in the Far East without losing a single American soldier’s life. And Russia now barely qualifies as a “great power,” if it qualifies as one at all. It’s a nuclear power and an energy power, sure, but its reputation as a conventional military behemoth has been shattered thanks to Uncle Sam’s comparatively modest investment in Ukraine.

On the other hand, it’s wildly untrue that siding with Israel makes an enemy only of Hamas. Global politics would surely be easier for the United States if it turned its back on the Jewish state and allied itself with the hundreds of millions of Muslims behind the Palestinians. Our decades-long cold war with Iran might end. Jihadists of all stripes who resent the Great Satan for its alliance with the Little Satan would be deprived of a core grievance. A conflict in Gaza with enormous potential to spiral and spread across the region might sputter to a rapid close.

If “America First” means ruthlessly prosecuting our national interests without respect to moral considerations—and that’s certainly what it seems to mean to populists with respect to Ukraine—then not funding Israel would seem to be the obvious course.

But there’s an important moral consideration in this case, MAGA fans might say. We have a special duty to help Israel defend itself because the Holocaust was a special moral horror. That calls for an exception to “America First.”

It’s true that the Holocaust was a special horror—but it wasn’t our horror. If reparations are to be made to the Jewish people in the form of bolstering Israel’s defense, it’s for Germany and the nations of Europe to make them. Why are the tax dollars of American fentanyl addicts being diverted there?

And, logically, what other moral exceptions to “America First” should we be prepared to make? Slavery was also a special horror and the United States was very much a part of that one. What do we owe to the nations of Africa when war breaks out there? We robbed them ages ago of their human capital; the social and economic dysfunction caused by that trauma persists to this day. We have a moral duty to atone in times of conflict, one might say.

We might also point to the relative scale of the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine as a complicating factor in the moral calculus. When all is said and done, many more Ukrainians will have ended up dying at the hands of Russia than Israelis will die at the hands of Hamas. There’s no scenario in which jihadists in Gaza overrun and conquer Israel, at least without considerable regional military support; there was, and remains, a scenario in which Russia overruns Ukraine. And if it does, Putin’s vengeance on Ukrainians for having embarrassed him will be terrible.

In an “America First” movement that means what it says, there are no “moral exceptions.” “America First” is the moral position on foreign conflict.

But if aid for Israel doesn’t jibe strategically or morally with that approach to politics, why does even the MAGA bloc in Mike Johnson’s conference support it?

In fairness, not all do. Marjorie Taylor Greene has declared her opposition to aid, at least until Democrats agree to beef up funding for border security. And if you know where to look online, you’ll find the seeds of long-term populist opposition to Israel’s cause being planted on the right. But in Congress, at least, America First-ers remain solidly pro-Israel for now. Our old friend Matt Gaetz explains why.

For MAGA, it’s tribalism all the way down. I made that point at some length in Friday’s newsletter so I won’t belabor it here, but I think the difference between Israel and Ukraine for nationalists is a straightforward matter of there being a clear tribal rooting interest in the war in Gaza and no similar tribal interest at stake in Ukraine. On the ground, “America First” means “Judeo-Christians First.” Israel’s war fits neatly into that understanding of relevant tribes, involving as it does a constellation of radical Islamic threats on the other side. Ukraine’s war, on the other hand, does not.

If you understand post-liberalism as using state power to advance the interests of “our people” over everyone else’s, the only relevant political question is how “our people” is defined.

Mike Johnson will get to 217 on his bill, I suspect, notwithstanding Marjorie Taylor Greene’s surprisingly serious approach to the logic of “America First.”

And if he does, it’ll help paper over two cracks in this coalition that are destined to widen over time.

New funding for Israel will gratify hawkish traditional Republican voters who may have grown squeamish about the MAGA wing’s dovish approach to Ukraine. Ronald Reagan’s GOP may be dead, but it’s crucially important that neither Johnson nor Trump nor any other Republican leader issues anything like a formal death certificate. National elections are too closely run in America for the party to officially kiss off “peace through strength” conservatives who might otherwise be tempted to abandon ship. Money to crush Hamas will calm their nerves.

Defunding the IRS accomplishes the same thing with respect to fiscal divisions. The leader of this party has sworn up and down that he won’t touch entitlements, the chief driver of sovereign debt, if he returns to the White House. But if you’re a Chip-Roy-style deficit hawk who finds that troubling, chin up: Mike Johnson is going to claw back a $14 billion drop in the bucket from the IRS to prove that the party still cares about spending. Sort of. Symbolically.

That should be enough to keep conservatives, who are exceptionally cheap dates on policy, voting Republican for a while longer.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.