When Republicans swept November’s election, it looked as if 2017 would introduce a major legislative switch to the right. But two months into the 115th Congress and six weeks into the Trump administration, Republicans are further away from the legislative progress they’re looking for, not closer.
Plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act have quickly become haphazard developments, lawmakers are reeling at the prospect of millions of Americans losing their health insurance. An overhaul of corporate taxes that has backing in the House is running into serious opposition from Senate Republicans, and work on a major infrastructure bill, which President Trump has always been more enthusiastic about than congressional Republicans, has been moved to next year.
And we haven’t even mentioned the proposed overhauling of Dodd-Frank.
It’s important to note, the Obama administration needed 14 months to pass its health care overhaul. However, the more current slowing pace of the legislative gears can be attributed to Senate Democrats blocking the confirmation of President Trump’s nominees, which in turn slows the governing process.
But there’s also another element that’s slowing the progress of the Republican agenda.
Large portions of the Republican caucus have traditionally embraced a culture of rejecting policy proposals. They criticize any piece of legislation that doesn’t completely accomplish conservative goals, but don’t build coalitions to devise complex legislation themselves.
The years of opposition against president Obama’s agenda have been well recorded, and that very opposition is rooted in ideology. To get a better sense, consider the direction domestic policy took after the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush.
First, then-president Bush sought to partly privatize Social Security, an agenda which went absolutely nowhere in a Republican-led Congress. He began pitching comprehensive immigration reform, conservatives quickly put distance between themselves and the plan. Democrats would later win a majority in Congress in 2006, Republicans as a whole would vote against Bush’s proposed TARP bill in 2008, which he said was needed desperately to avoid economic disaster.
The last time Republicans have done any heavy lifting in carving domestic policy came during Bush’s first term, a rather productive time for the party that oversaw the expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs, the No Child Left Behind education law and the the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which reshaped securities law and tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.
But that’s now 15 years ago, only 51 of the current 238 House Republicans were around to experience those days. Which means a significant majority of current House Republicans have zero experience working in a party making major domestic policy.
“The vast bulk of the Republican conference were elected on howls of protests against Obama’s agenda, but governing is a very different skill,” Michael Steel, who was a top aide to former Speaker of the House John Boehner, and is now a managing director at Hamilton Place Strategies, was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “It requires a different kind of muscle, and that muscle has atrophied.”
Steel cited the fact that House Speaker Paul Ryan has sought to keep his legislative muscles toned by passing elements of his “Better Way” agenda, even when they had little or no chance of being passed by the Senate or being signed by President Obama.
Having a Republican in the White House is no basis to guarantee any sort of legislative success. Several of the newer Republican lawmakers have shown very little initiative in following party leaders with more experience in passing complex legislation. During the debt ceiling standoffs of 2011 and 2013, the latter of which resulted in a government shutdown, congressional leaders were confronted by their bases, who were completely unwilling to compromise with President Obama.
Boehner called conservative members of his party who sought government shutdowns “false prophets” who “whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things they know are never going to happen.”
If you spend a lifetime opposing even the most basic work of making a government run, it’s then very difficult to just switch into legislation mode. Creating legislation requires compromise and flexibility by nature. Some politicians do a more astute job than others at opposing and creating legislation, but those members are a heavy minority.
You’re seeing that dynamic on display most vividly with the Republicans’ efforts to repeal Obamacare. They have spent years criticizing the law, but that criticism has always been horribly flawed with contradiction. Republicans say the health insurance that people obtain through the law is sub-par and far too expensive; they also say the program involves too much government intervention.
If you make the program cheaper and more market-based, you’re surely making insurance companies less comprehensive, leaving fewer Americans well covered.
These days, Boehner is singing a completely different tune. Now retired from professional politics, he said he doesn’t think Republicans will not repeal and replace Obamacare, despite their many years of promising to do so.
“In the 25 years that I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never, ever, one time agreed on what a health care proposal should look like,” Boehner said at a panel discussion. “Not once.”
If a more conventional Republican administration were manning the halls at Pennsylvania Avenue — i.e. Mitt Romney or John Kasich — clearer leadership on policy details could be emerging. But President Trump has appeared even less attuned to policy detail than the typical House Republican. He made very few mentions of his policy agenda while on the campaign, and he has only recently seemed to figure out what a mess healthcare policy can be.
“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” President Trump said Monday.
None of this of course means that major legislation won’t be introduced in the coming years. Republicans have united behind the idea of a tax cut, many analysts believe a major tax package will be enacted this year or early in 2018.