The Patience of Leadership: A Lesson for Trump

The Patience of Leadership: A Lesson for Trump
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Without providing specifics, President Trump has promised to model his forthcoming tax reform and reduction proposal after the 1986 legislation signed by Ronald Reagan. But doing so will require patience, a quality in which Trump seems in short supply.

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was the most important domestic accomplishment of President Reagan’s second term. It simplified the income tax code, broadened the tax base and eliminated many tax shelters while also lowering the top rate from 50 percent to 28 percent and raising the bottom rate from 11 percent to 15 percent.

Even though Reagan enjoyed bipartisan support for the bill from the outset, it took him 323 days to get it through Congress, with many dicey moments along the way.  Reagan had much going for him that Trump does not. Reagan’s job approval ratings were in the 60s during most of 1986. Trump’s approval rating, as measured by Gallup after withdrawal of the Republican health care plan, is 35 percent. (The RealClearPolitics average shows him slightly higher, at 41.8 percent.)

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 was introduced by a Democrat, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, who helped overcome opposition in the House. No Democratic member of Congress has yet come forward to help Trump on any big issue. Even with this bipartisan backing, the 1986 legislation was hung up in the Senate for months before it was pried loose by the White House, Treasury Secretary James Baker and Republican Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon.

The point of this historical exercise is to observe that major legislation usually takes time. The mighty legislative accomplishments of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first 100 days are an exception; and this happened in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression when a quarter of Americans were unemployed.

In modern times Congress moves slowly. It took George W. Bush 166 days to win bipartisan approval of Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit for older Americans. It took 187 days for Barack Obama to get the Affordable Care Act passed on party lines.

Republicans won control of the House in 2010 and immediately promised to repeal Obamacare. They passed scores of repeal bills in the six next years. Only one of them made it through the Senate, where it was vetoed by Obama. When Republicans won the White House while retaining both houses of Congress last November, many of them claimed that Obamacare would be repealed and replaced—with something. Trump promised to make it the first order of business.

But the replacement bill known as the American Health Care Act, proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, lasted only 17 days before it was withdrawn because neither Ryan nor the president could muster the votes to get it through the lower chamber.

This was a momentous setback for Trump and the House leadership but not as startling as it seemed at first blush. Without much forethought, Republicans found themselves stuck with a bill maligned from the left and right, one that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would cost 24 million Americans their health care coverage.

How did this happen? There are many explanations, but the most obvious one is that the AHCA did not go through the usual legislative process. Normally, a major bill —say, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 or the ACA itself—is subject to days or even weeks of hearings, allowing supporters to become comfortable with it. Hearings may also disclose provisions that lack public support.

Had Ryan’s health care bill been subject to even cursory hearings, the negative public reaction to dropping millions of people from health care coverage would have been known and possibly corrected. Instead, the flawed measure was just flung, undigested, into the public arena.

Ryan certainly knew its contents, for he has long been engrossed in health care issues. But most rank-and-file Republican members of Congress are not experts; they had campaigned on repealing Obamacare without reading the fine print of the Ryan replacement and were surprised at the intensity of the hostile reaction in their districts. I suspect that more than a few of these members are relieved they won’t have to defend the bill when they stand for re-election.

In a moment of frustrated candor before the legislation was withdrawn, Trump said, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” Really? Many ordinary Americans could have told him -- from struggles over coverage and payments with insurance companies, physicians and hospitals -- how complicated health care in our country can be. People who obtained insurance under Obamacare aren’t eager to start over under a new system.

Nor are people lining up to ask Congress to scrap their favorite tax deductions. Tax reform is complicated, too. There’s not likely to be a meaningful reform bill unless Trump is able to build the public case for it that Reagan did in 1986 and also unless he has allies among the Democrats.

The fate of the American Health Care Act could be a useful lesson for the president and the congressional leadership going forward—if they’re able to heed it. Hold extensive hearings on major legislation. Take your time. Demonstrate the patience of leadership.

Lou Cannon worked 26 years for The Washington Post and lives in California. He is the author of “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”

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