Republicans Can't Govern With Republicans Alone
The failure of Obamacare repeal efforts exposed a harsh reality: Despite controlling the White House, the House and the Senate, Republicans cannot govern with Republican votes alone. They can either limit their ambitions to proposals that can attract Democratic votes, and then actively pursue those votes, or they can go down in history as presiding over the least effective Congress in modern history.
Democratic President Harry Truman tagged the Republican-led 80th Congress as the “do-nothing Congress,” finding the perfect foil to fuel his upset 1948 victory. But that supposed bastion of gridlock still passed more than 900 bills in a two-year span. The numeric output of more recent divided governments has been far worse. The first two years of President Bill Clinton facing off with a Republican Congress produced only 337 bills (though one of them – welfare reform – fulfilled a Clinton campaign promise and aided his re-election). The 112th and 113th Congresses, in which a Republican House routinely stymied Democratic President Barack Obama, were the two least productive sessions since the Truman days, coughing up less than 300 bills each.
But this 115th Congress is off to the worst start ever: just 43 bills in six months, few with any heft. And that’s with one-party rule!
Why has what Speaker Paul Ryan once heralded as “the dawn of a new unified Republican government” turned dark so fast? Because Republicans errantly believed they were actually unified, prompting Ryan and his colleagues to concoct a legislative strategy largely premised on cutting Democrats completely out of the loop.
To avoid the Senate rule allowing a minority of 41 senators to filibuster indefinitely, Republicans decided that the two big priorities for 2017 – supplanting the Affordable Care Act and revamping the tax code – would be handled through “budget reconciliation,” a process that bars filibusters but is restricted to proposals that are budgetary in nature and won’t increase the deficit over the long term.
Keeping legislation in the Republican family was going to make things easier. No complicated negotiations with Democrats. No jettisoning of core principles to stitch together awkward, unsatisfying compromises.
This Republican family, however, is deeply dysfunctional. And don’t just pin it on Donald Trump. Nearly two years ago, the previous Republican speaker had to quit his job and leave town because he couldn’t keep the government open with GOP votes alone, and exercising the bare minimum of bipartisanship was seen as a firing offense.
Republicans can easily work among themselves to pick off the low-hanging fruit not subject to filibuster and not involving complex policy details: confirming a Supreme Court justice and repealing last-minute Obama-era regulations. But health care policy is byzantine, and finding 50 Senate Republican votes for a specific, comprehensive alternative to the Affordable Care Act proved impossible.
Trump’s response to this failure is mathematically challenged. In a Saturday morning Twitter rant, he demanded Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell permanently eliminate the legislative filibuster. He thundered:
The very outdated filibuster rule must go. Budget reconciliation is killing R's in Senate. Mitch M, go to 51 Votes NOW and WIN. IT'S TIME!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017
Republicans in the Senate will NEVER win if they don't go to a 51 vote majority NOW. They look like fools and are just wasting time......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2017
But the filibuster wasn’t the issue with the defeat of Obamacare repeal. Republicans couldn’t get to 50, not 60. The problem was not the threshold, nor was it the parliamentary parameters around the reconciliation process. The problem was Republicans chose to only hunt for votes among the limited pool of fellow Republicans.
In past instances of one-party rule in Washington, we did not see such a cramped legislative strategy. Obama wrangled Republican votes – not many, but more than zero – to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus”) in 2009 and the Dodd-Frank bank reform bill in 2010. In Clinton’s first two years, he had Republican help to enact the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Brady Bill, the North American Free Trade agreement and the crime bill. In 2003, when President George W. Bush had a Republican Congress, Democrats were needed to create a new prescription drug benefit, and – even though Republicans used reconciliation -- to enact tax cuts.
These aren’t examples of generosity, but necessity. Outside of reconciliation bills, the 60-vote Senate threshold always needed to be cleared. And in most of these cases, the president couldn’t, and didn’t, rely on a fully unified majority party. If these presidents couldn’t find members of the opposition party with whom to negotiate, their legislative priorities would have been sunk.
Trump has strangely refused to absorb the bipartisan lesson, despite having once been a Democrat and continuing to refer to himself as the consummate dealmaker. Pressuring McConnell to end the filibuster may have the opposite intended effect; instead of increasing Republican unity and legislative output, Trump may exacerbate Republican tensions.
McConnell has already pledged to leave the legislative filibuster intact; he’s been in the minority enough to know that the tables can quickly turn. Even if he bent to Trump’s demands, most likely there are at least three “institutionalist” Republican senators who wouldn’t go along, enough to deny a rule change. So a concerted push to end the filibuster would consume Republicans in another acrimonious test of partisan loyalty, not set the stage for a legislative bonanza.
The warning signs of another partisan train wreck are already flashing. Republicans are planning to handle tax reform through reconciliation, but as with health care, they have little consensus among themselves about what exactly to propose.
Last week, tax talks between White House officials and Republican leaders produced a statement claiming, “We are all united in the belief that the single most important action we can take to grow our economy and help the middle class get ahead is to fix our broken tax code.” But they weren’t united in many policy specifics; the statement offered little more than a desire for “a plan that reduces tax rates as much as possible.” The statement didn’t bother to include a single number for any of those tax rates. Once again, after months of deliberations, Republicans don’t agree among themselves.
Republicans should have learned by now: Squeezing out partisan legislation from a disunited party is akin to extracting blood from a stone. The bipartisan path may be a frustrating one, and often requires placing limits on what can be accomplished. But unless Republicans change course, and ignore Trump’s urge for a hyper-partisan Senate, they will remain on their current path of historic congressional ineffectiveness.