December 11, 2013
Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner testifies on Capitol Hill on Nov. 5 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing as the panel seeks reassurances about problems with the debut of the Affordable Care Act. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Medicare chief Marilyn Tavenner testifies on Capitol Hill on Nov. 5 about problems with the debut of the Affordable Care Act. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

The big lesson from the HealthCare.gov fiasco is for the president’s party in Congress. The lesson? Don’t be cheerleaders. The best thing members of Congress can do for themselves and their party is to be tough on the White House and on the executive branch.

It’s very simple: Pressure from Congress can work. That’s going to be especially true about same-party pressure, which is much harder for an administration to write off as irrelevant. Cabinet secretaries, agency administrators and other top staff have to pay attention when Congress starts asking tough questions — and the White House takes notice, too. Indeed, they’ll even pay attention to the out-party, which is exactly why the administration’s friends have to ask constructive tough questions. If they don’t, the path of least resistance often will be to react only to the out-party’s concerns, and those often (and certainly in the case of the Affordable Care Act) aren’t intended to be constructive.

To their credit, many Democrats in Congress have been tough on the White House and the executive branch — at least since Oct. 1. But before that, the loudest voices in Congress, as far as I can tell, were Republican obstructionists. And, by all accounts, they had some effect, with the Department of Health and Human Services pushing back some decisions in order to duck or delay political trouble, even at the cost of giving the tech folks less time to get things up and running. Yes, some Senate Democrats pushed the administration, as when Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) used the words “train wreck,” but not enough. And Republicans were quick to exploit it.

A similar example in which the president’s party did an even worse job was the Iraq War; Republicans in Congress (again, with some exceptions) did an even worse job on that one. The Iraq example also demonstrates the consequences of the cheerleader role. When policy goes wrong, it doesn’t matter much that the party puts up a brave front of solidarity. Yes, it helps short-term media coverage. But, eventually, important policy disasters will overwhelm spin. Hill Republicans would have been far better off asking tougher questions in 2005 and 2006, even at the cost of giving the press more ammunition for hitting the Bush White House. Because ultimately, Hill Republicans (and President Bush, for that matter) would have been better off if the administration had taken aggressive action in 2005 or 2006, rather than waiting for the unambiguous signal of electoral defeat in November 2006.

The temptation for members of Congress from the president’s party to play cheerleader is strong, and it’s understandable. After all, out-party criticisms are often unfair and sometimes may be outright lies; the president always appears to need defending — at least in public. The short-term effect on daily news cycles is quite real, too. After all, they are all on the same team, and supportive constituents are apt to be supporters of the president as well, and they might be unsettled (or worse) by public hits on the administration.

Nevertheless, for both policy and even political reasons, the cheerleader temptation should be strongly resisted. Effective constructive criticism is almost always the best thing same-party members can do for their president and their party.