There are a lot of unhappy Republicans in Washington right now, as the Russia scandal seems to grow more tentacles by the hour. While everyone seems to be asking whether President Trump can survive in office, even if we presume that he will, the GOP faces another threat:
Is its already floundering legislative agenda going to fall apart completely?
For the first time in years, Republicans have control of the entire federal government, and with that control, they’ve accomplished almost nothing. Just imagine if they have to go before the voters a year and a half from now with nothing to show for this time except scandals and chaos. For the entirety of the Obama administration, they said, “Just give us Congress and the White House, and we’ll show you all we can do.” Well, now they’re showing it, all right.
Even before this scandal ramped up, they had already undertaken a catastrophic attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the result of which was a boost in popularity for the ACA, a wave of grass-roots mobilization on the left, a national discussion on the importance of things such as Medicaid and protections for people with preexisting conditions, and the creation of what has to be the least popular major piece of legislation in memory. It was something of a victory that they passed that legislative cowpie through the House, but they’re still faced with a quandary: Admit that they can’t do what they promised for the past seven years, or pass a bill that everyone will hate and that will cause huge Republican losses in 2018.
Which leads us to their next priority: tax reform. How’s that going? Their most important constituencies don’t think it’s going too well:
Wall Street and corporate America view President Donald Trump’s bold agenda for a sweeping tax overhaul as largely dead for the year.
Executives, lobbyists and Wall Street analysts increasingly believe the administration — distracted by repeated crises while facing a short and crowded legislative calendar — will be unable to deliver on Trump’s promise to slash corporate and individual tax rates this year and ignite significantly faster economic growth.
The main hope now in corporate America and on Wall Street is that the White House and Congress manage to bypass a scary fight over raising the nation’s debt limit this summer, keep the government open and avoid any major foreign policy crisis.
Republicans might still be able to pass some kind of tax cut, but they won’t be able to do real tax reform. Even in the best of circumstances, tax reform can take years to accomplish, because there are so many competing interests whose priorities and goals are at odds. So it seems less likely with each passing day.
The White House’s legislative incompetence, starting at the top, doesn’t help. Look at what happened a few weeks ago on taxes. The president announced on a Friday that he would be producing a tax plan by the following Wednesday — apparently without warning his own aides, leaving them to scramble to come up with a document. “The reason your head is spinning on this is that the plan isn’t even written yet,” said one White House official at the time.
The result was a one-page list of bullet points that no one took seriously. We later learned that the whole thing happened because Trump read an op-ed by Steve Forbes, Larry Kudlow, Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore — the Larry, Moe, Curly and Shemp of trickle-down economics — and told his staff to make the op-ed their tax plan.
Now in theory, there’s no reason Republicans couldn’t pass a bunch of substantial bills even as scandal swirls around the administration and no one in the White House seems to have any clue what they’re doing. That was the idea, after all — Trump would be something of a figurehead, while Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell would pass legislation on all the bottled-up conservative legislative priorities, and he’d sign whatever they put in front of him. As anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist would say, all Republicans needed was a president “with enough working digits to handle a pen.”
But in practice, it turns out not to be so easy. Divisions remain among Republicans in Congress. Scandals from the White House end up monopolizing everyone’s time. “We could do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda,” says McConnell.
And the fact that Republicans have to go about enacting their agenda without the public behind them makes it harder. Oddly enough, Americans aren’t burning for a tax cut for the wealthy. You don’t always need broad public support for the bills you want to pass, but without it, things become much more tenuous. Vulnerable members start looking over their shoulders and wondering whether they need to buck the party and the White House on some bills so that they can tell their constituents they aren’t just a rubber stamp. The Trump presidency makes a wave election in 2018 more likely, making everyone more nervous. That all combines to create an everyone-for-themselves atmosphere in which rounding up votes becomes harder.
So all those major bills Republicans were going to pass start stretching out into weeks and months and eventually maybe years. Meanwhile, there are other potential crises looming. Congress has to pass a budget by Oct. 1st, or else the government will shut down. That’s a prospect that Republican leaders dread, but some hard-line conservatives may not. They may look back on the time they shut down the government in 2013 and think, “Hey, it didn’t work out so badly — we won the Senate the next year, and then we got the White House.”
The same might be said of the debt ceiling, which has the potential to cause an even more dramatic crisis. Some time in the fall (there’s no way to know yet exactly when), the ceiling will have to be raised or the United States will go into default, an eventuality that could cause a global financial meltdown. We’ve been here twice before, in 2011 and 2013, and in both cases the Obama White House reached an agreement with Republican leaders that overcame the kamikaze tea partyers who were willing to invite catastrophe in order to get the spending cuts they were after.
Could we go through it again? We well might. The hard-liners could demand vicious and unpopular cuts in exchange for raising the ceiling, the leadership might resist and the whole thing could go down to the wire yet again.
To be honest, I have no idea how that would end. But it’s looking more likely that Republicans will go before the voters in 2018 with almost nothing to show for their time with total control of government. Which could help bring that control to an early end.