One way to interpret this failure is that Republicans were undone by an ignorant, erratic, feckless president who couldn’t be bothered to help them pass the bill. There’s some truth in that story — President Trump’s indifference and buffoonery certainly didn’t do them any favors. But the real failure belongs to Republicans in Congress, both the leadership and the rank and file. And now, as they try to salvage their agenda in what will be an unusually challenging few months, they could be undone by the same weaknesses that rendered them unable to pass their health-care bill.
Let’s have a look at what they’re facing:
The debt ceiling: Before Barack Obama became president, the debt ceiling was little more than a periodic opportunity for some consequence-free posturing. As it approached, members of the opposition party would give a few speeches railing against the administration’s free-spending ways, then Congress would vote to raise the ceiling, with a few of the opposition members casting protest votes against the increase. No one even considered not raising the ceiling as a serious possibility, as that would be cataclysmic — if the United States were no longer paying its debts, it could set off a worldwide financial crisis.
That is, until the tea party came to town, with a “tear it all down” philosophy and a hatred of Obama that burned with the fire of a thousand suns. So we had debt ceiling crises in 2011 and 2013 in which there was a serious possibility that the GOP would refuse to increase the ceiling and the government would go into default.
Which brings us today. The debt-ceiling increase must be passed by October, but the administration can’t even decide itself whether to have a “clean” vote without strings attached. Damian Paletta reports:
But [Treasury Secretary Steve] Mnuchin’s push on the debt ceiling was undermined from the start within the White House by Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Mulvaney is a former Republican congressman and founding member of the House Freedom Caucus who was brought into the White House, in part, to help influence how conservatives would vote on key issues.
Mulvaney publicly questioned Mnuchin’s call for a clean vote, saying that he would prefer spending cuts or other budget changes as part of any proposal to increase the debt ceiling. Some White House and Treasury officials were incensed to see Mulvaney break ranks, said several people involved in internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
So you have an administration fighting with itself, and Congress may end up fighting with itself as well, as the leadership tries to just increase the debt ceiling and avoid a catastrophe while conservative members try to use that specter as a way to extract policy concessions. What should be easy, because Republicans have total control of government, becomes excruciatingly hard.
(A side note: The fact that we have a debt ceiling at all is insane. The only other democratic country that has one is Denmark, and they set theirs so high that it’s never a problem. We should just get rid of it entirely.)
The budget: Today the House Budget Committee released a blueprint of the House budget, and in many ways it’s analogous to what gave them such difficulty on health care: It includes savage cuts to domestic programs that are politically perilous and will cause reservations among House moderates and threaten the bill’s chances in the Senate, yet are nonetheless decried by House conservatives as not cruel enough, all justified using unrealistic predictions about the future. Mike Debonis reports:
Like the spending blueprint released this year by President Trump, the House plan envisions major cuts to federal spending over the coming decade, bringing the budget into balance by relying on accelerated economic growth to boost revenue. Under the House plan, defense spending would steadily increase over 10 years while nondefense discretionary spending would decline to $424 billion — 23 percent below the $554 billion the federal government is spending in that category this year.
Unlike Trump’s budget, the House proposal cuts into Medicare and Social Security — entitlement programs that the president has pledged to preserve. The House plan also makes a less-rosy economic growth assumption of 2.6 percent versus the 3 percent eyed by the Trump administration. Both, however, exceed the 1.9 percent figure used by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in its most recent economic estimates.
There are big cuts to programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, and this bill would even move forward on House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s fantasy of turning Medicare into a voucher program. In other words, it provides ample targets for Democrats to charge that it’s another attack on the safety net while it helps out Wall Street (there are provisions unwinding the Dodd-Frank law in there, too) and paves the way for a tax cut for the wealthy. Which brings us to …
Tax reform: Because of procedural rules, Republicans need to pass the budget in order to use reconciliation for tax reform, which would enable them to pass a tax bill with only 50 votes in the Senate. But even if they pass the budget, tax reform is going to be extraordinarily difficult, because it will pit various Republican constituencies against each other, all wanting to preserve the tax breaks and loopholes their lobbyists have so painstakingly written over the years. Many Republicans say that passing tax reform will be even more difficult than passing health-care reform was. While in the past tax reform has proven so complicated that it has taken years of work and negotiations to accomplish, the Keystone Kops of this Congress want to get it done in the next few months, and they’ve barely begun working on it.
That’s not to mention that alleged priorities such as infrastructure have just disappeared in the dust cloud kicked up by Republican pratfalls. This is all a reminder that even when a party controls both Congress and the White House, success in passing meaningful legislation is anything but guaranteed. It also serves to highlight what an extraordinary job President Barack Obama, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did in the first two years of Obama’s first term, when they passed a set of hugely consequential bills including a stimulus package, Wall Street reform, health-care reform, the auto bailout, FDA oversight of tobacco, an expansion of CHIP and many other things that most of us have forgotten.
It turns out that legislating is hard — who knew! — and in order to be successful at it, you need a number of things: an understanding of the process, skill at wrangling your members, a relatively unified caucus in both houses, a president who can intervene successfully at key moments and the support of the public for the substance of what you’re trying to do. Republicans’ failure so far to pass any major legislation is a result of their lack of some or all of those requirements. And there’s little reason to think they’re going to have an easier time from this point on.