The failure of the American Health Care Act is a stunning moment. The failure was not just a one-off event that can be blamed on President Trump, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) or any specific politician. It is the culminating event in a broader process of “political fragmentation” that I have been writing about for several years.
By political fragmentation, I mean two things. One is how power within Congress has shifted from the party leaders to individual members of Congress, who are now far more capable of acting independently than in the past. The second is the shift in power from the political parties themselves to outside groups and actors.
Both things were amply on display this past week. A Republican president and party leaders in the House could not force enough GOP lawmakers to support the AHCA. Outside groups stepped in to defend recalcitrant Republicans. Ultimately, there is no coherent power leading the legislative process that can necessarily push through major party initiatives, even under unified government.
What has changed in recent decades to bring about this fragmentation? It is not just that there are significant policy differences within the Republican caucus. That is often the case. The question is why House leaders were not able to get members to work through those differences. Many factors are at work, but I want to emphasize three.
First, many members of Congress now depend less on the party’s financial and other support. This was manifest in the highly public pledge of the Koch brothers’ network to support Republicans who bucked the party leadership. But it is not just these big funders who have changed the landscape. The communications revolution has enabled individual members of Congress to connect effectively with small donors throughout the country. Small donors (like other individual donors) tend to be the most ideologically polarized source of money in politics, and they further empower the extreme wings of the parties to stand up against more centrist leadership.
Second, committee assignments seem to matter less than at some points in the past, which also diminishes the leverage of party leaders. Committee assignments are less necessary for name recognition and fundraising. Committees are less important as centers of policymaking, as was obviously the case with the AHCA. Because committees were not particularly important designers of that bill, individual members had no significant role in shaping it.
Third, the end of earmarks has taken away a tool that party leaders can use to entice members to support legislation that the leadership views as a priority. Mark Schmitt has argued that the loss of earmarks doesn’t matter because many members are so philosophically opposed to earmarks that they wouldn’t accept them even if offered. That might be true of some, or even all, members of the House Freedom Caucus. But if this story is accurate, only 15 of the 33 Republican AHCA opponents were part of the Freedom Caucus. Other Republican dissenters may have been more persuadable.
The Democratic Party is not immune to the forces driving political fragmentation. While tensions between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the party can be suppressed in the service of forging a united opposition, those tensions will surface when the party returns to a governing role.
Compared with other democracies, the U.S. system is more fragmented because of the separation of powers. To make a separated-powers system work, there needs to be some effective centralized power that can produce congressional majorities and White House support for key legislation. At a minimum, this means making party leadership in Congress more effective.
Right now, political fragmentation might cheer opponents of the AHCA, but when different governing majorities try to tackle immigration, climate change or other major issues, this fragmentation could be just as daunting.
Richard H. Pildes is Sudler Family Professor of Constitutional Law at New York University and author of “Why the Center Does Not Hold: The Causes of Hyperpolarized Democracy in America.”