It seems like forever and a day since Congress could walk and chew gum at the same time.
That’s a lesson President Trump and his advisers are struggling to grasp, even those he plucked from Capitol Hill to occupy key posts.
In the week ahead, lawmakers already face an immediate Friday deadline of keeping federal agencies funded through the remainder of the year. Yet Trump’s advisers continue to toss into the mix big items they would like to see accomplished, giving the appearance of a frenzied search for wins ahead of Saturday’s symbolically important 100th day of the new presidency.
Some Trump advisers have pushed for a vote this week on health-care legislation, even though there are no signs that ongoing talks between moderate and conservative Republicans have produced a breakthrough.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Trump declared in an interview Friday with the Associated Press that on Wednesday he would unveil his administration’s proposal for a massive overhaul of the tax code. It would result, he said, in the biggest “tax cut ever,” despite ongoing gridlock in Congress over competing tax proposals — in a process that started more than six years ago.
Any one of these items would be a big enough lift in an era when Congress regularly struggles with the most basic of tasks. Mix them all together over a couple days, and it’s the legislative equivalent of trying to pull the pin on three grenades at once. If you’re not careful, all three might blow up in your face.
The model of strategic chaos — creating many different targets and never taking on much bloodshed — worked well in the campaign, particularly in a sprawling GOP primary when Trump faced 15 or more opponents.
But in governance, it doesn’t work. Congress needs focus, not flurry.
The volatility has Democrats shaking their heads; they know full well thanks to experiences from when they last controlled Congress and the White House that trying to do too many things all at once is perilous.
“Floating the possibility that the House could vote on this amended health-care bill next week is irresponsible when the government could shut down on April 29,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), a member of House Democratic leadership, said in a statement. “The focus must be on keeping the government funded — the most basic legislative responsibility we have.”
There’s a good chance the week ahead becomes a lot of sound and fury but not much productivity. The talk of legislation to revise the 2010 Affordable Care Act could fade as negotiations continue well into the spring, and no one is sure what Trump might spell out on his tax proposals.
Also, given the time constraints, most insiders expect Congress to do what it does best in times of crisis: buy more time, specifically by approving a stopgap bill to keep the federal government funded at current levels for an additional week or two to hammer out full spending levels for the rest of 2017.
Such a low-octane finish to a week that begins with such promise would be the latest example of how difficult it is to try to pull off more than one big thing at a time.
In 2009, after they passed a massive stimulus bill, congressional Democrats began driving toward approving the ACA, but House Democrats also tried to pass a bill to rein in climate change, including a very complicated system for trading carbon credits.
The same panel tasked with crafting most of the health law, the Energy and Commerce Committee, pushed through the cap-and-trade legislation, passing it in June 2009. The full House passed the climate bill after a bitter fight between moderate and liberal Democrats, but the Senate never took up the legislation.
The Energy and Commerce Committee finally moved on to health care but did not finish until the last day of the summer session. The full House headed into the fateful August 2009 recess, when Democrats faced angry constituents, creating more delays for many more months in passing the ACA.
The Senate had its own version of juggling too many issues. In early 2013, Democrats pushed legislation almost simultaneously for strict background checks on gun purchases and an overhaul of immigration laws. Both proposals went through the Judiciary Committee, and both were politically sensitive for the half-dozen or so Democrats from conservative states.
Eventually, Democrats pulled the gun bill and focused on immigration. They passed it in June 2013, only to see it never considered in the House.
Some Democrats believe, in retrospect, that a narrower focus would have been the better path to follow.
Now, Republicans face battles on several fronts. The initial try at repealing the ACA blew up a month ago. Partly at the urging of Vice President Pence, the conservative House Freedom Caucus and the moderate Tuesday Group have resumed talks about salvaging that effort. House GOP leaders appear tepid about the effort — and less involved than during the first go-round.
Traveling in London last week, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters that they were “negotiating sort of finishing touches” on the legislation and that it was going to “take us a little time” to finish up.
Pence is a trusted former House member, but he was never known as a dealmaker.
In recent days, Mick Mulvaney, the former House member who is now Trump’s budget director, has taken a high profile in government funding talks. Democrats are angry at his recent demands for funding to meet Trump’s promise of building a wall along the Mexican border, and the spat has created enough tension that Democrats feel that they have leverage in the talks.
If past is prologue, House leaders face an uphill task getting a majority of votes from their side of the aisle for a government funding bill, and Senate Democrats have already guaranteed they will filibuster any spending bill with funding for the wall.
That sets up what many consider an inevitable scenario in which Ryan will have to make a push for the more conservative position just to show his right flank that he’s fighting for them, leading to eventual failure and a bipartisan compromise putting off any threat of a government shutdown until the fall.
All of that is hard enough — with or without other demands to overhaul the health-care industry and the entire tax code.