A couple of weeks after the 2008 election, Rahm Emanuel, the incoming White House chief of staff, and Phil Schiliro, the incoming White House director of legislative affairs, huddled with the Democratic congressional leadership to talk strategy.
Everyone knows the big agenda they pursued — an $800 billion economic stimulus, a sweeping health-care law and an overhaul of Wall Street regulations — but the leaders also agreed on a parallel strategy that was almost as critical. That effort became a steady supply of smaller bills, more niche in focus but also bipartisan in support, ranging from enhancing consumer protections in the credit-card industry to making it easier to stop children from smoking.
“The singles,” Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, called those efforts in an interview last week while visiting Washington. These smaller measures filled the House and Senate floor throughout early 2009 as committee chairmen battled behind the scenes on the finer print of the much bigger legislation to come.
Eight years later, President Trump and his Republican-led Congress have swung for the fences early and, so far, have struck out. As Republicans again try to craft a repeal plan for the 2010 Affordable Care Act and continue shooting for a massive tax cut, Emanuel wonders from where the GOP will get its momentum.
“The bunt singles,” he said, motioning his arms like a ballplayer trying to get the smallest of hits, “they don’t even have them.”
A quarter of the way through Trump’s first year in office, Republicans’ only legislative successes have come on small bills that wiped out regulations from the last weeks President Barack Obama was in office. Lawmakers are using the obscure Congressional Review Act of 1996 to do so on party-line votes.
Those dozens of nixed regulations do represent a win for Trump, and Republican leaders are aware of the need to demonstrate some wins. In an interview before Congress left for its two-week spring break, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) noted that undoing regulations “unfortunately doesn’t make a lot of news” and said his office was going to compile a report on the sweep and impact of those moves.
But Congress’s authority to undo a previous administration’s regulations through the CRA process expires early next month. Confirming Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, only after blowing up Senate rules to do so on a simple majority, is the only other solid victory the GOP can so far claim.
“The only reason that we were able to do them is they were 51-vote situations,” McConnell said.
McConnell has made clear that the overhaul of the tax code is the only other big piece of legislation that would fall under special budgetary rules allowing for a simple majority in the Senate.
Everything else will require a minimum of eight Senate Democrats, and all 52 Republicans, to overcome a filibuster in that chamber. That makes it much more difficult for Republicans to get things done than those early regulatory repeals and confirming members of Trump’s cabinet.
It’s unclear what Republicans will do while leaders and committee chairmen continue haggling behind closed doors over the big battles on health and tax policy.
Their agenda is starting to look pretty barren.
After they figure out a way to keep government agencies funded by April 28, Republicans do not have much lined up to push onto center stage on the House and Senate floors.
They’ve got some bills waiting to reauthorize the Food and Drug Administration’s collection of user fees on the makers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices, along with legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and the state-based Children’s Health Insurance Program.
If they’re not careful, Republicans could head into the long August recess without adding anything more to their win list than the already-repealed regulations and Gorsuch’s confirmation.
That’s not exactly the sort of vision that Trump cited in his January inaugural address when he vowed: “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
Sixteen years ago, the George W. Bush administration operated with amazing early efficiency. By mid-June 2001, Bush had signed into law a $1.3 trillion tax cut and the House and Senate had approved their versions of the No Child Left Behind education legislation — each passing with significant Democratic support.
In 2009, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), then the Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the House speaker, set out to get some early “singles” by approving a large expansion of the CHIP and a pay-equity bill.
Before Memorial Day in 2009, Obama enacted legislation giving consumers more rights against credit-card companies, with the support of 113 House Republicans. A month later, he signed a bill to allow the FDA to more forcefully regulate tobacco marketing to prevent children from taking up smoking — with the support of 70 House Republicans.
“We all agreed on the need to hit some singles and doubles,” Jim Manley, a senior Reid aide, recalled of the strategy session with Emanuel and congressional leaders.
Those early wins helped teach everyone how things are supposed to work, building up confidence at the White House and Congress. Eventually, Democrats passed most of their big-agenda items, and voters recoiled, leading to devastating losses in the 2010 midterm elections for Obama’s party.
But Democrats had succeeded on one level — passing some progressive laws and giving their supporters something to show for the losses they suffered politically. Now, Republicans are struggling to enact their overarching agenda, and their counterparts think that it’s because the GOP never learned how to do the basics as an opposition party. Instead, maybe Republicans should be seeking a few smaller pieces of legislation.
“One of the reasons they are in the mess they are is that they didn’t do that,” Manley said. “They swung for the fences immediately with batters who didn’t have a lot of batting practice and weren’t used to hitting at all.”