Really. It has been 117 days since the gavel dropped in the houses of Congress and Republicans knew it was just a matter of time before President Obama would be heading off to Palm Springs and the British Virgin Islands. A real estate mogul with zero experience in public office, no legislative agenda beyond bare-bones campaign rally slogans and a transition woefully behind in appointments of key staff positions necessary for a functioning executive branch was to take the oath of office in a matter of days providing the rubber stamp president they needed to move an ultra-conservative agenda forward and erase the Obama legacy in a matter of weeks. They were so excited about the opportunity, that Senate Leader Mitch McConnell declared repealing Obamacare was priority number one and his members passed a reconciliation instruction resolution to effectively repeat the dry run they did in 2015 where they forced President Obama to veto a repeal of his signature accomplishment. In the House of Representatives, Speaker Paul Ryan saw a sea of red in which to set sail with the first major tax overhaul in 35 years. This has been Ryan’s dream over the 18 years and 10 terms in office as he worked his way to chairing the Budget Committee and Ways and Means Committee. The table is set and by now the United States should be a fledgling beacon of laissez-faire capitalism in the context of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, however something happened along the way. The GOP has forgotten how to govern in a representative republic.
It’s much easier when there are no consequences
In 2015 when Republicans took back the House and made Mitch McConnell the Senate Majority Leader there was a lot of chest pounding and bravado. Democrats in 2014 experienced a historically disengaged electorate resulting in a loss of nine Senate seats and thirteen House seats. Republicans held 31 governors mansions and took Democrats to controlling the lowest number of state legislatures since 1860. Republicans pounced on President Obama who was weakened with a 40% job approval rating and Democrats were left licking their wounds. No surprise that the Republicans went into the 114th Congress with full control and the wind at their backs.
Passed in the dark of night and nobody knew what was in it…millions lost insurance they liked…massive premium increases…$716 billion stripped from Medicare…collapsing under the weigh of the 2,000 page law…death panels…socialism…death spiral…the list goes on. Republicans pounded these messages into American voters for years and who couldn’t argue that it made the Affordable Care Act sound horrific. Americans definitely liked some of the simple and easy to understand benefits of the ACA like not being denied insurance based on pre-existing conditions and keeping children on parents health insurance until age 26, but those were easy for Republicans to say they support while at the same time blasting the law as a complete failure.
The House of Representatives had “repealed” Obamacare over 50 times, but the legislation was dead on arrival in the Democratically controlled Senate. Now they had Mitch McConnell to make sure a bill got a vote in the Senate and he was determined to put it on the President’s desk. With 55 Republican votes, he couldn’t break a Democratic filibuster, so the best strategy was to strip funding and repeal taxes under budget reconciliation, a key procedure to passage of the ACA in the first place. While pieces of the law would be left on the books, a reconciliation bill would render the ACA ineffective. The only negative of this effort that Republicans had some exposure to was that a majority of the public believed that something needed to replace the ACA, so Republicans talked about “repeal and replace,” but they never actually had a viable bill that would prevent millions from losing coverage, let alone reduce premiums or offer more choice. In the end, that didn’t matter because there were no consequences to what ever action they would take. The House did this over 50 times and absolutely nothing happened. Mitch McConnell knew that President Obama would veto the bill and his caucus would not have the votes to override the veto. This effectively shielded his members from any serious criticism while they got to flex their muscles for the American people.
How did they not see this coming?
Fast forward two years and the 115th Congress gavels in on January 3, 2017. Repeal and replace Obamacare was what Republicans have been running on since 2010 and now they had the legislative pieces in place and an incoming president who would sign what President Obama would not. Seems simple, doesn’t it? Just repeat what you did two years ago. Not so fast:
- Pottery Barn Rule – You break it, you own it. Health care is a historic political albatross that has punished the political party that tried to address it. It is complicated and the perfect compromise has eluded governing officials for decades. If Republicans do anything to the ACA, it is no longer Obamacare. It’s Trumpcare or Ryancare.
- No problem we will just replace it…oh…that’s right…we don’t actually have a replacement. The primary goal of the ACA was to move America toward universal health coverage. Health care was going to become a right and not a privilege, and the fact is the ACA did this pretty well as the uninsured rate dropped from 18% in 2013 to 10.9% in 2017.
- Republican ideology rejects the basic concept of insurance. The Emperor (Paul Ryan in this case) walked into the chamber and everybody could see his junk. When Republicans tried to craft a replacement plan, they rejected the idea of shared risk, otherwise known as insurance. They came up with a la-carte coverage to piece together customized insurance plans. Why would a man or older women need pre-natal coverage? In other words only those who need it should pay for it. Doesn’t sound too bad on the surface, but at that point you may as well pay for it out of pocket since your are only sharing the risk with people who are highly likely to need it.
Nothing will give a member of Congress in a competitive district heartburn faster than to watch their more ideological colleagues trying to polish a turd. As Ryan tried to move the bill to acceptability by the ultra conservative Freedom Caucus, support from the moderate Tuesday Group withered. Ryan was trying to thread a needle with a suspension bridge cable.
Five Factions of the Republican Party
This is by no means a complete list of views or organized caucuses within the Republican Party, but in my view these factions have some degree of power within the Congressional Republican Caucus. These factions often have competing agendas making it difficult to craft consensus partisan legislation. Factions are common within political parties, but effective governing finds ways to bridge those differences. Democrats were successful doing this in 2009 when they passed the ACA, but it has eluded Republicans for several years. Winning a governing trifecta (President and both houses of Congress) doesn’t solve this problem.
- Deficit Hawks – This is largely the tea party movement, although they have been around for longer than that. They are generally for low taxes matched with smaller government and reduced government spending. They are the leading faction for ACA repeal with no replacement.
- Libertarian Conservatives – This is a small faction within Congress led mainly by Senator Rand Paul and Senator Mike Lee. They believe in extreme downsizing of government, but reject some of the socially liberal views of libertarians. This faction is tolerated by the stronger conservative factions. They have far less political power than they assume to possess, a trait shared by their minions on social media.
- The Religious Right – Still grasping to power, they have become increasingly frustrated as socially moderate Republicans are trying to shed the intolerant stigma historically associated with this group. They tend not to be as ideologically conservatives when it comes to fiscal issues, but need the Republican Party to insert anti-abortion and “religious freedom” amendments into legislation.
- Neo-Conservatives – This is the George W. Bush faction of the Republican Party. They really don’t care about fiscal conservatism and believe in upholding entitlements. They may crow the party line when it comes to these issues, but the voting record suggests a different agenda. Where they are unyielding is national security and seem to have an insatiable appetite for military conflict.
- Paleoconservatives – This is your father’s Republican Party. They are anti-tax, anti-regulation and staunchly pro-business. On the other hand they have supported entitlements and understand that they must feed the masses just enough to keep them from rising up in protest as they bolster America’s largest companies through corporate welfare programs.
Republicans did very little actual governing in the Obama years. Most of it occurred when must pass legislation was required to extend the debt limit or keep the government open. The House of Representatives never passed any bill to accomplish these things without Democrats supplying a sizable portion of the votes needed. The more extreme factions of the party (especially deficit hawks in the Freedom Caucus) killed Republican legislation as they overreached in effots to extract concessions from Democrats. The consequences of these ideological endeavors were more than fiscal moderates could stomach and leadership refused to force their caucus to take such painful votes in most cases. In the eleventh hour, John Boehner would go to Nancy Pelosi to get legislation passed with no more than a treat for doing a back flip.
This dynamic has not changed and the ACA repeal failed and continues to be mired in vote counting that comes up short. Even if they do manage to get something out of the House, it is probably dead on arrival in the Senate. Republicans, so far, are failing to deliver on their central promise. It is not because the ACA is perfect, because it is not. There is a partial win available to Republicans if they want it, but so far ideological purity has blinded them to that possibility.
What have the Democrats been doing?
The best outcome for the American people
Now that we established in the previous section that Democrats have been cheering from the sidelines and have no real power to affect change in this Congress, what can the Republicans realistically do on health care? It starts with accepting that they cannot do anything unilaterally. The Republican Party has too many divergent factions and a 52-48 majority in the Senate does not provide enough margin to get the votes they need. Republicans are stuck in the mud on health care and expending massive political capital on a bill with almost no chance of passing. Right now Democrats are experiencing euphoria because the Republicans are likely to head into the immense challenge of tax reform with nothing left in the tank.
If Republicans want to accomplish anything significant, the only way it is going to get done is in a bipartisan manner, and that means directly negotiating with Democrats knowing that they must make serious concessions to get votes. If you are Paul Ryan, this is dangerous territory, because you will probably never be forgiven by the ideological extremists of your party. His speakership will be on the line, but does he really want to be the least effective speaker in U.S. history?
Running out of Time
The first 100 days (or 117 for Congress) is an arbitrary target. President Trump is being hammered today for very anemic record of accomplishment in his first 100 days. The problem for both Trump and the Republicans is that executive action only goes so far and the legislative agenda is presently at a stand-still. You don’t have to get everything done in the first 100 days, but with one major piece of legislation on life support and nothing else even to the stage of legislative language or committee hearings, it is difficult to see how anything get accomplished before the next election.
Since the beginning of the year, the House of Representatives has been in session for about 13 weeks total. There are about 10 more weeks until the August recess. After that, you have a mere month to pass a budget for fiscal 2018 or face another government shutdown. Whether it is 100 days, 117 days or 150 days, the clock is running out to get a major legislative accomplishment done. While Trump has failed miserably to make a mark on this arbitrary measure, he should be more concerned with the failure of the 115th Congress that will ultimately cement his legacy.