GOP failure on health care is a hint of what’s to come
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested on Monday that after the failure of the bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the Senate might reanimate “repeal and delay,” in which lawmakers pass a repeal of the ACA with a ticking clock, forcing them to pass a replacement at some later date. Well, it took all of half a day, but now that idea is dead, too, because multiple Republican senators have come out against it.
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 Donald 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 freespending 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.
The budget. On Tuesday, 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 by using unrealistic predictions about the future.
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 and paves the way for a tax cut for the wealthy.
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.
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.