Why par­ties that con­trol Congress can’t al­ways de­liver

Gov­ern­ment scholar Frances Lee on how the push to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act ran into trou­ble de­spite the GOP ma­jor­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­post.com

In the seven years af­ter the Af­ford­able Care Act be­came law, Repub­li­cans voted more than 60 times to re­peal it. Each time, the leg­is­la­tion passed the House eas­ily, only for Democrats to block it in the Se­nate; in 2015, though, a re­peal bill passed the Se­nate, too, forc­ing Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to veto it. So when the GOP be­gan this year in con­trol of Congress and with Pres­i­dent Trump in the White House, the law’s fate might have seemed sealed.

In­stead, ef­forts to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare col­lapsed Tues­day, although the Se­nate will still try to push ahead this com­ing week. But if the ef­fort fails, a prom­ise that has been at the heart of Repub­li­can cam­paigns since 2010 — abol­ish­ing the ACA — could go un­ful­filled at the peak of the party’s re­cent power.

That should not come as a sur­prise: My re­search has found that it’s ex­tremely rare for a ma­jor­ity party on Capi­tol Hill to de­liver on its agenda if the mi­nor­ity holds strong against it. And pass­ing a par­ti­san mes­sag­ing bill that ev­ery­one knows will have no real-world con­se­quences, such as the past re­peal votes, is noth­ing like ac­tu­ally leg­is­lat­ing — a dis­tinc­tion well un­der­stood by con­gres­sional party lead­ers and rank-and-file mem­bers.

Ma­jor­ity par­ties in Congress rarely suc­ceed in pass­ing laws along party lines. In a re­cent pa­per, James Curry and I show that most leg­is­la­tion — ma­jor and mi­nor bills alike — passes with ma­jor­ity sup­port from both par­ties. Mi­nor­ity party sup­port for en­acted leg­is­la­tion sel­dom falls be­low 70 per­cent in the Se­nate or 60 per­cent in the House. Fewer than 15 per­cent of new laws are en­acted over the op­po­si­tion of a ma­jor­ity of the mi­nor­ity party in the Se­nate. These pat­terns are con­sis­tent across Con­gresses with ei­ther uni­fied or di­vided party con­trol. Like­wise, the tremen­dous growth in party con­flict in Congress has hardly budged these fig­ures. No mat­ter how many one-sided mes­sag­ing bills ma­jor­ity par­ties ram through one cham­ber of Congress, ac­tual leg­is­lat­ing to­day re­mains over­whelm­ingly bi­par­ti­san.

Curry and I also specif­i­cally ex­am­ined the abil­ity of ma­jor­ity par­ties in Congress to en­act their agen­das. We iden­ti­fied the 197 items that ma­jor­ity lead­ers flagged as pri­or­i­ties at the start of each Congress be­tween 1993 and 2017. We found only 10 cases in which a ma­jor­ity party suc­ceeded over the op­po­si­tion of most mi­nor­ity party mem­bers and the mi­nor­ity party’s lead­ers in both cham­bers.

The Af­ford­able Care Act was one of those ex­ceed­ingly rare cases. But re­peal­ing it hasn’t been.

Most of the time, when par­ties pass some­thing they promised vot­ers, they do so by co-opt­ing the mi­nor­ity party in at least one cham­ber of Congress, usu­ally with the sup­port of at least one top op­pos­ing leader. This pat­tern holds re­gard­less of uni­fied or di­vided party con­trol of gov­ern­ment. What Repub­li­cans have been at­tempt­ing to do with health care this Congress is some­thing par­ties rarely suc­ceed at do­ing.

Is­sues that make for great cam­paign pledges typ­i­cally present thorny prob­lems of gov­er­nance, as Repub­li­cans have been demon­strat­ing. No is­sue was bet­ter than health care for GOP mes­sag­ing dur­ing the Obama pres­i­dency: It ex­cited base vot­ers, mo­ti­vated donors, fu­eled can­di­da­cies, and pro­vided a ready ar­gu­ment to crit­i­cize the per­for­mance of the op­pos­ing party and its pres­i­dent.

But when par­ties en­gage in mes­sag­ing, they do not have to con­front hard choices. Par­ti­san talk­ing points make sim­plis­tic prom­ises — only up­sides, with­out any down­sides. “You should have the free­dom and the flex­i­bil­ity to choose the care that’s best for you,” read House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s “Bet­ter Way” agenda last year. “. . . You and your fam­ily should have ac­cess to the best life-sav­ing treat­ments in the world.”

Ac­tu­ally leg­is­lat­ing on health care, how­ever, en­tails un­avoid­able pol­icy trade-offs. If you limit how much insurers can charge older con­sumers, younger ones will have to make up the dif­fer­ence. If you al­low health insurers to at­tract young, healthy peo­ple with cheaper plans, you con­cen­trate the old and the sick in plans that will have to charge higher pre­mi­ums. If you guar­an­tee that peo­ple can pur­chase health in­sur­ance de­spite pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tions, you give them an in­cen­tive to not sign up for in­sur­ance un­til they are sick, rais­ing pre­mi­ums and desta­bi­liz­ing in­sur­ance mar­kets. If you lower taxes, you re­duce the money avail­able for Med­i­caid cov­er­age for the dis­abled, el­derly and poor. Ev­ery pol­icy move has losers and win­ners.

Health care is not un­usual, ei­ther: Par­ties nor­mally have a hard time living up to their plat­forms. Fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity and bal­anced bud­gets have been hoary main­stays of both par­ties’ mes­sag­ing since long be­fore the Repub­li­cans’ 1994 Con­tract With Amer­ica. A bal­anced bud­get has great ap­peal to vot­ers who worry about sad­dling fu­ture gen­er­a­tions with un­sus­tain­able debt. But tak­ing con­crete pol­icy ac­tion to close deficits is en­tirely dif­fer­ent: Fis­cal re­trench­ment im­poses real-world pain. This is why you don’t typ­i­cally hear as much about bal­anc­ing the bud­get from par­ties in con­trol of Congress or the White House.

Or con­sider the pol­icy ideas in the Se­nate Democrats’ 2014 “Fair Shot” agenda. One pro­posal, a higher min­i­mum wage, is very pop­u­lar in pub­lic opin­ion polls and made a great mes­sage for Democrats. But ac­tu­ally writ­ing leg­is­la­tion to in­crease the fed­eral min­i­mum wage re­quires bal­anc­ing the in­ter­ests of large and small busi­nesses, the dif­fer­ent costs of living in wealthy and poor states, and pos­si­ble ef­fects on em­ploy­ment lev­els. Sim­i­larly, “equal pay for equal work” for men and women is a great Demo­cratic Party ral­ly­ing cry. But it is not easy to fig­ure out in prac­tice how much reg­u­la­tion of pri­vate em­ploy­ers’ per­son­nel de­ci­sions is ei­ther fea­si­ble or de­sir­able.

In 2014, though, Se­nate Democrats did not need to work out the com­plex de­tails of their agenda items: Con­trol­ling only one cham­ber of Congress, they knew that any of these ini­tia­tives would run into a brick wall of op­po­si­tion in the Repub­li­can House. Any leg­is­la­tion they could get out of the Se­nate would just be a “mes­sag­ing bill,” no dif­fer­ent from the many times Repub­li­cans at­tempted to re­peal Oba­macare dur­ing the Obama pres­i­dency. (Democrats lost con­trol of the Se­nate in that year’s elec­tions, any­way.)

The main po­lit­i­cal prob­lem Repub­li­cans face is that Amer­i­can par­ties rarely find them­selves on the hook to de­liver on their prom­ises the way the GOP is now. Di­vided gov­ern­ment is the nor­mal state of af­fairs. Con­trol of na­tional gov­ern­ment has been di­vided 79 per­cent of the time since 1980 and 69 per­cent of the time since 1954. Although our re­search shows that par­ties en­joy­ing uni­fied con­trol do not rack up sub­stan­tially bet­ter records of ac­com­plish­ment, at least un­der di­vided gov­ern­ment, par­ties have am­ple op­por­tu­nity to pass the buck when they are un­able to de­liver. Even un­der uni­fied gov­ern­ment, ma­jor­ity par­ties can usu­ally point to the mi­nor­ity’s abil­ity to block via the Se­nate fil­i­buster.

But in choos­ing to pur­sue re­peal and re­place­ment of Oba­macare via a con­gres­sional bud­get process not sub­ject to the fil­i­buster, Repub­li­cans took upon them­selves alone the bur­den of man­ag­ing all the pol­icy trade-offs and the full re­spon­si­bil­ity for all the pain their choices would im­pose. Par­ties typ­i­cally strug­gle to co­a­lesce on com­plex leg­isla­tive is­sues. It is hardly sur­pris­ing that a de­ci­sive num­ber of Repub­li­cans, faced with bear­ing the blame for all these dif­fi­cult po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy de­ci­sions, would balk. As one long­time con­gres­sional aide told me in an in­ter­view for my last book: “There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween gov­ern­ing and cam­paign­ing. Gov­ern­ing is a hell of a lot harder.” Frances Lee is a pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics at the University of Mary­land and the au­thor of “In­se­cure Ma­jori­ties: Congress and the Per­pet­ual Cam­paign.”

MARK WIL­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

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