No Smooth Sailing Ahead for the Bad Guys in Washington

There are lots of reasons why the Republicans haven’t passed any significant legislation this year (during what is supposed to be the new president’s “honeymoon” phase). The one I keep coming back to is DT’s ignorance and incompetence. He doesn’t understand the legislation he’s supposed to be in favor of, which is one reason he hasn’t been able to make any “deals”, even though making deals was supposed to be his great strength. All he can do is to say the kind of things presidents often say (“It’s the other side’s fault for not cooperating”) regardless of the situation at hand. He might as well be one of those dolls with a string out the back or a button to push, programmed to repeat random presidential phrases (“We’re working hard to help middle class families!”) and vacuous campaign promises (“Our healthcare bill is going to be wonderful!”).

But some of the things he says are so stupid, they bear repeating. The Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate vs. 48 for the Democrats. They needed 50 of those Republican senators to repeal the ACA, something they’ve been talking about doing for more than seven years. Today, DT “lamented the inability of Senate Republicans to pass their healthcare bill, but said that coming up short was still ‘pretty impressive'”:

“You had 52 people, you had 4 no’s,” [he] said during a meeting at the White House. “Now, we might have had another one, someone in there. But the vote would have been if you look at it, 48-4. That’s a pretty impressive vote by any standard.

So getting at most 48 Republicans to vote Yes, while 48 Democrats and at least four Republicans were going to vote No, was pretty impressive by any standard? How about the standard called “having enough votes to get something done”?

Now that the Republicans have failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act (for the time being), journalist Paul Waldman points out that they have other problems to deal with:

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 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….

The debt ceiling: 

Before Barack Obama became president, the debt ceiling was little more than a periodic opportunity for some consequence-free posturing….Members of the opposition party would give a few speeches railing against the administration’s free-spending 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 [Republicans] 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…. Congress may end up fighting with itself as well, as the leadership tries to just increase the debt ceiling and avoid a catastrophe while conservative members try to use that specter as a way to extract policy concessions. What should be easy, because Republicans have total control of government, becomes excruciatingly hard.

(A side note: The fact that we have a debt ceiling at all is insane. The only other democratic country that has one is Denmark, and they set theirs so high that it’s never a problem. We should just get rid of it entirely.)

The budget: 

Today 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 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 (there are provisions unwinding the Dodd-Frank law in there, too) and paves the way for a tax cut for the wealthy. Which brings us to …

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. Many Republicans say that passing tax reform will be even more difficult than passing health-care reform was. While in the past tax reform has proven so complicated that it has taken years of work and negotiations to accomplish, the Keystone Kops of this Congress want to get it done in the next few months, and they’ve barely begun working on it….

That’s not to mention that alleged priorities such as infrastructure have just disappeared in the dust cloud kicked up by Republican pratfalls. This is all a reminder that even when a party controls both Congress and the White House, success in passing meaningful legislation is anything but guaranteed. It also serves to highlight what an extraordinary job {Democrats] did in the first two years of Obama’s first term, when they passed a set of hugely consequential bills including a stimulus package, Wall Street reform, health-care reform, the auto bailout, FDA oversight of tobacco, an expansion of CHIP and many other things that most of us have forgotten.

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.