It is now evident that Democratic obstructionism and Republican infighting make any legislative accomplishments difficult to imagine.
There is a working theory that because the Republican health care plan failed in the Senate, that makes passage of tax reform even more likely because failure there would be catastrophic.
But you can easily argue that the kind of incompetence that led to the collapse of the health care bill will bleed into the rest of the legislative agenda.
Critics of President Trump will most likely blame him for Congressional dysfunction. But that gives way too much credit to the power of the President. It’s not his fault that Republicans can’t get their act together. Indeed, he was elected precisely because Republicans haven’t successfully come up with a governing philosophy that works for the majority of their voters.
Trump stumbled on the Make America Great Again theme and many Republican voters and more than a few Democrats loved it. His philosophy is not traditionally conservative in all of its aspects, but it is close enough for government work. It is a combination of paleoconservatism, militarism, nationalism, protectionism, jingoism, with a dash of capitalism and a full measure of class antagonism.
To ideological neoconservatives, those who blundered us into the Iraq War and came up with an economic philosophy that made it verboten to raise taxes on the Warren Buffetts of the world, Trump is anathema. He is Satan. He is a Putinist, a Manchurian candidate, a bluffer, a con-man, and so much worse. He is not of their high falutin class. He is gauche. He is a fool.
Trump might be a fool, but he made fools out of all of them when he surprisingly made it past the most qualified Republican primary field in history and then shocked the world by beating the most qualified Democratic nominee in decades.
Trump made no little plans when he stormed into office. He was going to rip up trade deals, pull us out of the climate agreement (it was never a Treaty because it never would have passed the Senate), he was going to totally restructure our tax code to make America the best place in the world to locate a business, he was going to restrict the flow of immigrants to make American businesses hire American workers, he was going to spend a trillion dollars to refurbish our aging infrastructure, and of course, he was going to replace Obamacare with something much, much better.
Some of these plans are proceeding apace by the virtue of the President’s inherent powers. He has successfully scared those who would have come to America illegally to stay at home, largely through rhetoric. He is renegotiating NAFTA. He pulled us out of the non-binding Obama climate deal. He has threatened to raise tariffs on imported steel.
But almost anything that requires Congressional action has stalled. Most of his nominees are still in limbo, slow-walked by Democrats who are holding up everything. The tax reform bill has devolved into a Cold War between House and Senate Republicans. The infrastructure bill has almost no support in Congress, despite being overwhelmingly popular with the American people. The budget process is in serious danger of breaking apart, as defense hawks clash with budget hawks. The Appropriations process is moving through the Committee process expeditiously and professionally (Appropriators are good like that), but getting the bills passed on the Floor won’t happen without Democratic support because too many Republicans have a nasty habit of voting against all spending bills. That means that the President’s insistence on the border wall could cause the government to shut down. Lastly, Republicans have to do something to extend the debt limit, but Democrats will probably play politics with this routine but excruciating part of the governing process.
The problem for the GOP is that too many of them who have come into office since the wave election of 2010 have no experience and little interest in actually governing. They were swept in on a wave of protest and they continue to act like protestors instead of legislators. Protesters vote no. Legislators find ways to vote yes. Protesters curse the darkness. Legislators find ways to keep the lights on.
Rand Paul is a protestor. His brand is a protest brand. He will never find a way to get to yes because getting to yes is bad for the protest brand. That leaves a one vote margin, and for Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, that is a margin that is too thin to govern with, especially when so many pieces of legislation require 60 votes. You can’t do everything through reconciliation.
Let’s imagine what would happen to the Congress and to the GOP if nothing gets done.
Let’s say, for example, a border wall doesn’t get built. Ok, that’s not good for Trump, but most people didn’t really expect it to get built in the first place. Not devastating.
Let’s say that the appropriators and the budget folks can’t get the new spending bills done. Ok, so we keep with a continuing resolution. Not good for Congress, but potentially okay for the deficit hawks. At least we aren’t spending any more money. The DoD would hate it, of course.
Let’s say that tax reform stalls. What would the markets do? It’s hard to say. I used to think it would be devastating. But the stock market seems to keep going up, despite the obvious Congressional dysfunction.
Obamacare stays in place. Will the exchanges collapse or will they gradually improve? That’s open to debate. Republicans think they are already collapsing, as most insurance companies continue to leave the market. But Democrats have a counter-narrative that things aren’t nearly as bad as conservatives say they are. If the state exchanges do stabilize, that’s probably okay for Republicans because at least they won’t get blamed for killing health care. If they go into a death spiral, who will get the blame? The Democrats who created them or the Republicans who tried to replace them but failed. I don’t know. It’s an open question.
If the infrastructure bill doesn’t get done, does that mean that new infrastructure projects don’t get built? I doubt it. New York’s subway system is a mess, but I don’t think Donald Trump gets blamed for that. It seems to me that it is more a local issue. I think most New Yorkers would blame their incompetent Mayor. The DC metro system has needed an overhaul for a while, but nobody is waiting for Congress to act. That is definitely a local deal. The failure of an infrastructure bill is more of a missed opportunity to improve the GOP brand than it is anything else.
What would the theme be for the midterm elections if nothing gets done?
Democrats are running on impeachment. If they get the majority, they are going to remove the President they hate. Could be good for their base, but I don’t know if that works for swing voters.
Republicans, if nothing gets done, will blame do-nothing Democrats, despite having majorities in both Chambers. The Trump Administration might be willing to run primary campaigns against some do-nothing Republicans, which will certainly bring some frowns from his Congressional allies. But for the 8 or so Senate Democrats who reside in Red States, the do-nothing Democrat label could be painful. If I am Joe Donnelly or Claire McCaskill, I don’t feel all of that comfortable running a general election where I am broadcasting my ability to block everything Trump is trying to do to make America great again. Of course, that obstructionism comes in pretty handy in a Democratic primary.
It’s hard to predict the future. The big question comes with the economy. There is ample evidence that the American economy is pretty resilient and that if the Congress and the Executive Branch stay out of its way, it will grow organically. The one good thing about this President is that he is a capitalist in his heart of hearts, and he will do things to help American businesses grow.
If the economy is going well, that should help Republicans, I think, even if they do nothing.
If the economy goes poorly, that should help Democrats, unless the President can successfully blame Democratic obstruction for the downturn.
It would be better and safer if Republicans got their act together and put some points on the board. The dysfunction is getting old. Doing nothing is not the worse-case scenario, but it is a risky political strategy that could backfire on them and the President. I would advise against it.
John Feehery is President of Communications and Director of Government Affairs for Quinn Gillespie and Associates, Washington, D.C.’s top public affairs firm. He is also a frequent commentator on the political landscape, widely quoted around the country and often seen on such television programs as CNN’s The Situation Room, MSNBC’s Hardball, and Bloomberg Television’s Money and Politics. He is also a columnist for The Hill. His writing appears regularly on Political Storm.