By Ramesh Ponnuru
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Note: This piece originally appeared in the July 31, 2017 issue of National Review.
Republicans don’t have many legislative wins to show for their control of the House, Senate, and White House. They have, it is true, confirmed Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. His confirmation, along with the thought of how Hillary Clinton would have used executive power, is enough to make a lot of conservatives happy about voting for President Trump last fall.
But Republicans hoped to have enacted major conservative changes in government policy by now. Congressional Republicans have complained over the years that their grassroots supporters have exaggerated expectations of what they can achieve. This time, though, the congressmen themselves have been disappointed. After the election, they too believed that Congress would quickly repeal Obamacare and then move ahead on tax reform.
That didn’t happen. Action on health care has been repeatedly delayed, and the current betting in Washington, D.C., is that no major change to Obamacare will pass. Congress has barely begun to take up taxes. Legislation on infrastructure, which the president has consistently described as a priority, does not exist.
Republicans have been productive, at least, in coming up with competing explanations for their failure to change the laws. Many Republicans, especially those outside the capital and those who strongly support Trump, blame the congressional party for being weak and disloyal to the president. (A smaller number of strong Trump supporters insist that a few deregulatory moves by Congress, the Gorsuch confirmation, and Trump’s executive actions, especially his planned withdrawal from the Paris climate-change accord, mean that everything is going well.) Often this criticism is couched as a defense of the president: If he’s not signing laws, it’s the fault of Congress for not sending them for his signature.
Those Republicans who are more sympathetic to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan than to Trump — most Republicans in D.C., in other words — tend to blame Trump. In particular, they blame his tweets. When one of them becomes a big news story, it drowns out any other Republican message. Many Republicans in Congress complain that this White House is better at providing drama than direction.
Speaker Ryan has not himself pointed a finger at Trump: not in public, and not, to my knowledge, in private, either. He has noted that congressional Republicans spent ten years in opposition, first to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in the last two years of the George W. Bush presidency, then to President Obama. Many members of his conference therefore have no experience of passing federal laws. The party’s stumbles, he suggests, are part of its transition to being a governing party.
Yet Ryan’s own ambitious schedule for 2017 underestimated the difficulties. Congressional Republicans aren’t just out of practice at governing: They face a fundamentally new situation. From 2001 to 2007, they were very largely pursuing the agenda set by a Republican White House. The last time they were setting an agenda themselves, as they are now doing by necessity, was during the Clinton administration. They have not set an agenda that they had a responsibility to turn into law with the assistance of a Republican president since before the Great Depression.
At one tricky moment in the House’s consideration of health care, Trump tweeted a few attacks on members of the House Freedom Caucus. The controversy that ensued might obscure the fact that he has generally taken a very hands-off approach to the Congress. He has said that congressional Republicans, not he, decided to tackle health care first. Ryan has pushed for tax reform to include a “border-adjusted tax” to offset some of the revenue losses other portions of the reform will cause. Trump’s aides have not taken a unified line on the matter, pro or con.
Trump’s management style, unusual in a president, does not require public unity from his subordinates. Budget director Mick Mulvaney and Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin have taken opposing views in interviews about how much revenue a reformed tax code should raise. Mulvaney has also said that the administration’s budget does not reflect its policy proposals — which left some observers a bit flummoxed, since putting its proposals into budgetary form has historically been considered the point of the document.
The president does not engage or seem familiar with the details of policy, either. Many jobs in his administration remain unfilled, in many cases with no nominees yet submitted. For these and other reasons, his administration has provided his congressional allies with much less guidance than is typical.
Usually, a presidential candidate runs on a fairly detailed list of proposals and communicates to his party, the public, and relevant interest groups that he intends to achieve something close to its top items. That list reflects, adjusts, and solidifies the party’s existing consensus. When the candidate comes from the party that controls Congress but not the White House, the list includes many of the priorities that the incumbent president beat back. If the candidate wins, his party defers to his list.
In the run-up to 2016, congressional Republicans decided to rely even more than before on their presidential nominee’s policy preferences. Senate Republicans made a conscious decision not to put forward a comprehensive agenda, so as to leave the nominee free to develop his own plans. Ryan tried to supply some content, devising a list of policies that he called “A Better Way.” But the lack of Senate buy-in, and the expectation that the presidential nominee would have a more authoritative platform, limited the seriousness with which House Republicans took it.
When Trump won, though, congressional Republicans could not defer to his proposals, even if they had been inclined to do so for a man many of them regarded as an interloper, because his campaign was so light on policy. His health plan consisted of a few pages of boilerplate, much of it dated. (The plan endorsed health savings accounts, for example, without taking any notice of the fact that President Bush had already gotten them enacted.) His own administration has not drawn on those pages. He ran on one tax plan during the primaries and another during the general election; reportedly instructed his White House staff to come up with a new plan that mimicked a New York Times op-ed he had read; and then oversaw the release of a “plan” that could fit on a 3×5 card.
During the last few decades our political system has come to rely ever more heavily on strong presidential leadership, and a shift away from this model of an overbearing executive may be salutary. It has, however, also been abrupt. Congressional Republicans have been left scrambling to figure out their own role.
Perhaps they’re blaming his tweets for their travails as a form of displaced anger over their new obligations. The proposition that the tweets are undermining congressional work does not really hold up. Nobody in Congress is going to vote against a tax bill because of something Trump tweeted about Mika Brzezinski. And it’s not as though the president would make a compelling case for Republican health-care legislation — whether to the public or to holdout senators — if only he could keep himself from using social media to boast and settle scores.
Whether anyone could make a compelling case for that legislation is a contested question. The health-care bill is hated by many and loved by almost no one, in part because it does not reflect any coherent understanding of what our health policy should be. That may be the kind of legislation one should expect when neither the Congress nor the president has thought through a policy agenda. The health debate has shown that moderate Republicans, especially, never worked out the implications of the party’s loud opposition to Obamacare, which they joined with gusto. If they had, they might have realized that it was impossible to repeal Obamacare while also refusing to modify in any way its protections for people with preexisting conditions.
The same lack of forethought is already undermining tax reform. Republicans think they have a clear idea of tax reform because they share certain goals, such as lower tax rates and better treatment of investment. But those goals can be pursued in many different ways. How large should tax cuts be? Is it more important to cut corporate or individual tax rates? Or would the economy be better served by changing the definition of the corporate tax base? Should concerns about the trade deficit affect our tax policy? How should Trump’s promises about child care be integrated with tax reform, if they should be at all?
Passing tax legislation will not require starting out with a consensus on all these questions, let alone on the more detailed ones that have to be answered after them. But Republican lawmakers are quite far away from a consensus on them, and the vast majority of individual congressmen do not yet have a strong sense of their own answers.
It is a mistake, then, to ask why Trump, Ryan, and the rest are not making more rapid progress on the Republican agenda. That question assumes that Republicans have a clear sense of what they want and are confronting an obstacle to the realization of their desires: that they’re not getting their way because [blank], which could be filled in with “Trump is being a maniac on Twitter” or “Ryan is a weakling.” But the problem is more basic. The main reason they’re not doing much is that they haven’t figured out what they want to do.