Republicans in Washington began their era of total control over the levers of power by stepping on a rake. In a secret vote last week, the Republican conference in the House of Representatives decided to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, igniting a firestorm of public opposition that forced them into an embarrassing retreat on the very first day of the 115th Congress.
As political miscalculations go, it was a doozy. That day, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham called it “the dumbest fricking thing I’ve ever heard.”
The question for Republicans now is whether they’ve learned something from the experience or not. The party has a history, in recent years, of treating control of some or all of the nation’s policymaking apparatus as an opportunity to enact massive changes that don’t always have the level of public support that they seem to believe.
Government shutdowns are an obvious example. As Newt Gingrich in 1995 and Ted Cruz in 2013 both learned, holding the entire federal government hostage to a narrow political goal is frowned upon by the majority of Americans.
In 2005, fresh off his reelection victory and looking at Republican majorities in the House and Senate, George W. Bush rolled out privatization of Social Security as his top domestic priority. It was beaten back amid howls of public protest and helped Democrats take over both houses of Congress just two years later.
Whether The 115th Congress and President Trump will overreach politically in the coming years is, obviously, not yet known. But there will be plenty of opportunities. Here are a few areas where Republicans should scan the ground for more rakes before rushing forward.
The Republicans’ call for repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act during the 2016 campaign clearly was a smart political tactic that paid off big dividends in the November election. But in their haste to make that one of their first orders of business, congressional leaders and President-elect Donald Trump are moving into politically treacherous and largely uncharted waters.
With the possible exception of some of the changes in the 1996 welfare reform law, Congress has never before dismantled a major social service or health care program in modern times. For sure, Obamacare was plagued from the beginning by operational and financial problems, overpromising by President Obama, and faulty business models that ended up driving major insurers out of the market and driving up premiums and copayments for consumers.
But the four-year-old subsidized healthcare insurance system that Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) denounce as a “disaster” and “failed partisan experiment” has extended first-time coverage to 20 million Americans through subsidized private insurance policies and expanded Medicaid in 31 states and the District of Columbia. It has also raised the standards of coverage in most policies, helped bend the national health care cost curve, provided added relief to rural hospitals and created a bonanza of new business for many insurers, hospitals and medical facilities, pharmaceutical companies and others.
Even without a suitable replacement in hand after years of attacking the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are on track to use special budget “reconciliation” rules to ram through a resolution in the coming months that would pull much of the Obamacare program up by the roots.
Yet surveys show that Americans are more interested in Congress fixing Obamacare than replacing it with an entirely new program. And for all their complaints about President Obama’s signature health insurance plan, most of the major players in the healthcare world are warning that the GOP strategy will lead to major financial losses for insurers and hospitals and the loss of coverage for millions of Americans.
What’s more, GOP political allies including the American Medical Association (AMA) and Republican governors whose states expanded Medicaid under Obamacare are pressuring Congress to postpone the repeal legislation until a feasible substitute is in hand.
GOP leaders have shrugged off the warnings and insist that rapid action is essential in order for Trump and the congressional Republicans to make good on their political promises to voters. Yet already there are tiny fissures developing within the GOP over strategy. Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky, Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Bob Corker of Tennessee are all raising concerns about repealing Obamacare without a replacement and other issues related to the fiscal 2017 budget resolution being used as the main vehicle.
Spending and the Debt
Trump once boasted that he could retire the nearly $20 trillion national debt in eight years through his tax cuts, budget savings and renegotiated trade deals with China, Mexico and Canada.
Yet throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, he sought to overshadow Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with promises of massive tax cuts, $1 trillion of new infrastructure investment, a military buildup, affordable child care and family leave benefits.
Republicans have long prided themselves as the party of fiscal conservatism and balanced budgets. But in the early going of the new Congress, Trump and the GOP seem to be prepared to break the bank in pursuit of Trump’s ambitious agenda. Even before taking office as president, Trump has expanded on his government spending ambitions, boasting that he was prepared to renew a costly nuclear arms race with Russia, China and other nuclear powers.
Late last week, Politico reported that Trump’s team and Republican lawmakers are considering adding funds to a must-pass spending bill this spring to help finance his plans to build a wall along the southern border after concluding that Trump can’t make good on a major campaign pledge to force Mexico to pay for it. That idea alone would add billions of dollars to the government appropriations bills in the coming years.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget calculates that when taken together, Trump’s tax and spending promises – including his pledge to boost military spending and make cuts in non-defense discretionary programs-- would drive up the debt to 105 percent of GDP within a decade, or one of the highest levels since World War II.
But that analysis didn’t include the cost of a major increase in highway, bridge and other infrastructure spending because Trump’s advisers have yet to figure out how to finance it. And the long term economic and budgetary impact of the Republicans’ drive to repeal and replace Obamacare are still open to conjecture.
Republicans are hijacking the fiscal 2017 budget resolution to use as the vehicle for dismantling much of Obamacare. While all eyes are focused on the political fight over repealing Obamacare, there has been little discussion about the spending and deficit numbers that Republicans have plugged in as place holders until Congress can fully turn its attention to spending levels later this year, when a second resolution will be offered to members.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is one of the few Republicans who has made an issue of this tactic, urging fiscal conservatives in the House and Senate to balk at approving a budget resolution repealing Obamacare that on the surface, at least, allows the debt to rise by $9.7 trillion in the coming decade because of major tax cuts and spending increases. “It should be a conservative document that should not add $9.7 trillion to the debt over ten years,” Paul told reporters late last week after meeting with two dozen conservative House Republicans who belong to the Freedom Caucus.
Bixby, the Concord Coalition official and deficit hawk, calls all of this “very concerning” for fiscal conservatives.
“There are a lot of chickens coming home to roost here,” he said in an interview Friday. “A lot of campaign promises were made and they didn’t add up. And now that we’re heading into budget season, lawmakers and the new administration are trying to perform some fiscal alchemy here to make it all work.”
“The tough things for Republicans is that a lot of them are beginning to realize that they are faced with either scaling back substantially some of their campaign promises or scaling back their concern about the debt,” he added. “The tension we are seeing now is whether they can accommodate big spending plans and a big tax cut and still go to their constituents with a straight face and say they’re worried about the debt.”
There are many, many Americans who are extremely socially conservative, and they are already cheering an effort by Republican lawmakers to shoehorn language that strips all federal funding from Planned Parenthood into the budget bill repealing Obamacare. But a Congress that dedicates itself to the agenda of social conservatives will likely find itself at odds with a broader American electorate that is increasingly less concerned about such issues.
Planned Parenthood is just one example, but it’s a good one. Poll after poll after poll has shown that the organization, which provides health care services to women around the country, many of whom might not be able to access reproductive care otherwise, is extremely popular.
With Republicans in charge of both the White House and the Senate, the possibility of manufacturing a Supreme Court majority to overturn Roe v. Wade, clearing the way to make abortion illegal, is another near-term goal for social conservatives. And while doing so would make a portion of the Republican electorate rapturously happy, it would be extraordinarily unpopular among the majority of Americans.
So would laws rolling back protections for LGBTQ Americans. While gay marriage and anti-discrimination laws remain a flashpoint for the religious right, the rest of the United States has, for the most part, moved on. A Congress seen as focused on giving federal blessing to things like North Carolina’s disastrously controversial “bathroom bill” would eventually find itself in a position similar to that state’s now-former Governor.