leadership

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures: CR edition

By Joshua C. Huder

Next week, the government will run out of money to stay open. And in typical fashion, Congress has left itself an insanely small window to pass a continuing resolution (CR) to keep it functioning. (If the process plays out normally, the Senate will have approximately  5 hours to spare before the government shuts down. This is another way of saying the process will in no way play out normally). But there’s a huge difference this time around, this CR debate illuminates a deep distrust within the Republican Party. Like other recent CR debates, members are floating policy riders in exchange for their vote. Sanctuary cities, a border wall, and, for a brief time, Planned Parenthood have all reared their heads during debate. The still unanswered question is whether these riders will be attached to the CR Congress must pass next week.

But beyond the immediate question, that these riders are even being floated is amazing in its own right. Riders like these were common the previous 6 years. In Congress if you can’t pass something on its own, you look for a vehicle to attach it to and force the opposition to accept the rider to pass the bill. And for the last 6-years, bills to fund the government or raise the debt ceiling became the must-pass vehicle of choice. Using that leverage, conservatives routinely attached controversial policy demands to various must-pass appropriations bills. Riders to repeal or defund Obamacare shut down the government in 2013. A rider to undo President Obama’s immigration order caused a very short shutdown in 2015. Some version of these shutdown threats have occurred in nearly every appropriations cycle since 2011.

These are desperate legislative tactics, used in situations when one party or faction wants to force a vote they otherwise cannot. But why is this happening again? It made sense in prior congresses when Democrats controlled the Senate and/or White House, and the Republican House forced them to either balk or vote on issues they otherwise wouldn’t have. But with Republicans in full control, why is Congress replaying the greatest hits in obstructive/destructive legislative tactics?

If these issues were priorities, Republicans could simply try and pass them. But that’s the problem. For many, particularly in the House, members aren’t getting their opportunities to address the bills or issues they believe are important. And as a result, they are again turning to desperate tactics to force votes.

The broader problem here is that the current institution isn’t designed for fractured internal party politics. Over the last several decades, the House has increasingly become a top-down institution. Over the course of decades, Speakers have played an increasing role in floor debate, committee assignments, committee activity, and drafting legislation. What this has meant is a decreasing role for rank-and-file members in the legislative process. This type of institution is great if the members in it agree on the leader’s direction. It is not great if there is significant disagreement in the ranks. So while this is not an inherently bad thing, in a time of intra-party dispute, we are currently observing the consequences. It can derail legislative negotiations, kill political capital, and otherwise render the president’s agenda dead-on-arrival.

Without a full-throated committee process acting as a sounding board for the factions in the Republican Party, Congress is depending on leadership to fill the void. Passing anything, major legislative rewrites or routine bills, now rests on Speaker Ryan’s ability to function as the Republican arbitrator. In a time of political upheaval in both parties and the country writ large, we have to wonder whether any one leader is up to that task. It clearly wasn’t during the AHCA debate. Next week will test whether it’s possible on what should be a routine legislation.

Regardless, the fact that these riders are being floated means there remains a deep distrust between the leaders of the Republican Party and its rank and file. After seven years, this problem looks more systemic than personal.

Joshua C. Huder, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.

Is Speaker Ryan leading too much?

By Joshua C. Huder

The debate to repeal and replace Obamacare was always going to be a serious test for congressional leaders. Reorganizing an eighth of the economy has massive ramifications for communities and states of every political stripe. Now, a week into the formal House debate, observers are getting a sense of how leaders are handling the bill. So far, it isn’t good. With the exception of the hardcore party loyalists, Speaker Ryan is facing opposition from basically every angle. Hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, conservative groups from the mainstream to the far right, the AARP, and all Democratic affiliated groups oppose the bill. At least nine Senate Republicans (Capito (WV), Cassidy (LA), Collins (ME), Cruz (TX), Heller (NV), Lee (UT), Murkowski (AK), Paul (KY), Portman (OH)) have voiced serious concerns about it. And within Ryan’s own caucus, the House Freedom Caucus vocally opposes it. It’s possibly more difficult to find people who like the bill.

Ryan seems to be mostly alone on this bill. Very few members publicly support the plan. The committees of jurisdiction made no changes to the bill after 45-hours of amendment and debate. This is basically unfathomable unless: leadership assured members on the committee they would address their concerns before/during floor debate; leaders pressured members to push the bills through without changes; or, both. All of this indicates a heavy leadership hand. Ryan has decided to steer this ship and he is trying to bring his reluctant members along for the ride.

There’s a perpetual myth that congressional leaders are the thought and opinion leaders of their caucus, that they decide where the party is going and get their members on board. In reality, their ability to lead is grossly overblown. Yes, there are avenues for leaders to choose a path among multiple options. That’s a major power in the Capitol. But trying to lead a caucus where it doesn’t want to go usually go ends badly for the leader.

Successful congressional leadership more often pragmatic. It entails allowing members to shape ideas rather than giving them ideas to follow. Even in ideologically similar caucuses, like the polarized parties we see today, members represent dramatically different constituencies facing very different realities. Rural California is very different from rural Ohio, suburban Florida, Wyoming, or middle Pennsylvania. Congress doesn’t think nationally. This is why Congress will never pass the “best” policies (as prescribed by many think tanks, policy wonks, etc). It is only a national legislative body in the sense that hundreds of local and state representatives gather there. But once in Washington their mentality doesn’t fundamentally shift. They continue to think locally and they should. If they prioritize national policy over their constituents’ interests, that is their prerogative. It’s also their constituents’ prerogative to unelect them.

This presents an enormous challenge for congressional leaders who are as close as it gets to national legislator as members of the legislative branch can get. They do think nationally about policy, politics, elections, etc. But throughout history parties have pushed back on leaders who lead too forcefully. Speaker Reed (R-ME) (1889-1891, 1895-1899), among the most powerful and influential speakers in history, lost his job when he forced votes on his conference and blocked bills they supported. This led to his abrupt retirement in 1899. Speaker Cannon (R-IL), possibly the most influential speaker in history, lost the majority of his power in 1910 by failing to accommodate moderate Republican members, predominantly from the Midwest, on issues like trade and tariffs. Thinking nationally has its drawbacks.

In contrast, instances of successful leadership highlight not policy brilliance but strategic brilliance. This is less about presenting the best ideas, and more about finding the right mix of ideas to get it through the process. For example, Pelosi’s leadership was critical when passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010. But her role was important not because she had the best ideas. It was because she organized the ideas of her caucus in a way that could pass. She was able to get her members to pass the law in two phases. First, they had to swallow hard and pass the Senate version of the ACA, which they hated. She then used the Rules Committee to blend a patchwork of bills put out by the Energy & Commerce, Ways & Means, and Education & Workforce committees, with some language that satisfied moderates in her caucus to amend the first bill. Only then did the ACA truly pass the House. Speaker John Boehner brilliantly navigated a variety of policy problems. For example, in 2013 he faced an unexpected revolt against the must-pass FARRM bill. He regrouped, repackaged the FARRM bill into two separate bills that satisfied his members, passed them separately, and brought them back together in conference with the Senate in an unusual, but remarkably inventive way.

The current House process – where bills are largely conceived, drafted, and pushed out of leadership offices by leadership staff – is unusual in American history. It’s not novel to Ryan’s tenure (you can trace this all the way back to Speaker Gingrich). But it’s clear Ryan is using his position and the AHCA debate to flex his wonk muscles as his party’s leading policy mind. However, this isn’t a speaker’s natural role. It’s trying to president from the speaker’s office. Coupled with the fact that it’s the wrong venue, presidential leadership in Congress is another overblown phenomenon.

Either Ryan is going to force ideas on members who don’t want them, or Republicans will not be able coalesce behind a healthcare replacement bill at all, in which case he’s trying to make something out of nothing. In either case, there’s a lot of leadership where it may not be wanted. And in the words of former Speaker Boehner, a leader without followers is simply a guy taking a walk. It's still very early, but Speaker Ryan is currently on a walk.

Joshua C. Huder, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.

How will Congress respond to a Trump win?

By Joshua C. Huder

Republicans won both elected branches of government on Tuesday night. They will add the Third Branch soon as a SCOTUS nominee will be among the first orders of business for the new president and majority. That said, this unified government will be an interesting one to watch. The way that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell addressed the media following Trump’s win yesterday you may have thought that they had won the presidency. McConnell flatly stated some pieces of Trump’s agenda are off the table. The rift between congressional leadership and the president-elect brings the potential for real tension between the Congress and President. In all likelihood, congressional Republicans will try to impose their will on the new president. The big question is if President Trump pushes back or goes with the flow.

This government will pursue lots of policies. Rather than write them down in piecemeal fashion, here’s what we can expect from a procedural standpoint.

Paul Ryan remains Speaker. Many around DC believed that if Paul Ryan wanted a legitimate shot at the 2020 nomination, he had to find a way to step down from his current position. Presiding over a unwieldy House of Representatives for four years, enduring multiple attempts to remove him from his position, and failing to enact routine business like a budgets and appropriations bills doesn’t set one up well for a run at the nation’s highest office. After Trump’s upset win everything changes. Suddenly, he has as president he can work with, a Senate majority to negotiate with, and real potential for making a lasting impact on national policy. And further, his earliest run for the presidency likely won’t happen until 2024. What looked like the country’s worst political job 48 hours ago suddenly looks much better.

The budget process will unbreak. The budget process will be critical for Republicans to enact their agenda. Tamping down spending, repealing Obamacare, cutting Medicaid, reforming Medicare will all have their roots in passing a budget resolution. The first order of business for House and Senate Republicans will be finding a way forward on this process. It all starts here.

Reconciliation will be used. In January of this year Republicans used the reconciliation process (which is not subject to filibuster in the Senate) to repeal Obamacare. There are some restrictions on what can be passed under reconciliation. Reconciliation bills must have a budgetary effect. And unless Republicans want to go nuclear on the legislative filibuster from day one of the 115th Congress (not likely), reconciliation offers Republicans the path of least resistance to their policy goals. This is why the budget process is crucial. Without that resolution, reconciliation can’t move forward. The biggest question remaining is what will Republicans use it for? Will they use reconciliation for just one policy (i.e. repealing Obamacare) or as a vehicle for several bills wrapped up in an omnibus. Best guess is that this process will be used for basically everything that can be justified.

Filibuster is on borrowed time. While Republicans held the Senate they lost two seats. Put differently, there are more Democrats available to filibuster bills. With a unified government the conditions are now ripe for filibuster reform. While McConnell lamented Reid’s use of the nuclear option you can also bet he took good notes on how to replicate Reid’s procedural maneuver. And if the filibuster is the only thing standing between Republicans and their entire agenda, you have to imagine that the 115th Congress will go down as the one that killed the filibuster for both SCOTUS nominations and legislation.

The legislative skids will be greased in 2017. Congress becomes more relevant than ever. The extent to which Trump actualizes his agenda will rest on Congress’s shoulders. However, the more likely scenario is Congress pushes their agenda on Trump. Trump rode a wave of populism into office. Republicans, on the other hand, lost seats in both chambers. How the public feels about conservative Republicans somewhat coopting Trump’s win, or if they’ll notice, remains to be seen. But regardless, it will be interesting.

Joshua C. Huder, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.

The Fallout: Does Boehner's Absence Change Anything?

Speaker John Boehner finally succumbed to the three-year pressure campaign waged by House conservatives. As politically weak as Boehner was in his conference, he was never going to be forced out of his position. He’s powerful enough that he could leave on his own terms. On Friday, he did just that. The question now is: where does that leave a divided and unwieldy House majority? Over the next month this potentially untethers Speaker Boehner from the hard right. A short-term continuing resolution (CR) will pass next week and potentially set the stage to pass the Highway Trust Fund bill and other priorities currently stuck in limbo. In short, Boehner is free to do what he has done for the last five years: enable Republicans to get out of their own way on what should be easily passed bills. Boehner has deftly moved his conference around problems that truly threatened the Republican brand and fundraising from the Doc-Fix, the Violence Against Women Act, trade promotion authority, to the debt ceiling and his handling of the shutdown in 2013. In his last month, that will likely remain his focus. This time, however, he likely won’t feel tied to demands from the right that could endanger these deals or the party.

Once he leaves Republican politics become trickier. Conservatives waged this rebellion, finally succeeding after nearly three years. They will want a successor with proven conservatism or at least gain assurances their demands will gain more traction in the legislative process. In this scenario more distant obstacles may become even more difficult. Critical legislation such as the December continuing resolution and the debt ceiling may become the battlefield in which newly emboldened conservatives will challenge the rest of the party to follow their lead. The problem is the structural features of government that have prevented conservative wins in several showdowns remain in place. The President will still veto any legislation that defunds Planned Parenthood, undermines Obamacare, undermines non-defense programs in unacceptable ways. Senate Democrata will still filibuster spending bills. 

In other words, this potentially makes an already bad situation worse in the time remaining in the 114th Congress. It’s unclear who will succeed Boehner, how they’ll manage the factions within the conference, and if they can chart a path toward victory in 2016. However, removing Boehner won’t change the broader dynamics causing dysfunction. It arguably makes them worse.

Conservatives won the battle they’ve been fighting for years. However, it’s unclear they’ve furthered their cause in the war.