By Joshua C. Huder
The 2016 election was a near universal shock. President Trump beat (nearly) all prognosticators. House Republicans only lost 6 seats, retaining their 4th largest House majority since 1930. Senate Republicans also beat the odds and held on to a 52 seat majority. Suddenly, the 2016 Election that was supposed to go bad for Republicans turned into an enormous opportunity.
At least, that was the idea. Saying the 115th Congress has been underwhelming is an understatement. It has passed exactly one significant policy: an omnibus appropriations bill that was negotiated by then-President Obama, then-Speaker Boehner, and Majority Leader McConnell. Two-thirds of that trio is no longer in government, yet their budget deal remains the biggest accomplishment of the year, thus far. The 115th Congress was sworn in with huge ambitions. They were going to repeal/replace the Affordable Care Act, pass an infrastructure package, fund a stronger border wall, and take on tax reform. But so far, the most surprising thing about the 115th Congress is that it is less productive than the 114th Congress when a Democrat was president.
What hasn’t changed is the House majority’s inability to accomplish routine governance. This is and has been a huge problem and it will only get worse. The 115th hasn’t passed an FY2018 budget; it hasn’t passed a full-year FY2018 appropriations bill; it hasn’t even started negotiations on easing sequestration caps, which is the first step toward making good on their promise to build up the military; and only 55-percent of the House majority voted for the omnibus that was passed seven months after the beginning of the fiscal year.
While all of this is troubling from a good government vantage point, it’s arguably worse from a partisan perspective. Democrats steamrolled Republicans in every one of these routine government fights. Democrats were widely perceived to be the winners in the May omnibus. Nearly all Republican policy riders were stripped from the December 2015 omnibus. Debt ceilings have been raised without concessions. The government has been funded at higher levels than conservatives would like and there have been been no big cuts to non-defense spending. And possibly worst of all, Republicans inability to pass a budget means they can’t use reconciliation for tax reform, which is probably fine by Democrats.
The most recent instance came yesterday when President Trump agreed with Democratic Leaders Schumer and Pelosi to a three-month extension for both government funding (the continuing resolution or “CR”) and the debt limit. Republican Leaders, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, wanted the debt ceiling off the table until after the 2018 election. In the words of former-Speaker John Boehner, they wanted to “clean out the barn.” Removing potential landmines from the legislative calendar gives both chambers more room to pursue other priorities, like tax reform. The problem is Ryan had no room to maneuver. Regardless of who is accepting blame for the deal, the truth is Speaker Ryan had no negotiating power. His conference didn’t give him any. With the House Freedom Caucus and the Republican Study Committee both opposing a debt limit hike, he doesn’t have enough Republican votes to suspend the debt limit. So, he had no choice but to accept Democrats demands yet again.
This time, however, the Democrats have won in a more substantial way. Failing to clean the barn means that Republicans have one more hurdle to clear in the middle of all the other legislative battles/fights/priorities. In addition to finding a way to ease sequester caps for the next two years, passing a budget to move to tax reform, and negotiating an omnibus spending package for FY2018, Republicans now also need to raise the debt limit in 36 legislative days. If they don’t, the U.S. Treasury will have to take “extraordinary measures” to avoid default, which would likely push the real default day into March. That also happens to coincide with DACA’s expiration, when DREAMers will become subject to deportation if Congress doesn’t act.
Republicans’ inability to do routine governance has cost them legislative wins in the past. This time, however, it is scuttling what remains of their ambitious legislative agenda. You cannot focus on big ticket policy reforms if all of the institution’s energy is consumed with finding a way to do the small stuff. What a three-month debt limit hike does is ensure Congress is focused on easing sequester, negotiating an omnibus, raising the debt ceiling, and maybe addressing the President’s DACA deadline. It also gives Democrats another leverage point to extract policy concessions and wins. By the time Republicans come up for air, the most fruitful months for major policy reform will have passed and legislators’ attention will begin to shift to primary and general elections. If Republicans cannot raise the debt ceiling in February or March, Leader Pelosi will probably be happy to offer them another short-term hike, extending the game into the election cycle.
The chances for tax reform looked bleak before this deal. Now, the nail may finally be in the coffin. Negotiating these deals in Congress takes time. Unfortunately, there’s very little of it left. The House majority is just as divided as it was in the previous three congresses. If they can’t find a way to do the routine stuff, the big-ticket items are off the table.
Joshua C. Huder, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute.