White House

A Republican Fiasco Years in the Making

The party of Lincoln is still reeling from the rise of Newt Gingrich.

Paper tiger.

Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

After seven years of pledging to repeal and replace Obamacare as soon as possible, Republicans today pulled their bill from the House floor just before a scheduled vote -- because it was going to go down in flames.

We should pause and realize what a big deal this is. The number one agenda item for years, the one that most House Republicans campaigned on when first elected, and they couldn't manage to even get an initial bill out of the House. Not only that, but it was clear this week that even though most of them were willing to vote for it, practically no one was enthusiastic about what they had produced. It also polled terribly, and conservative health care wonks hated the bill. 

Who was responsible? A president with a short attention span and no grasp of either process or policy didn't help. A speaker of the House with little experience or, so far, much in the way of demonstrated legislative ability wasn't helpful, either. Then there is the rejectionist House Freedom Caucus, who have shown again and again that they are willing to let the perfect (from their very small minority point of view) be the enemy of the good. This time, that wasn't hard, since no one really thought the House's product was any good. 

Really, however, this is only the latest climax of a long cycle of Republican dysfunction which dates back to George H.W. Bush's administration, when House radicals upended Bush's budget deal with Democrats in a dramatic floor vote. 

Those radicals, led by Newt Gingrich, eventually took over the Republican conference in 1995, and promptly shut down the government twice. They stripped the House of the resources it needed to legislate, and committees of their institutional memory by term-limiting their chairs. They capped it off with an irresponsible impeachment of a popular president. After that, Gingrich was gone, but the Republican House just got worse, with a decade marked by repeated mismanagement and corruption. 

When Republicans regained their House majority in the 2010 election, they had a chance to change their ways, but they showed they were no different, even shutting down the government again. 

Meanwhile, despite pledging as soon as they took office to write a bill to replace Obamacare, they never bothered to do the hard work of actually putting together a policy. Oh, there are real conservative health ideas out there. 1 But the party as a whole, and the House in particular, just didn't bother. And it's not just health care: They can't, or won't, create viable policy. There's no Republican immigration bill, no Republican replacement for Dodd-Frank, and on and on. They rarely even manage to talk policy beyond cliches and symbols. 2  

So here we are. Two months into Trump's presidency, he's signed almost nothing into law. His presidency is in disarray, and Trump's inability to move votes confirms that everyone in town has figured out he's a paper tiger with very limited influence. 

The House isn't in any better shape. Whatever they choose to tackle carries the strong possibility that Ryan can't find enough votes between relatively moderate conservatives who won't sign on to extremist legislation and the House Freedom Caucus, which thrives on opposing very conservative bills because they're not conservative enough. 

Better skills would help, to be sure. It's still not too late for Trump to clear out the White House, hire a real chief of staff, and start over. And on the Hill, it's possible that the health-care fiasco will have taught Ryan and his committee chairs a little bit about how to legislate, although it's hard to see how they can solve decades of dysfunction overnight. 

If they do move to taxes next, it's certainly possible they can manage to pass a big, budget-busting tax cut. Especially if they keep it simple. If, however, they really try to do something that deserves the name "tax reform" -- that is, major legislation that will change how the individual and corporate tax systems are structured, rather than just slashing rates -- then it's likely they'll run into the same problems they faced with health reform. True tax reform is almost impossible in the best of times, since it basically involves harm to small, well-organized groups with abundant resources in order to provide general benefits to large, unorganized groups. And this is hardly the best of times. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Paul Ryan, in his comments after pulling the bill off the floor, claimed that it was just too hard to do after having been in the minority for "a decade." In fact, of course, Republicans including Ryan were in the House majority from 2011. At any rate, Ronald Reagan's Republicans managed to legislate in 1981 despite years in the minority, as did Barack Obama's Democrats in 2009. 

  2. Part of the problem: When everything is symbolic, it becomes hard to compromise. It's easy to provide a little more or a little less support for middle-class people's health insurance, but when you decide that nothing less than Freedom is at stake, how do you settle for 75 percent of that? 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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