When Republicans won in November, it looked as if 2017 would reflect a major legislative shift to the right. But two months into the 115th Congress and six weeks into the Trump administration, progress on fulfilling Republicans’ major domestic policy goals is looking further away, not closer.
Plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act have quickly become a quagmire as lawmakers grapple with the risk of millions losing their health insurance. A corporate tax overhaul that has backing from House Republicans is running into serious opposition among Senate Republicans. Work on a major infrastructure bill, which President Trump has always been more enthusiastic about than congressional Republicans, has been punted to next year. Overhauling the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, it is clear, will be no quick task.
This is partly just the usual slow grinding of legislative gears; don’t forget that it took the Obama administration 14 months to pass its health care overhaul. And it’s partly a result of Democrats in the Senate slowing down confirmation of most of President Trump’s nominees, which leaves less time for legislating.
But there’s another element in the sluggish or nonexistent progress on major elements of the Republican agenda. Large portions of the Republican caucus embrace a kind of policy nihilism. They criticize any piece of legislation that doesn’t completely accomplish conservative goals, but don’t build coalitions to devise complex legislation themselves.
The roster of congressional Republicans includes lots of passionate ideological voices. It is lighter on the kind of wonkish, compromise-oriented technocrats who move bills.
The years of lock-step Republican opposition to President Obama’s agenda is well known and rooted in ideology. But the aversion to doing the messy work of making policy really goes back further than that. Consider what happened in domestic policy after George W. Bush won re-election in 2004.
First, Mr. Bush sought to partly privatize Social Security, a plan that went nowhere in a Republican-led Congress. He pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, and conservatives scuttled that. Later, after Democrats won Congress in 2006, a majority of Republican House members voted against the financial rescue bill known as TARP in 2008, even as a president of their own party said it was needed to avert an economic calamity.
The last time congressional Republicans have done the major lifting of making domestic policy was Mr. Bush’s first term, a productive time that included an expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs, the No Child Left Behind education law, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that reshaped securities law and tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.
But that’s now a decade and a half ago. Only 51 of the 238 current House Republicans were in Congress then — meaning a significant majority of Republican House members have never been in Congress at a time when their party was making major domestic policy.
“The vast bulk of the Republican conference were elected on howls of protests against Obama’s agenda, but governing is a very different skill,” said Michael Steel, who was a top aide to former Speaker of the House John Boehner, and is now a managing director at Hamilton Place Strategies. “It requires a different kind of muscle, and that muscle has atrophied.”
He noted that Speaker Paul Ryan has tried to keep some of those governing muscles toned by passing elements of his “Better Way” agenda, even when they had no shot of being passed by the Senate or signed by President Obama.
Having a Republican in the White House may not make things much easier. Many of the newer Republican lawmakers have shown little inclination to follow leaders with more experience in passing complex legislation. In debt ceiling standoffs in 2011 and 2013 — the latter combined with a government shutdown — congressional leaders were pushed into confrontation by a base that didn’t want to compromise with President Obama to keep the government running.
In 2015, Mr. Boehner called conservative members of his party who sought government shutdowns “false prophets” who “whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things they know are never going to happen.”
If you make a career opposing even the basic work of making the government run, it’s hard to pivot to writing major legislation. In the opposition, it’s easy to be strident and pure in your views. Legislative sausage-making requires compromise and flexibility and focus on the gritty details. Some politicians are great at both opposition and actual legislating — but not many.
You’re seeing that dynamic most vividly with the Republicans’ efforts to repeal Obamacare. They have spent years assailing the law, but the criticisms have always had a fundamental contradiction. They say the health insurance that people obtain through the law is inadequate and too expensive; they also say that the program involves too much government intervention in the economy.
As a rhetorical tool, one can slide from one argument to the next easily. But when it’s time to legislate, it’s hard to deal with both of those issues at once. If you make the program cheaper and more market-based, you’re almost certainly making insurance less comprehensive, leaving fewer Americans well covered.
That’s why Mr. Boehner, now apparently enjoying his retirement greatly, said recently that Republicans would not repeal and replace Obamacare, despite years of promises to do so.
“In the 25 years that I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never, ever, one time agreed on what a health care proposal should look like,” Mr. Boehner said at a panel discussion. “Not once.”
If a more conventional Republican were in the White House — Mitt Romney, say, or John Kasich — clear leadership on policy details could come from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. A president has the bully pulpit of his office, control over a vast bureaucracy that can help sort through the technical issues around a law, and, normally, a campaign policy agenda that can form a starting point for legislation.
But President Trump is even less attuned to policy detail than the typical House Republican. He didn’t campaign on a detailed policy agenda. And he seems to have only recently figured out what a policy morass health care can be. (“Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” he said Monday, to guffaws from anyone who has thought even a bit about health care reform.)
None of this means that major legislation won’t happen in coming years. Republicans are united in the desire for tax cuts, and the analysts who handicap these things remain confident that a major tax package will be enacted this year or early in 2018.
But it’s hard to carry out a sweeping agenda of shrinking and remaking the federal government when relatively few members of your own party have the inclination to focus on policy details, embrace compromise and accept the inherent trade-offs that come with change.