Why the Republicans Can’t Legislate

What I like about the following is how it lacks any moral judgment. It simply puts the facts out there and let’s you decide what you think about it. The context is the shocking lack of legislative achievement we’ve seen so far from the Trump administration. The idea is that after a legislative burst in its first two years, the Obama administration accomplished much of its agenda through executive orders and regulations, so we should expect much of Trump’s initial efforts to be non-legislative as well as he makes efforts to undo Obama’s legacy. We’re told that Trump has been more active and successful than we might imagine.

Republicans have used the Congressional Review Act to nullify 14 rules enacted by the Obama administration. Before this year, it had only been used successfully once in 20 years. If Trump and Republicans had not reversed these rules, then companies applying for federal contracts would have had to disclose their labor violations; coal mines would have had to reduce the amount of debris dumped into streams; telecommunications companies would have had to take “reasonable measures” to protect their customers’ personal information; individuals receiving Social Security payments for disabling mental illnesses would have been added to a list of those not allowed to buy guns; states would have been limited in the drug-testing they could perform on those receiving unemployment insurance benefits; certain hunting practices would not have been allowed on national wildlife refuges in Alaska; and states could have set up retirement savings plans for those who don’t have the option at work.

[Mark] Short [Trump’s director of legislative affairs] said the fact that Trump was able to use the Congressional Review Act more than a dozen times when it had only been used once before is “a pretty significant accomplishment” and one that he says will benefit the economy by billions of dollars each year.

“We look at that as one of the biggest accomplishments,” he said.

That’s quite a list. Maybe there are a lot of people who are excited that people who have paid into the unemployment insurance fund can be denied their earned benefits if they fail a drug test. To me, that seems more like robbery than solid policy. But it also looks like by far the least objectionable change on that list.

What’s the constituency for companies concealing their labor violations? Who wants toxic debris dumped in their streams? Is there anyone who wants their personal information to be less secure? How many people actually want someone who is so mentally challenged that they need help to managing their Social Security check to have an AR-15? Are there a lot of people whose idea of a wildlife refuge includes killing wildlife? And whose idea is it to say that states shouldn’t be able to create retirement savings options for folks who don’t have the option to work?

These are not popular accomplishments. There are narrow special interests who want these things, but you can’t take them on the campaign trail to the broader public and make a case that you’re getting things done to improve their lives. And that shouldn’t be surprising given the nature of what’s going on here. President Obama saw his legislative agenda blocked after the 2010 midterm elections, so he used his unilateral power to try to do things to help people. As a result, most of what he accomplished in this manner can’t be undone without hurting people. Corporations violate labor laws. Telecoms lose control of your personal information or sell it. Coal companies throw toxic sludge in your streams. Crazy people get military style weapons and use them to shoot up malls and first grade classrooms.

This is how Trump changes things. This is what his spokespeople tout as progress.

On the legislative front, though, he finds that policies this deeply offensive aren’t easy to move. Ronald Reagan understood that if he wanted tax reform he needed a Democrat to champion it. That’s why New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, who wasn’t even the ranking member of the Finance Committee, was tapped to author the reforms and push them through the Senate. And Reagan accepted that the tax reform was going to have to be based on ideas that were popular in Democratic circles. Bill Bradley wasn’t going to write the conservatives’ dream bill.

If Trump wants tax reforms or a big infrastructure bill, he’s going to have to make the same kind of concessions. He should be talking to the big Democratic hitters on finance and transportation in the Senate. That means we should be reading about negotiations with folks like Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. But that’s not what we’re seeing, at all. This week, the president is pushing infrastructure in a way that is assured to get absolutely no support from Sen. Nelson.

President Trump will seek to put a spotlight on his vows to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system and spur $1 trillion in new investment in roads, waterways and other infrastructure with a week-long series of events starting Monday at the White House…

…The president has invited executives from major airlines to join him as he kicks off the week with one of his more controversial plans: spinning off the air traffic control functions of the Federal Aviation Administration to a nonprofit corporation.

Most people, when they think about infrastructure have in mind new bridges and roads, modern airports and rail lines. Privatizing air traffic control is no substitute.

Likewise with the effort to reform the tax code, there’s no evidence that any Democrat is going to be a player or get behind the effort, let alone author it. Sen. Ron Wyden is hardly involved at all.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met with the Senate Finance Committee this week to discuss President Trump’s budget and, in particular, the administration’s stand on tax reform.

But Mnuchin wasn’t providing many new details, more often reiterating the same general concepts and vague assurances that he’s stated repeatedly.

The administration continues to promise tax reform this year. Yet the year is nearly half over and all the White House has produced is a one-page, double-spaced outline that’s shorter than the “typical drug store receipt,” said Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the tax-writing committee.

As you can see, there’s a lot of truth to the following observation:

“We are in an ugly era of people who do not understand what the legislative branch is even for,” said Andy Karsner, who served as assistant secretary of energy for efficiency and renewable energy in the George W. Bush administration and is now based in California, working with entrepreneurs as managing partner of the Emerson Collective.

The Trump administration and Republican leadership in Congress, Karsner said, “have no skill set, they have no craftsmanship. They have no connection to the time when people passed legislation.”

When Andy Karsner says that the Trump administration and the Republican congressional leadership have “no skill set,” that’s just another way of making my point. A president can’t magically make things happen. They have to look at Congress as it exists and figure out a way to work with them. President Obama couldn’t get very much through a Republican Congress that he wanted to sign, so Trump could be forgiven for finding himself in a similar position. But he has Republican majorities. When President Obama had Democratic majorities in his first two years, he moved the legislative process at a breakneck speed. That Trump can’t move anything is a result of his decision to govern as a hard right nativist dependent entirely on conservatives for support. Obama took criticism when he passed his stimulus plan and his health care plan, but he passed them because he took account of the requirements of his more right-leaning members (in both cases) and the few moderate Republicans he needed (in the former case). A take it or leave it approach would have resulted in failures.

So far, Trump has managed to convince himself that his legislative problems can be solved if the filibuster is removed from the Senate entirely, but he can’t even get 50 votes for most of his agenda including his efforts to uproot the Affordable Care Act. The Republican senators have been trying to explain this to him, but he doesn’t seem to understand.

But, despite their laudable efforts to reason with the president, I can’t absolve the Republican senators here. They have not been willing to level with either the president or the Republican base about the need to find Democratic sponsors for the signature legislation that Trump wants to sign. When the Republicans controlled the Senate in 1986, they were willing to create space for Bill Bradley to lead on tax reform. Today’s Republican senators won’t do the same for Ron Wyden.

And that’s a lack of skill, basically, when you come right down to it. We can argue about how polarization and perverse incentives interfere with bipartisan cooperation, but either you know how to legislate or you don’t.

And they don’t.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.