As appalling as the first five months of the Trump presidency have been to those of us who care about public policy and good government, we can't claim to be surprised. As Hillary Clinton memorably explained to historians last summer in Philadelphia, "There is no other Donald Trump. This is it."
But what has been a surprise is how bad this Congress has been at legislating. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are hardly newbies to the Washington scene or the political process. In particular, McConnell is the quintessential political insider: He's not much of a spokesman and is not known as an "ideas guy." But he knows the rules of the Senate, has built relationships with his Republican colleagues, knows how to wield power, and because he feels no need to be popular outside of Kentucky, he is willing to do things that are unpopular in the short term in service of long-term victories for his party. He's the one who mapped out the Republican strategy of all-obstruction, all-the-time during the Obama years, and despite the unpopularity of shutting down the government, denying Merrick Garland an up-or-down confirmation vote, and sacrificing the nation's credit rating for political purposes, McConnell would no doubt say that his strategy worked. Conservatives now control both political branches of government and have a refreshed majority on the Supreme Court.
And yet, in the first five months of their Washington hegemony, conservatives have not accomplished much of consequence, apart from closing the deal on confirming a fellow conservative to the Supreme Court — and even that required changing longstanding Senate rules.
But why is that? Why can't they pull together a coherent agenda and move it through Congress? There's at least part of an answer lurking in McConnell's failure this week to muster the 50 votes he needs to bring his health care bill to the floor of the Senate, and it's this: The House and Senate versions of the bill were drafted to accomplish political ends, not policy goals, without any real consideration of how to fix the problems with our health care system.
Republicans didn't hold a single hearing on their bills, developing them in secret instead. The House voted before the Congressional Budget Office could release its analysis, and the Senate only waited on that analysis because it was required to under the reconciliation process that the majority plans to use so it can squeak the legislation through with only 50 senators' votes (and Vice President Mike Pence's tie-breaker).
Listen to the way Republicans talk about the bill and you'll notice that none of them talk about what it would do to help Americans get health care. They talk about the problems with Obamacare (some of which they're working to exacerbate), or they talk about funding issues or "states' rights," or they talk about the aspects of Obamacare that won't be changed (pre-existing conditions), but they barely even tip their hat to anything they're planning that will improve health care.
It's about the politics, pure and simple. They've spent the last eight years reducing their knee-jerk opposition to anything that bore Obama's name to a bumper sticker rallying cry, and now they feel the need to pass something they can label "repeal and replace." So we get this truly atrocious bill, and the great majority of conservatives on the Hill are ready to vote for it. A handful aren't, and they will decide the matter.
That same motivation to deliver on sloganeering has driven much of what the GOP has done since it took control of the White House and Congress in January. Consider President Trump's multiple executive orders about regulation, none of which do anything to make Americans any safer, which is, after all the purpose of most of the laws under which the regulations Trump dislikes were written. He's signed various tweet-ready orders and then left it to the agencies to sort through the provisions that conflict with the Administrative Procedure Act or the Constitution, or that are simply absurd on their face.
Likewise, the congressional majority enjoyed a veritable festival of votes earlier this year in which they repealed 14 separate Obama-era regulations, along the way doling out favors to industries that contribute to their campaigns. They didn't bother with hearings or with any meaningful debate, and it's hard to imagine that most of the legislators actually knew much about the regulations in question beyond the magic words "Obama" and "regulation." In so doing, they repealed rules designed to protect Internet privacy, keep mining companies from dumping mountaintops into streams, make it harder for resource extraction companies to hide corrupt practices, encourage retirement savings accounts for workers, reduce workplace injuries, and more.
Various pieces of legislation in Congress aimed at gumming up the regulatory process are also moving, and here again, the bills seem driven by the desire to make a statement rather than to actually make the world a better place. The Regulatory Accountability Act is the bill that seems to pose the most realistic threat of passage, and nothing about it is aimed at making rules more protective or rulemaking more responsive to real-world problems. It's about making it harder to adopt rules by making the process even more burdensome and over-analyzed than it already is.
For the final six years of the Obama administration, the GOP was perfectly positioned to fire off legislation that was about messaging and positioning first and actual policy last. They voted to repeal Obamacare dozens of times, secure in the knowledge that their bills would never become law. Now that they have the votes and the White House, they've come up against the reality of actual policymaking.
As it stands, only a handful of Republican senators and representatives are willing to acknowledge those realities, and the fate of so many issues is in their hands. It's true that the legislative process can sometimes resemble sausage making, but this is no way to make a sausage.
Photo credit: By daveynin from United States (Traditional race of Brewers.) CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons