During the 2016 campaign, Republicans uneasy with Donald Trump told themselves that the real action would be in Congress. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell would pass one sweeping bill after another to put conservative ideology into practice, and Trump would sign them all. He might say crazy stuff and even make some questionable decisions, but the legislative train would keep chugging along.
But it’s not working out that way. The Atlantic's Molly Ball reports that a deep malaise has overtaken the Republican Congress:
“For the Republicans running the government, Capitol Hill has become a workplace with extremely poor morale. The moderates fear for their careers, while the conservative true believers see little to hope for.
So far, this Congress has passed 35 laws, almost none of which are the kind of thing you tout as a grand achievement when you’re running for reelection. The most substantive things Congress has done are a series of bills passed under the Congressional Review Act, which allows them to nullify regulations promulgated by the president within a 60-day window. They used the CRA to undo a series of last-minute regulations from the Obama administration on things like dumping coal ash into streams (A-OK), employers keeping records of employee injuries (no longer necessary), and internet service providers selling your browsing data without your permission (now they can).
But except for the affected special interests looking for a favor, those laws are pretty small potatoes. The bigger things, it turns out, were more complicated than anyone imagined.
Take health care. If you’ll recall, passing the Affordable Care Act required a herculean effort from both the Obama White House and Democrats in Congress. It took an entire year, involved countless meetings and hearings and markups, and eventually passed without a single vote to spare. Republicans are trying to undo it not only without much help from the White House, but often with the president undermining them with his public comments. Sunday he tweeted “I suggest that we add more dollars to Healthcare and make it the best anywhere” at a moment when Republicans are trying to justify cutting hundreds of billions of dollars in health-care spending.
So at this point, the possible outcomes on health care all look terrible for Republicans.
The other big item is tax reform, and as Richard Rubin of the Wall Street Journal reports, “Republicans are scouring the tax code, searching for breaks to offset the deep rate cuts they desire. But the biggest tax breaks are surviving and the boldest ideas for change are on political life support or already dead.”
One lesson here is that ambitious legislation requires both the president and Congress working together and being on their game, which isn’t the case right now. But there’s another problem that keeps Congress from passing buckets full of legislation.
There is the matter of distraction, as Congress is pulled into investigations and controversies.Congress can’t just ignore what’s going on in the White House and forge its own path because the fate of every member is tied to that of the president. The less popular the president is, the more members look for ways they can show the voters back home that they’re independent, which can mean bucking their own party leadership.
Congress has some urgent matters in front of it: keeping the government open and avoiding a default on the debt, both of which they have to take care of in the next few months. When they have complete control, that ought to be easy. But As long as Donald Trump is in the White House, everything is harder for Republicans than they thought.