To discuss a crazy week in Congress, which culminated in the House of Representatives declining to vote on a replacement for Obamacare, I spoke by phone with Norm Ornstein. A resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Ornstein is also the co-author, with Thomas E. Mann, of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Republicans were always doomed to fail on health care, the problems facing the rest of Trump’s agenda, and how Congress is failing in its duties as an independent branch of government.
Isaac Chotiner: Is there any precedent for a week in Congress like this?
Norm Ornstein: No. I have been around for 50 years, and I have seen all kinds of craziness, and I have seen failures in the policy process before, whether bills that come up without the votes, or an attempt to reform Medicare in the late 1980s that actually got passed but they were forced to repeal it the next year. But that was a commendable bipartisan effort to make good policy.
Can you remember a bill this big, especially at the beginning of an administration, that had no constituency in or out of Congress?
No. I have never seen anything like this. What’s particularly striking about it is the degree to which, as the details emerged, you might expect that at least the tribal instinct out there for the new Republican president from Trump’s supporters would strengthen, and instead it eroded.
Do you think Ryan made an error by writing a bill with no constituency, or was there never a majority for any possible bill?
It’s probably a bit of both. Could you write a bill that would get majority support in the House? Yes. Could you write a bill that could be enacted into law that would actually not alienate a ton of people with Republicans alone? No.
So then it seems like what you are saying is that this challenge was almost impossible, right?
Yeah. And if we look at the genesis of this, if you go back to when they won, and then realize they were going to have to move ahead with an actual replacement, their instinct was to repeal with a two- or three-year delay. That way they could buy themselves more time, or blackmail Democrats. And then it became clear that that wouldn’t work because the insurers and hospitals and other providers would know a change was coming and it would throw markets into turmoil. So they were then forced to come up with a plan and slapped this together.
There is another element to this. It isn’t just that Ryan suddenly found himself here and had to come up with something. It’s also that much that underpins this bill fits his own philosophy, and that philosophy won’t work with health care. Remember, even before the Affordable Care Act passed, seven and a half years ago, then-Whip Eric Cantor said that their alternative to Obamacare was, quote, “weeks away.” The reality was that they kept promising that they were going to have an alternative and never did. Ryan basically slapped this together in a very short period of time instead of having seven years of careful deliberation.
Did you see anything that you thought was either smart or dumb about the negotiation tactics Trump used?
Ezra [Klein’s] piece on Trump and negotiation was penetrating and damning. It’s one thing if you are negotiating a real estate deal and you don’t have to know the details, which will be cleaned up by your lawyers and you are just focusing on the larger optics and trying to gain leverage. You just have an instinct for bluffing, and that’s the art of the deal as Trump does it. Applying it to politics and Congress when you have no knowledge base, no understanding of the dynamics of politics, no sense of timing or how to threaten or sweet-talk or cajole, and you are starting with the fact that you have made promises that can’t be kept, and then you move to negotiation with individuals, which is just to tell them what they want to hear, but then you don’t follow through—that’s all a formula for disaster.
I saw a transcript of something said by Bob Aderholt, who is a conservative House member from Alabama. He went in to meet with Trump. He said basically, “Mr. President, my constituents are your voters, but I am looking at this bill and many of them are in their 60s and they don’t make money and this will raise their premiums, etc.” Trump put his hand on his knee and said, “I know and I won’t let this happen.” And Trump said he was for the bill 100 percent, so Aderholt said he changed from no to yes. That worked for someone who was probably going to vote for it anyhow. But now he looks at the bill, and it screws them over even more! So if you are Trump, you can get them in the room, but when they go out of the room, they find out you lied to them.
How much will this defeat imperil the rest of the GOP agenda?
I think it makes it so much harder for them. At one level, it is obviously damaging to both their internal unity and the reputations of Trump and Ryan. At another level, there is a psychological element. Everything in the House and Senate will be more uphill now.
And, at the same time, they were counting on the revenues here to make their whole push towards tax cuts and tax reform easier. And that becomes harder. I’d also add that this will make people more anxious on appropriations bills, whether they can find the votes for those. And then we come to the question of shutdowns, and if and when we get those, which he will, how will that play psychologically?
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What do you make of Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, and all his shenanigans this week? Were they unprecedented?
We have seen examples of investigations that broke down on partisan lines, and sometimes were very contentious. That was true of the Iran-Contra investigations. It started out that way regarding Richard Nixon. We saw a very sharp partisan difference in the Judiciary Committee hearings on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. But I have never seen anything like what Nunez is doing, especially when it involved national security intelligence. That is cascading out of control.
How much does this worry you about the future of Congress?
We have a web of checks and balances to guard against an autocratic, power-hungry, greedy leader emerging, or against nefarious things happening. It starts with the Constitution and our laws, but what’s always been clear is that they still have to be undergirded by norms of behavior. And this is especially true in Congress. When you have something as serious as Russia interfering in our elections, and the potential collusion with a presidential candidate, it is a fundamental challenge to the integrity of the system.
Have you ever seen someone with more power look more clueless than Nunes?
The one caveat I have here is that if you were trying to do something to discredit your own committee’s investigation and force Democrats to boycott while knowing that you weren’t going to replace this with an independent investigation—you might say there is some sort of Machiavellian thing at work here. But every time I look at Nunes, I don’t believe he could even spell Machiavellian.
If the Democrats pull out, as you say, there is no recourse.
No, it would be terrible. They are not going to pull out. Adam Schiff will not let that happen. Nunes is at the point of the spear, but you can’t forget that Paul Ryan is right there as well. It really struck me that before Nunes went and spoke at the White House he went to Ryan. This is even more disturbing than Nunes. Ryan must have given Nunes the go-ahead. This was undermining the independence of Congress. This says to me that we have very little confidence that what should be the first line of defense would work.
I am thinking back to the way that the investigation of Nixon was handled. I was here. You had leaders who understood that they had a larger role. I look at Nunes and Ryan and even McConnell and I just don’t see any of that.