Republicans no longer know how to govern.
That’s not to say they lack an agenda. Repealing the Affordable Care Act would have reshaped a vast swath of the American economy and transformed the social safety net, not just ending Medicaid but striking a blow against the entire project of public subsidy for health insurance. The tax reform bill passed by the House of Representatives would hike taxes for tens of millions of Americans to provide massive tax cuts for large corporations, the wealthy, their heirs, and the merely affluent. It is the culmination of a long push to radically slash taxes for the nation’s highest earners.
But to govern means to solve problems; to examine and tackle the issues and challenges facing the public. As a candidate for president, Donald Trump pledged to do just that, promising to solve big problems around health care and the economy. Republican lawmakers did the same. During the election, House Speaker Paul Ryan promised a “better way.” “Our ambition is a confident America where everybody has the chance to go out and succeed no matter where they started in life. That is the American idea,” Ryan said last year. “For the last number of months, this entire conference has been working hard to find the legislation to put the plan out,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy at a press conference rolling out the “Better Way” program.
This, the language of problem-solving and pragmatism, is the language of governing. It looks for common ground, accepts compromise and seeks solutions that benefit everyone at the negotiating table. And so far, Republicans have rejected this approach entirely.
The bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act—dubbed the American Health Care Act and the Better Care Reconciliation Act—were radical experiments in partisan legislating. They were crafted in secret without outside input or expertise. Republicans didn’t just reject Democratic input, they worked to keep liberal ideas out of the project entirely. Once completed, the bills were rushed through their respective chambers in an effort to avoid serious scrutiny. Republican lawmakers had a hard time explaining what the bills would even do. And this was beyond the fact that the bills failed to solve a single problem; few if any Americans would have received more or better coverage as a result of the legislation, and tens of millions would have lost their access to health insurance entirely.
You can say the same for tax reform. The only problems solved by either the House bill or Senate proposal are those created by the legislation itself. Despite historically low tax rates for both high earners and corporations, Republicans want to slash them even further, cutting rates for large corporations, establishing new loopholes and deductions for wealthy households, and reducing the taxes on estates to almost nothing. But this is expensive. The corporate tax cuts alone cost more than $1 trillion over 10 years. Other rate cuts cost hundreds of billions of dollars over a similar time frame. To cover those costs without raising taxes on the wealthy, Republicans have proposed slashing tax benefits for poor families, middle-income households, college students, and people who live in areas with high state and local taxes. Indeed, Republican lawmakers have been shockingly open about how tax reform is a donor-driven project.
“My donors are basically saying get it done or don’t ever call me again,” said New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins to a group of reporters. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned that “financial contributions will stop” if the GOP doesn’t accomplish tax reform.
Republicans, it should be said, seem to know that they aren’t governing as much as they are delivering benefits (“goodies,” to borrow from Mitt Romney) to key constituents. It’s why they refused to sell Obamacare repeal on the merits, and are doing the same on taxes. Despite crafting a bill that puts most of its burden on middle- and lower-income earners—and gives most of its benefits to the wealthiest Americans—Republican lawmakers insist on calling their proposal a “middle-class tax cut” that delivers meaningful relief to ordinary families.
Whether the GOP passes a tax bill is still an open question. One byproduct of this kind of partisan, go-for-broke legislating is that it has a thin margin for error. Nearly every Republican needs to be on board for success, and if even a handful bail, the project folds. It’s already clear some Senate Republicans are unhappy with what’s been crafted. And if tax reform fails, it will be the second major initiative this year to fall to infighting and division in the ranks.
In which case, Republicans will have shown an inability not just to govern but to do much of anything outside of ideological posturing.