Are Hill Republicans Growing a Backbone?
by John Lawrence
Congress, composed of 535 voting members, is often a plodding, indecisive, faction-ridden body. In contrast to the typical ability of a president to swiftly change the subject of discussion, Congress is inherently faction-ridden and inefficient, which is why Thomas Cronin of Brandeis once observed that the 535 member legislative branch “is never going to be fast on its 1,070 feet.”
Congress’ capacity for swift and decisive action has been further diminished by the deep partisanship resulting from the ideological realignment of the parties and the persistent struggle for control that marks American politics. Chosen by the ideological extremes that dominate the candidate selection process, and fearful of the unlimited resources that special interest groups can unleash on those who deviate from orthodoxy, increasingly few members venture near the political center, which is invariably where the votes are found to enact major legislation.
Many had anticipated that unified political control of the Congress and the Executive Branch that resulted from the 2016 election would enable Republicans to secure the key legislative victories that had eluded them so long as Barack Obama held the veto pen resolutely in his hand. And yet, the combination of having only 52 votes in the Senate, the remaining (if faint) factions within the Republican Party, and the sheer complexity of addressing issues from health care to tax reform have yielded no legislative achievements fully one-quarter of the way through the Congress (when significant legislative successes are typically achieved).
Of course, President Trump’s erratic governing style, his profound ignorance of the policies he promotes, the daily tweet storms, the melodramatic West Wing intrigues, and the dark cloud of scandal that hangs over the White House have undermined the White House’s ability to shape legislation or cajole fellow Republicans to fall into line. Perhaps even more significantly, Trump’s boorish personal style, including a startling contempt for legislators, has prodded a few Republicans, especially in the Senate, to stand up for the institution of Congress itself.
“Too often, we [in the Senate] observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying ‘someone should do something!’” Sen. Jeff Flake recently observed, “without seeming to realize that that someone is us.” Flake’s outspokenness – which is doubtlessly helping him sell his new book — so irritated Trump that the thin-skinned president has contemplated running someone against the Arizonan in next year’s primary. Flake’s fellow Arizonan, John McCain, memorably did do something by providing one of the key Republican votes that crumpled the Republicans’ decade-long obsession with ridding the country of the Affordable Care Act, at least for the present.
McCain’s defiant act was a stunning reminder of the political maxim that today’s adversary can easily be tomorrow’s friend, a truism about the collaborative give-and-take of the lawmaking process that many advocates and absolutists often fail to appreciate. In Trump’s view of politics, there aren’t many friends, and everyone is under suspicion of disloyalty, treason, and treachery. “Our relationship with Russia is at an all-time & very dangerous low,” Trump recently tweeted. “You can thank Congress, the same people that can’t even give us HCare”
Trump’s bizarre attack on his own congressional allies followed their decision to send him, with barely any dissent in either house, enhanced sanctions on Russia, Iran and North Korea, including provisions to limit Trump’s capacity to modify or abandon the sanctions. The sanctions bill was just one of a number of recent actions that suggest that even some Republicans in the Congress – mainly in the Senate – are concerned not only about the future of their party, but the state of their branch of government as well.
There was the forceful push-back by Judiciary chairman Charles Grassley, among others, to suggestions that Trump might be considering the dismissal of his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who had properly recused himself from the Russia inquiry. Replacing Sessions might be the first step to removal of the highly regarded Special Counsel Bob Mueller, whom Trump has warned against undertaking a broad inquiry into Trump’s secretive financial empire. Such warnings have prompted bipartisan bills in the Senate, including by the reliably conservative Thom Tillis of North Carolina and the more unpredictable Lindsey Graham to restrict Trump’s ability to unilaterally dismiss Mueller. Under the influence of his new chief of staff John Kelly, Trump appeared to have momentarily stepped back from such a provocative challenge, but the Senate wisely decided to remain “in session” throughout August to block any recess appointments by the irrepressible President.
Senators have also sent clear signals that despite Trump’s exhortations to try yet again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they are unlikely to return to the ill-fated health debate, preferring instead to pivot to the equally challenging subject of tax reform (or more likely, tax cuts). In addition, some senators are discussing a bipartisan initiative to address the ACA’s deficiencies while warning Trump against executive manipulations designed to trigger a collapse that he could blame on the current law.
None of these actions constitute an abandonment of Trump by Senate Republicans. House members, including the sycophantic Speaker, who face potential Trump-inspired primary challenges next year, have almost unanimously remained loyal to the President, even after he condemned as “mean” the health bill he had urged them to pass. Small signs of institutional assertiveness, to be sure, but these minor pushbacks may reflect a growing unwillingness to simply defer to the executive branch, let alone to a White House led by an erratic novice who has done little to mask his contempt for Capitol Hill.