The GOP Needs Realistic Expectations for Governing from Congress

Published August 12, 2014


After the stinging defeats of 2012, Republicans in Congress regrouped. Instead of rolling over, they have spent the past year and a half continuing their running battles with the Obama administration on a number of fronts. Some in the party have also been laying the foundation for a fresh governing agenda, in preparation for that moment when they are in a position to advance it again. Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio have both laid out ambitious reforms to improve social mobility and reduce poverty. Senator Mike Lee has proposed sweeping tax and higher education reforms aimed squarely at easing burdens on the middle class. Republican Senators Richard Burr, Tom Coburn, and Orrin Hatch have proposed a genuine, market-based reform of American healthcare. And the party in general has been stressing the need for a shift in economic policy — away from a focus on entitlement expansion and redistribution and toward promotion of economic growth and job creation.

As the 2014 mid-term election approaches, it now appears that some aspects of a renewed GOP agenda might become more relevant in 2015. Speculation is building that the GOP might do well in November — well enough to possibly take back control of the Senate. The New York Times recently ran a story with an early look at what such a scenario might mean for legislation and public policy.

Of course, it’s never a good idea to presume anything in politics. Elections are too unpredictable to ever be certain of an outcome. If things break the GOP’s way, the party could do well in November. But if the Democrats get a break or two in the next three months, they could easily retain control of the Senate as well.

Regardless, Republicans must keep their collective eyes on the ultimate near-term goal. To really advance a new governing agenda, the GOP needs to win the White House again. And that means preparing and advancing conservative reforms that have the potential to resonate broadly with middle class and working class Americans — many of whom voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

This is not to suggest that a GOP takeover of the Senate in 2015 would be unimportant. It is a very important goal for a number of reasons. It would facilitate the reversal of some aspects of the Obama agenda and thus open up more possibilities for conservative alternatives. It would also force congressional Republicans to become more disciplined and practical, as the party would carry more responsibility for governing and passing legislation.

It is also possible that some conservative reforms might get enacted under such a scenario, even with President Obama in office. After all, President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform plan passed by a Republican Congress in 1996.

But to really pursue an ambitious pro-growth agenda, with tax and entitlement reforms and a change in direction on health care policy — that’s going to require capturing the White House. The GOP would do well to keep this in mind.

In 1995, after the historic GOP takeover of the House and Senate, Republican leaders felt compelled to pack the entirety of their governing vision into a massive budget plan that contained sweeping tax and entitlement changes. The idea was to confront President Clinton and use the force of public opinion to muscle the agenda into law.

It did not work out that way. Yes, President Clinton did eventually accept welfare reform, a historic achievement, but most of the rest of the GOP’s agenda was scrapped. In addition, public opinion swung strongly in President Clinton’s direction in 1996, which paved the way for his re-election victory in November of that year.

If Republican were to take the Senate majority this year, many of the same pressures that pushed the GOP to pursue a maximalist agenda in 1995 would likely reemerge. Among other things, there will be great pressure to do whatever is possible to reverse the entirety of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

If the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress in 2015, it would certainly be possible to pass a full ACA repeal bill in the House early in the year, and to bring it up for a vote in the Senate soon thereafter. Democrats in the Senate would almost certainly filibuster such a measure in an effort to reduce the bill’s political significance. The legislation would never make it to the president’s desk.

Pressure would therefore build on the GOP to use the budget process to pursue repeal of the ACA. Budget reconciliation legislation cannot be filibustered in the Senate, and much of the ACA could, in theory, be repealed in a reconciliation measure because the key provisions have implications for spending or tax collection. It would be possible to use that process to force the president into a veto of a sweeping ACA repeal bill.

But pursuing this course would be no picnic. It takes months to move a reconciliation bill through Congress because the first step is not reconciliation but passage of a budget resolution which includes the instructions for the reconciliation bill. Getting agreement among House and Senate Republicans around a budget plan will be an incredibly complex and time-consuming process, lasting well into the late spring or early summer.

In addition, it is unlikely that the GOP could sustain a position of full repeal of the ACA without offering a replacement plan too. President Obama, the Democratic Party, and the media would make sure of that by reminding voters incessantly of the millions of Americans who would become uninsured under full repeal and no replacement. But the process of trying to forge an agreement among GOP members on a credible replacement plan would itself be a very contentious undertaking, and possible a futile one given the differences that exist among key members. In short, embarking on the budget reconciliation path would thus be a very risky endeavor — one that could easily backfire on the GOP and work to the benefit of the Democratic nominee for president in 2016.

Moving in a very different direction on economic policy, including health care, is going to require a Republican president. It is far too early to rule anything in or out of an agenda for a potential Republican Congress in 2015. Certainly, it will be necessary to pursue an aggressive plan of some sort, including on health care, to give voters a sense of the direction the GOP would like to pursue. But the targets should be carefully chosen to bolster prospects for the Republican presidential candidates, not undermine them.

James C. Capretta is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

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