Congress is a complicated institution. It is not easily led, and its practices are often functions of the habits and expectations its members have built up rather than of strategies tailored to the purposes of each piece of legislation. Most members of the current Congress, and particularly most Republicans (who tend to be a little younger or newer to the place), have formed their legislative habits and expectations in an era of unusual dysfunction of a particular sort. And this seems to be an under-appreciated factor behind the trouble the Congress is now having getting serious work done.
Health care offers the prime example. One of the more peculiar facets of the Republican legislative process on health care this year has been the almost total absence of ownership of and advocacy for the legislation being developed. The Senate version of the bill, which apparently has the support of nearly all Senate Republicans (though maybe not close enough to all to actually pass), has no particular sponsor or champion. No senator’s name or reputation is associated with its substance. No one has made it his or her business to make a forthright public case for the bill, or even to explain its elements and their purposes. What does the bill consist of? To what problems does it offer solutions? Why and how should these solutions be expected to work? The only comprehensive answers voters have heard to these questions have come from opponents on the Left who say the bill is designed to kill thousands of people.
There are a few ardent champions outside the Congress, and a fair number of reticent or half-hearted defenders too, but there are basically none within the Congress. In the Senate Republican conference, just about every senator has become associated with some particular reservations about the bill, but few have become attached even to particular enthusiasms about it (here there are a few exceptions, like Senator Toomey and the bill’s important Medicaid reforms), let alone to an overall defense. The most common case in favor of the bill among senators seems to be that they have to pass it because failing to pass it would result in some vaguely defined political disaster — or what is deemed worse, a deal struck with Democrats.
The absence of substantive engagement with the content of the bill has also contributed to the peculiar response to the proposed amendment being advanced (as a condition of their supporting the bill) by senators Cruz and Lee. Characteristically unmoved by naked appeals to partisan loyalty, they have proposed an idea that would dramatically alter the basic approach of the bill to the individual insurance market. But rather than be met by anyone defending that basic approach, it has met largely with a kind of passive-aggressive dismissal by Senate leaders on behalf of senators who would rather not address the merits one way or another.
All of this is odd, but it is also somehow familiar, isn’t it? In fact, the process has hewed fairly closely to what has been almost the only proven model of passing significant legislation through Congress over the past half-decade or so. About once a year, as a government shutdown has loomed, congressional Republicans have had to watch a large, complex bill take shape which none of them have really liked. These budget bills have usually had some provisions that some Republicans could talk up, but also some that all of them have sniped at. The bills as a whole have been pretty unappetizing, and the only serious argument made in favor of any of them has been that failing to pass it would result in at least a political cataclysm, if not a genuine substantive one, involving a government shutdown.
Most years a few Republican members — most often Ted Cruz and Mike Lee — have argued for trying at least to attach some meaningful substantive victory (by their lights) to the bill, even if that would make it more controversial and divisive. Their ideas have generally been too big a leap for some of their colleagues, but in ways that the political dynamics of the Republican coalition have made it impossible for those colleagues to articulate. And so those ideas have been dismissed by silent disdain. And ultimately members have taken the hard vote and hoped the pain would fade in time.
Maybe it is strange that the health-care bill should fall into this pattern. It’s not a budget bill, after all, and no shutdown would come if it were to fall through. But the repeated shutdown-style fights of the past few years have dug deep grooves of legislative dysfunction into which the activity of the Congress now naturally falls when left to itself.
There are other factors at play in the health-care debate too, of course. Above all, the administration has played a confusing and counterproductive role in recent weeks, owing (it seems to this outside observer at least) to extraordinary failures of internal coordination. The White House legislative affairs shop does not seem to speak for the policy team, and neither could be said to be regularly aligned with views expressed by the president — which, in their defense, are themselves rather hard to predict from day to day. So whether it is about the Cruz proposal, the notion of passing a repeal-only bill, the prospect of negotiating a market rescue with Democrats should the Senate bill fail, or the merits of the Senate bill as such (which a president from the party trying to pass the bill could normally be expected to articulate and champion to the public) the role played by the White House has been . . . unorthodox. But everybody understands that this White House isn’t going to play the usual role in the policymaking process, and Congress’s challenges are in most respects its own doing.
All of this has made passing a health-care bill much harder. But it still seems to me that the prospects for passing such a bill could well be better than those for some of the other complicated work that has to be accomplished over the next few months. For instance, getting the government funded past September 30th (which in all likelihood will require a bipartisan deal and 60 votes in the Senate) while enacting a (presumably Republican-only) budget resolution that could get tax reform started does not seem likely to be easy for the Congress we have seen in action these past seven months.
Maybe the muscle memory built up in the shutdown fights of the past few years will end up being put into practice in an all-Republican shutdown fight in two months. Old habits die hard.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.