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How to Fix Congress in 10 Easy Steps

Irwin M. Stelzer

No rest for the wary. Fearful of facing constituents with nothing but months of intra-party wrangling to offer, senate Republicans decided not to recess for the usual full month of August, and instead stay in Washington for an extra two weeks.

Having been shouted down by angry constituents during the Fourth of July recess as they tried to explain why the legislative cupboard is bare, the senators have taken discretion to be the better part of valor and decided to try to accomplish something before leaving the relative safety of their offices.

After seven years of promising to repeal and replace Obamacare, and passing bills they knew President Obama would veto, they have managed to leave that statute unrepealed and unreplaced. After promising to reform the hideously distorted tax code, a Republican Congress and a Republican president have left it unreformed. After promising tax cuts for the middle class, Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and the White House have left those rates uncut. After promising an infrastructure program that would heat up the tepid economic growth rate, congressional Republicans haven’t worked out even the outline of such a program.

No wonder they prefer cowering in their offices to explaining these serial failures to the voters. In 1948 Harry Truman fooled the pollsters and won reelection by attacking the “do-nothing” Republican congress. Democrats are dusting off that old charge as they take advantage of the summer recess—which they have decided to take—to visit with constituents while their opponents are stuck in Washington.

The most obvious failure is healthcare. Which is puzzling to this observer. To get 51 of his 52 colleagues to sign on—forget Rand Paul, who really opposes any government involvement in healthcare—all Mitch McConnell has to do is craft a piece of legislation that (1) reduces Medicaid costs, or at least their increase, while (2) not reducing any benefits, now or ever; (3) provides insurance for people with pre-existing conditions at subsidized rates, without (4) mandating that healthier people buy coverage, while (5) eliminating Obamacare taxes on high earners and (6) lowering premiums for everyone without (7) subsidizing insurers or bailing them out; and at the same time (8) allowing young, healthy people to buy catastrophe insurance while (9) preventing insurers from deviating from Obamacare coverage requirements; while (10) wringing $1 trillion in savings to use for tax cuts. Engrave those features on a pair of tablets, bring them down to the senate floor, and voila! You’ve got consensus. Maybe.

The Republicans have two excuses for the bare legislative cupboard they will try to represent to voters as a cornucopia of goodies. The first is that Democrats have played the role of obstructionist—the same role Republicans played when Obama occupied the Oval Office. But with a difference. Republicans disliked both Obama’s progressive policies and his haughty, off-putting demeanor.

On the other hand, Democrats despise President Trump and aren’t even content to wait until 2020 for a chance to unseat him. They want to be rid of him sooner than that. Two members of the House have introduced an impeachment resolution while senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democrats’ 2016 vice-presidential candidate extolled by supporters for his reasonableness, shouts “treason” because Donald Trump, Jr. stupidly met with a representative of the Russian government in pursuit of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. (Earning himself a headline in the Trump-leaning New York Post, “Donald Trump Jr. Is An Idiot.”) When stupidity becomes a crime we will have considerable difficulty both filling the vacancies in our government and funding the necessary construction of additional prisons.

The virulence of the anti-Trump campaign means that it is toxic for any Democrat in the House or Senate to cooperate with Republicans in passing legislation, even though Democrats know that:

  • unless changes are made in Obamacare millions will find it difficult and costly to obtain health insurance,
  • unless the tax code is reformed, American companies will find overseas venues attractive,
  • unless an infrastructure program gets underway, soon, America’s roads, bridges and airports will retain their Third-World quality.

Still, Republicans should be able to pass legislation and get it onto the president’s desk for signature if they were united. Which they aren’t. And if they were good at communicating with the American people. Which they aren’t.

In the case of healthcare, to take only one example, Democrats accuse Republicans of cutting Medicaid, the health-care program originally aimed at the poor, but since expanded to cover the non-poor. Yet between 2000 and 2017 the number of people covered by Medicaid more than doubled, rising from 35 million to 75 million, although the incidence of neither poverty nor illness rose at close to that rate. Almost half of all births in America are paid for by Medicaid, which devours about 10 percent of the federal budget. And rising.

George Orwell had it right when he said that language can corrupt thought. The “cuts” Republicans are accused of wanting to institute are nothing of the sort. They are reductions in the rate of increase in that program’s runaway cost. It is as if a family gathered ‘round the kitchen table to decide how to bring its spending into line with its means, and agreed to solve the problem by increasing its spending, but by less than the year before.

The second excuse the Republicans have for their failure to put any significant legislation on the books is a reasonable one—the areas they have targeted are extraordinarily difficult ones. Healthcare, of course, affects the lives of millions, and Obama won a durable victory when he persuaded voters that people with pre-existing medical conditions are entitled to insurance at reasonable rates. Subsidies to make that possible can come from only one of two places: Either healthy young people must be forced to pay over the odds for their coverage, or taxes must go up to make up the shortfall between the real cost of insuring sick people and what insurers will be allowed to charge. Neither alternative is attractive to a majority of legislators.

Tax cuts are more attractive, but revenue to make up the shortfall—these rate reductions are never entirely self-funding from increased growth—must be found somewhere. If repeal and replacement of Obamacare is not to provide the anticipated $1 trillion in savings over 10 years, some voters’ benefits must be reduced. Volunteers for such pain are not lining up.

Both parties agree on one thing—spending more on infrastructure. No surprise, since every congressman wants a bridge or airport named after him or her. Or at least a repaired street. But Democrats want the program paid for by running larger deficits, and Republicans by user fees paid to private-sector builders. The result: no infrastructure program, at least not this year. Shareholders anticipating lower taxes and higher spending on infrastructure will just have to be patient.

It’s been 50 years since “Promises, Promises” lit up the Broadway stage, and perhaps 15 since Dionne Warwick made her hit record. Its message remains relevant: “I’m all through with promises, promises now . . . Promises just can destroy a life.” Or a political career.

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