The insitutional decline of Congress

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There was plenty of action in DC last week, and the results were abysmal. What’s been on display is not just a Congress that is ineffectual without presidential leadership, but a Congress that can’t seem to accomplish much of anything even with presidential leadership. And if that’s true, then the only way to get things done will be through executive action, thereby accentuating what has become a pernicious trend. Listen up Congress, because you are in trouble, 3/2/15.

Two-thirds of the way through the president’s “first 100 days,” what has been accomplished? Some significant things administratively, such as approving the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was studied to death under the previous president, and proposing a change in priorities (primarily to shift funds to defense and from other areas) for the “discretionary” portion of the federal budget.

Legislative accomplishments have been meager, however, and the first major effort (a bill to “repeal and replace” GovCare) crashed and burned last Friday after House Speaker Paul Ryan et al. and the president failed to line up enough Republican votes to pass it in the House.

A pivot to new business is planned at this point, perhaps tax reform and/or infrastructure renewal. We have serious reservations about both projects, which basically boil down to our belief that they should not be given priority over addressing the fiscal problem.

Also, extraneous controversies keep cropping up that serve to divert attention from substantive policy issues. One of them is claims that the Trump campaign was complicit in Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election campaign and counterclaims that the Obama administration “wiretapped” (or perhaps maintained surveillance of) Trump Tower after the election. Another is the bitter battle being waged over the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court.

Discussion follows on an issue-by-issue basis.

A. Keystone XL Pipeline – For reasons previously discussed, federal approval of this project was essentially a “no brainer.” And so the new, GOP-controlled Congress begins, 1/12/15.

What’s not to like about this proposed private sector investment? Advantages include reduced heavy oil imports from Venezuela, thousands of jobs, safe and efficient transportation of Canadian oil to Gulf Coast refineries (aka infrastructure), and the fostering of our nation’s traditionally friendly relations with Canada. No significant government outlays would be required; to the contrary, federal and state tax revenues would be generated. Even the environmental objections can’t be taken seriously, because oil from the Alberta “tar sands” will be produced and burned whether the pipeline is constructed or not. 

The southern stretch of the pipeline got built, but after interminable delays the northern stretch was disapproved by the previous administration. This action was based on nakedly political considerations, and we applaud the revival and quick federal approval of the project now. The left never gives up, however, and the pipeline may be further delayed by a flurry of lawsuits. Trump’s Keystone XL decision sets up new fight in Nebraska, Grant Schulte, sfgate.com,
3/25/17.

B. Budget – The president’s budget proposal for FY 2018 won’t be submitted until May, but advance information has been provided to help the House Budget Committee get started on its work. America first: A budget blueprint to make America great again, Office of Management and Budget, 3/16/17 (download PDF).

The “blueprint” covers discretionary spending for fiscal year 2018. Nothing is said about entitlement programs or taxes, and there are no projections beyond the fiscal year. While calling for overall discretionary spending about equal to the prior year, it would boost spending for defense, homeland security, and veterans’ programs, and require sharp spending cuts in other areas. See Table II (highlights below):

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 12.37.44 PM

In DC, where a failure to boost funding for a program or agency every year is viewed as a cut, the proposed spending reductions will encounter plenty of resistance. But perhaps this just goes to show that the administration is on the right track. The Trump budget and Big Bird, Tammy Bruce, Washington Times, 3/22/17.

The real issue here for liberals isn’t the budget reductions. They know nothing is being destroyed. What this is really about is the idea that the government can actually get smaller, less taxpayer money can be spent, and government itself can have less involvement in our lives, and things will get better. That is the ultimate threat to the liberal narrative.

A more telling criticism is that the spending cuts that have been called for – assuming all of them will be made, which is unlikely – would have only a minor impact on the government’s overall fiscal problem. Unveiling of budget proposal is just an empty ritual, Jonah Goldberg, townhall.com,
3/24/17.

Non-defense discretionary spending amounts to roughly 16 percent of the budget. You could cut all of it to zero and you would only slightly delay the fiscal reckoning that would come from the metastasizing growth of the national debt and the entitlement spending that fuels it.

The administration does deserve credit for proposing a boost in defense spending, however, which appears essential to maintain US military capabilities. Military brass sounds alarm about “insidious decline” in readiness, Andrew O’Reilly, foxnews.com,
2/9/17.

For decades, the F/A-18 Hornet has been the Navy’s front-line combat jet – taking off from aircraft carriers around the globe to enforce no-fly zones, carry out strikes and even engage in the occasional dogfight. But the Navy’s ability to use these planes is now greatly hindered as more than 60 percent of the jets are out of service. That number is even worse for the Marine Corps, where 74 percent of its F-18s – some of the oldest in service – are not ready for combat operations.

C. Healthcare – Last week’s entry faulted the American Health Care Act for deferring many of the supposedly intended GovCare changes for inclusion in a second bill that would probably never be passed. We urged that concerns about the technicalities of the budget reconciliation process be disregarded so the best reform proposal Republicans could agree on would be read, debated and voted on as a package. It was also predicted that an upgraded AHCA – which the president was strongly supporting – would squeak through in the House. Healthcare bill will be known as Trumpcare, 3/20/17.

In the event, the effort fell short and the AHCA is not expected to be revisited any time soon. GovCare will remain in effect, and in due course the world will see whether the sale of individual healthcare insurance programs on government run exchanges ends in a “death spiral” of declining enrollment and soaring premiums or not.

The outcome reflected unanimous opposition to the AHCA from House Democrats, who were joined by enough GOP defectors (primarily members of the Freedom Caucus) to doom the bill. The AHCA was unceremoniously pulled based on the “whip count,” leaving no record of its defeat. Then the factions began reacting to what had happened.

#The president made a statement and took questions from the press late Friday afternoon. See our recap below. Remarks of President Trump on the healthcare bill,
3/24/15.

It was very close – no Democratic support, so they will continue to own GovCare and be responsible when it inevitably explodes – thanks to Speaker Ryan, Secretary Tom Price, and Vice President Mike Pence for their efforts – members of the Conservative Caucus are friends of mine – critics should have paid more attention to the planned follow-up (administrative tweaks by HHS Secretary Price and a second bill), which would have enhanced the initial legislation – glad to work with Democrats on healthcare when they come to their senses – maybe we will come up with an even better bill.

#Democrats hailed the outcome as a vindication of GovCare and slammed Republicans (particularly the president, not so much Speaker Ryan) for the bill they had offered and their high-handed strategies. Chuck Schumer blames GOP, Trump on AHCA: No “Art of the Deal,” Todd Beamon, newsmax.com,
3/24/17.

[
Republicans] never reached out to us. They never talked to us. They never said how can we work together to make it better. *** They weren't even trying to get Democrats involved.

#The prime architect of the AHCA put the best face on the outcome that he could. Paul Ryan emerges from healthcare defeat badly damaged, Matt Flegenheimer & Thomas Kaplan, New York Times,
3/25/17.

“We were a 10-year opposition party, where being against things was easy to do,” Mr. Ryan said at a sheepish news conference shortly after the bill was pulled, adding with uncharacteristic candor that Republicans were not yet prepared to be a “governing party.” “We will get there,” Mr. Ryan said, “but we weren’t there today.”

#Conservative critics exulted that the AHCA had been defeated and talked as though a new bill incorporating the features they had been demanding would be promptly taken up because that was what Republicans had promised the American people. Here’s how Michael Needham of Heritage Action put the point in a mass e-mail.

Conservatives, [led] by Rep. Mark Meadows and Rep. Jim Jordan, deserve tremendous credit for fighting for you and your family. They recognized that the AHCA didn’t repeal the fundamental structure of Obamacare. And rather than giving in to political pressure from leadership and the White House, they stood strong. *** So what’s next? It is now clear that the House cannot pass a bill that does not repeal Obamacare’s core regulatory architecture. Congressional leaders and the administration need to go back to the negotiating table and draft a bill that repeals Obamacare’s regulatory regime and ultimately drives down premiums.

This struck your faithful scribe as delusional thinking, prompting the following note to Heritage Action (which wasn’t acknowledged):

A victory for conservatives? I don’t think so.  You assume the bill will be redrafted to repeal Obamacare and then come up with a replacement bill later, or something like that. In reality, the bill is dead - for the foreseeable future - and Plan B will be single payer healthcare when the Democrats return to power.

D. Tax reform – As though the president wanted to change the subject, his weekly address on March 25 addressed a topic far afield from the GovCare repeal debacle. We recommend the video (4:44) of the president’s remarks and associated footage, which suggest there is a great deal for human beings to learn about the cosmos in which they exist.

Closer to home, it seems that the next proposed legislative priority will be a House Republican tax reform proposal that – rather like the ill-fated healthcare proposal – is overly slick and may collapse if pushed too aggressively. Query how the proposed tax rate cuts would be offset to maintain budget neutrality (and ultimately raise tax revenue due to the resulting boost to economic growth).

The soundness of the border adjustment feature (exempt export sales, tax imports) is debatable, in our view, and it’s unclear how much attention has been paid to the soundest way for simplifying the tax system – eliminating as many as possible of the scores of preferences (income exemptions, deductions, and tax credits) that litter the Internal Revenue Code. These issues should be thoroughly explored before any legislation is enacted, and the review could well take a year or two. Proposed replacement for the corporate income tax,
2/13/17.

E. Infrastructure renewal – We suspect Congress (including Democrats) would be quite amendable to a supplemental spending pot for new roads, bridges, ports, etc., so long as the costs could be put on the national credit card or obfuscated by off balance sheet financing. There’s nothing more popular inside the Beltway than a guilt-free excuse for more spending of other people’s money.

Chronic deficits and rising debt will lead to a fiscal meltdown at some point if the government doesn’t get its fiscal affairs under control, however, and the glowing promises of catchup infrastructure spending were made without any systematic consideration of whether such spending would be affordable. One trillion dollars for infrastructure,
11/21/16.

Moreover, there can be no assurance – in fact we would bet otherwise – that a bipartisan spending party on infrastructure would promote more cooperation in other areas.

F. Intelligence wars – Charges about conniving with the Russian government by Trump insiders and countercharges re government surveillance and illegal leaks of sensitive information have reached a bitter crescendo. Both sides seem to be stretching the truth, and from the information available it’s difficult to sort out which one is closest to being right. The competing claims are clearly important, and they need to be objectively investigated. Less clear is who should conduct this investigation and how long it should be expected to take.

•Attorney General Jeff Sessions found it necessary to recuse himself from involvement in any such inquiries due to contacts with the Russian ambassador that he had failed to mention during his confirmation hearing.

•FBI Director James Comey recently confirmed that an investigation of Trump campaign communications with Russia has been in process for some time, but he has been less than forthcoming in explaining the basis for the investigation or whether claims of improper surveillance and leaks are also being investigated. With Sessions out of the picture, it’s unclear who Comey (a holdover appointee with a mixed reputation) is effectively reporting to.

•The House and/or Senate Intelligence committees might be the best candidates for the job as they have already begun investigations and typically maintain some degree of bipartisan cooperation. Washington goes nuts; can the intelligence committees act like grownups, Wall Street Journal,
3/5/17.

Political collusion with a foreign power and the abuse of intelligence collection to smear an opponent threaten the integrity of democratic institutions. Let’s hope the intelligence committees rise above their putative party leaders and tell America what really happened. 

Last week, the hoped-for cooperation between House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes and Ranking Minority Member Adam Schiff showed signs of breaking down after Nunes held an impromptu press conference and briefed the president on new information (evidence of improper surveillance since the election, said to be unrelated to the Russian communications controversy) that had not previously been disclosed to other members of the committee.

Schiff understandably reacted by warning that the ability of the committee to conduct a proper investigation might have been compromised. If this view gains acceptance, it could fuel demands for an alternate arrangement, e.g., appointment of a special prosecutor, that might stretch out investigation of the controversy for months if not years. Nunes’ announcement marks shift in Trump’s wiretapping saga, Sarah Westwood, Washington Examiner,
3/23/17.

As one observer put it, the communication/surveillance dispute is like a hall of mirrors that “distorts and diminishes everyone who comes near it.” What a mess! Trump’s Russia house, Daniel Heninger, Wall Street Journal,
3/22/17.

G. Gorsuch confirmation – Democrats were incensed in 2016 when the GOP majority in the Senate opted to withhold consideration of the appointment of Judge Merrick Garland to the US Supreme Court until after the elections. They would surely react in kind to the superseding appointment of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill this vacancy, except that being in the minority they don’t have the votes to sustain such a strategy.

It is generally acknowledged that Gorsuch is well qualified, e.g., he has been given the highest possible rating by the American Bar Association, and no serious questions emerged from his confirmation hearing last week. The only real objection of Democrats: Gorsuch is a “conservative” who was nominated by a Republican president.

Strategically speaking, Democrats would be well advised to permit a vote on Gorsuch – which would result in his confirmation – and retain the filibuster option until another Supreme Court vacancy occurs. Gorsuch’s confirmation would basically preserve the ideological balance of the Supreme Court, not decisively shift it, and the next nominee may be more vulnerable to attack.

The Democratic base is viscerally opposed to Gorsuch, however, and it appears that Senate Democrats will try to block his confirmation, which would predictably result in Senate Republicans changing the Senate rules (as the Democrats did in 2013 for all other presidential appointments) so that Supreme Court appointments can no longer be filibustered. Schumer says Democrats will filibuster Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch, Stephen Dinan & Alex Swoyer, Washington Times,
3/23/17.

Such a decision might come back to haunt Democrats if a more controversial appointment (e.g., Ted Cruz) was made on the next go-round, one more sign of how the conduct of congressional business seems to be careening off the rails these days.

* * * * * *

Does the foregoing show there is something fundamentally amiss in our body politic? Do the members of Congress need to modify their behavior before that branch of government degenerates into a ceremonial rubber stamp? Many observers would answer these questions in the affirmative, but no one seems to have offered a realistic approach for making Congress work better.

Notably, calls for members to reach across the aisle and restore bipartisan cooperation fall flat because the bottom line is usually that conservatives need to be more flexible and open to liberal demands rather than the other way around. Given where the liberal demands have been taking the country, we’re not convinced this is sound advice.

A better point for the players on both sides might be to “get real”, i.e., stop acting based on wishful thinking. If full repeal of GovCare won’t fly, settle for more modest improvements. If a solid tax reform bill will require a year or two of study and discussion, don’t shoot to get a bill passed by August. If the fiscal problem is truly serious, don’t be too quick to propose a trillion-dollar infrastructure package. If Neil Gorsuch will be confirmed no matter what, don’t try a filibuster. And so forth.


**********FEEDBACK**********

#Gridlock isn’t all bad, because we don’t need more laws and regulations, we need less. Bad laws do need to be repealed or substantially amended, of course, but regulations can be rescinded by the agencies which have promulgated them or in some cases by the president -- and this I think is what is happening even as we speak. – Retired judge

#Don’t expect Congress to turn over a new leaf; the players are trying to protect their own jobs at the expense of the nation. – SAFE director

#What will it take to get the members of Congress to start acting like adults?  The only solution is probably to vote them out of office, as they aren’t going to voluntarily change their longstanding habits. – Retired IBMer

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