One of the by-products of all the talk this year about divisions within the Republican Party has been the illusion that, if given control of both the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government, the GOP would not be able to get much done — specifically, passing laws that many liberals find scary or disconcerting. Combined with the illusion that the filibuster would give Senate Democrats a veto over anything egregious, the Republicans-in-disarray meme has lulled a lot of Democrats, and the media, into a drowsy inability to understand how close we are to a right-wing legislative revolution if Donald Trump becomes president and Republicans hang on to Congress.
Now Paul Ryan has given Washington a wake-up call. Reportedly angry that Beltway types were yawning at his plans for 2017 on the grounds that the usual gridlock would stop anything major from happening, the House Speaker held a presser to explain how he could cram a generation’s worth of legislation into a budget reconciliation bill that cannot be filibustered, as Politico’s Ben Weyl reports:
Ryan peeled back the curtain on his strategy at a news conference after a reporter suggested he would struggle to implement his ambitious agenda next year. After all, it was noted, Republicans are certain to lack the 60 votes needed in the Senate to break Democratic filibusters on legislation. So Ryan gave a minitutorial on congressional rules and the bazooka in his pocket for the assembled reporters.
“This is our plan for 2017,” Ryan said, waving a copy of his “Better Way” policy agenda. “Much of this you can do through budget reconciliation.” He explained that key pieces are “fiscal in nature,” meaning they can be moved quickly through a budget maneuver that requires a simple majority in the Senate and House. “This is our game plan for 2017,” Ryan said again to the seemingly unconvinced press.
It’s unclear why the press is “seemingly unconvinced” that the budget reconciliation process is indeed a “bazooka in his pocket.” It’s been around as a device to package and speed through Congress vast policy changes since Ronald Reagan and his allies used it in 1981 to rewrite the tax code and enact far-reaching budget cuts and program changes. Republicans had the same revolutionary plans for its use four years ago if Mitt Romney had won and the GOP held on to the Senate. And they conducted a dry run at the very beginning of this year by enacting a sweeping reconciliation bill that nobody paid much attention to because they knew Obama would veto it. President Trump would not.
One major reason congressional Republicans conducted this dry run was to set a precedent that reconciliation could be used for seemingly non-budget items like repealing key elements of the Affordable Care Act (notably the individual mandate and purchasing subsidies). The GOP-appointed Senate parliamentarian, ostensibly the traffic cop whose job it is to stop non-germane riders, waved it on through. Democrats can whine about it, but if the GOP wins the trifecta in November, they will not be able to do a thing. So a future reconciliation bill would not only cripple Obamacare and strip millions of Americans of health coverage obtained via the exchanges, but also kill the Medicaid expansion and throw millions more out of coverage. Indeed, there is zero reason to think it would not include turning the original Medicaid program into a block grant to the states (probably along with the food-stamp program), as both Trump and congressional Republicans have proposed, while implementing Ryan’s own controversial plan to voucherize Medicare.
Those are just a few nasty features we can expect on the spending side of the budget. On the tax side, the only problem Republicans will face is cutting a deal with Trump on the relatively few differences between their tax schemes and his.
Trump and House Republicans have proposed different tax plans, but they are largely in sync on major principles. Both would cut the top tax rate for individuals to 33 percent from the current 39.6 percent. The corporate rate would drop to 15 percent under Trump’s plan and 20 percent under the House GOP plan, from 35 percent today. Both plans also would drain federal coffers of several trillion dollars and give the biggest boost to the wealthy. By the end of the decade, the richest 1 percent would have accumulated 99.6 percent of the benefits of the House GOP plan, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
Think there’s some chance Trump won’t play ball? I don’t. One of the advantages of using reconciliation is that the entire toxic ball of reactionary legislation can be whipped through Congress and placed on Trump’s desk while he’s still looking for the washroom keys. He may still maintain big differences with congressional Republicans on matters like trade policy and immigration policy and NATO. But he’s given us no reason whatsoever to think he’d pause before rubber-stamping a bill that kills Obamacare and gets rid of all that “welfare” crap his supporters hate — while giving people like himself a historic tax cut billed as a job-generator.
Ryan may have conducted his explainer in order to get the word out to wavering Republican opinion-leaders that even though there are risks in placing Trump in the Oval Office, there’s a huge payoff as well that he can point to with considerable specificity. But it should be a warning to Democrats as well, and something that with imagination and persistence they can convey to those critical progressives who are meh about voting for Hillary Clinton and don’t think the identity of the president much matters. Even if you think Clinton is a centrist sellout or a Wall Street puppet, she’s not going to sign legislation throwing tens of millions of people out of their health coverage, abolishing inheritance taxes and giving top earners still more tax benefits, shredding the safety net, killing Planned Parenthood funding, and so on through Ryan’s whole abominable list of reactionary delights. If Democrats think a scenario so complicated that it’s lulled the press to sleep cannot be explained to regular voters, maybe they should break out the hand puppets. There is no more urgent and galvanizing message available to them.