2018 midterms

Total GOP Control in Washington Is About to End. What Did They Get Out of It?

The Big Three Republicans running Washington the last few years did not accomplish everything they wanted. Photo: Shawn Thew - Pool/Getty Images

Since the midterm elections, there’s been a lot of talk about what Democrats will do with their new control of the U.S. House of Representatives. There’s also considerable interest in what Republicans will still be able to do with their continued hold on the White House and the Senate.

But before we get too far down the road, it’s important to reflect on what Republicans lost on November 6 other than a Speaker’s gavel and 40 seats: They lost the trifecta, the grip on the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, which neither party has often enjoyed for long in recent years. (Democrats lost theirs two years into their last two administrations as well, in 1994 and 2010.) I ask this question having speculated on the night of the 2016 election that the GOP would hold and fully wield enormous power:

With Trump in the White House and the GOP controlling Congress — the condition that will prevail in January, based on the results of Tuesday’s election — Republicans are now in a position to work a revolution in domestic policy. It will likely be at least as dramatic as anything we’ve seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, and perhaps since LBJ and congressional Democrats enacted the Great Society legislation that is now in peril.

This now seems more than a bit over the top. But this anxious prophecy was based on some plausible premises:

For all the talk of “feuding” or even “civil war” between Trump and congressional Republican leaders, they are actually on the same page on a lot of very radical ideas. These include, of course, the linchpin of Republican domestic policy: a big upper-end tax cut rationalized by the imaginary economic boom it will be advertised to create. Beyond that, however, there is a big increase in defense spending that both Trump and congressional Republicans have promised, and then the decimation of the low-income safety net. Every analysis of Paul Ryan’s various budget proposals — quite likely the building block of what Republicans will try to enact — indicates savage consequences for poor people. Think the expanded Medicaid coverage created by Obamacare will survive? Hah! The bigger question is whether Medicaid itself survives, since both Trump’s platform and the Ryan budget would dump the program on the tender mercies of the states through a block grant sure to bleed funding regularly.

And this scenario in turn depended on the assumption that Republicans would have the means and the willingness to do these things:

 [A]s Paul Ryan told us all in early October, he has long planned to use the budget reconciliation process — where there is no filibuster available in the Senate — to enact his entire budget in one bill. Again, a bill that cannot be filibustered. He referred to it, appropriately, as a bazooka in his pocket. And while there are some things you cannot do in a reconciliation bill, there aren’t many of them: Congressional Republicans did a trial run last year (nobody paid much attention, because they knew Barack Obama would veto it), and it aimed at crippling Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, and disabling regulators, in addition to the nasty surprises for poor people mentioned above. 

In retrospect, Republicans did indeed secure their big high-end tax cut. They also got a major boost in defense spending, though mostly via appropriations deals with Democrats that gave them corresponding generosity in domestic spending the GOP would have preferred to reduce. And they did indeed use the budget reconciliation process for both their tax and Obamacare-repeal legislation to sidestep the Senate filibuster.

This last big initiative famously did not work out. For one thing, it turns out that voting for a “trial run” to repeal Obamacare, create a Medicaid block grant, reduce low-income programs dramatically, and defund Planned Parenthood wasn’t the same as voting for the real thing — at least for a few key Senate Republicans like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain. For another, the gradually growing popularity of Obamacare made Republicans skittish about exactly what they’d deploy to replace it, with all sorts of negative consequences for public relations and party unity. More predictably, the president’s erratic nature added just enough uncertainty to the whole process to make speed and efficiency in this big and dangerous maneuver impossible.

Trump, of course, threw sand in the gears of a potentially lethal Republican legislative machine in other ways. I had expected that in exchange for his signature on literally decades of conservative policy legislation Republicans would let Trump play around with his culture war and foreign policy fetishes to his heart’s desire. Instead, his obsessions interfered with and overshadowed regular business, most notably in his insistence on taking hostages — ranging from individual bills to the entire federal government — for his border wall and other nativist goals. Republicans didn’t need much Democratic cooperation to achieve their main objectives, but what little they did require was often made impossible by the fever-swamp atmosphere Trump promoted. What were the odds that congressional Democrats would unanimously reject both the tax bill and Obamacare repeal? Vanishingly low with anyone else in the White House. Part of the reason for that unanimity was Trump’s persistently low public-opinion ratings; few Democrats feared him the way they once feared Reagan or even the Bushes.

Republicans, especially in the House, did everything they could to counter Trump’s ongoing scandals — and the threat of a real disaster emanating from the Mueller investigation — with their own pursuit of ersatz scandals involving Hillary Clinton, the FBI, and other Trump enemies. But they didn’t accomplish much beyond generating a lot of smoke and strengthening the loyalty of the hard-core party base.

The GOP did harvest a few short-term blessings from the trifecta, such as the repeal of 14 recent Obama regulations via the Congressional Review Act, which requires joint House-Senate actions. And it was pleasant for Trump to have two supportive jumping jacks behind him — Vice-President Pence and House Speaker Ryan — during his addresses to Congress. Obviously being in the majority was important to the individual House members — not to mention the committee and subcommittee barons — who will now have notably diminished power.

Much of Trump’s agenda will remain on the table with Senate control, including Judicial and Executive branch confirmations and backing for potentially controversial foreign policy moves. And a GOP Senate will limit the damage House Democrats can do through legislation, investigations, or even impeachment.

You can pretty much forget, however, about another effort to bring down the white whale of Obamacare, or to go after “entitlements” or poverty programs, or to significantly change immigration policy, or to cut taxes again. Who knows when Republicans will again be in the position they were in at the beginning of 2017? If it’s no time soon, they may regret how little they got from the two years they walked tall across the Washington landscape.

What Did Republicans Get Out of Their Lost Trifecta?