Elections

Don’t Blame D.C. Republicans for a Stalled Agenda

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) attend a news conference on Capitol Hill, February 14, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
The GOP threw away six Senate seats when state leaders and voters put forth bad candidates. Now we have gridlock.

The Washington Post reports on the Republican legislative agenda for the rest of the year. In a word, it’s scant:

An absence of hard deadlines and the political realities of an election year mean that the $1.3 trillion spending bill that President Trump begrudgingly signed into law last month is probably the last significant legislation to pass Congress before voters go to polls in November.

Instead, the House is preparing to take a largely symbolic vote on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget and to try to reverse some spending while also finishing up a banking deregulation bill and drafting legislation to address the opioid crisis.

The Senate, meanwhile, is likely to spend much of the rest of the year trying to confirm Trump nominees — including more judges as well as the president’s picks to lead the State Department and the CIA after last month’s Cabinet shuffle.

Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the irony of House Republicans calling for a vote on a balanced-budget amendment after having passed a deficit-financed tax cut and a budget-busting omnibus bill. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it, too?

Beyond the issue of the budget, it is deeply disappointing to see congressional Republicans throw up their hands in capitulation. After all the years of campaigning against the liberalism of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, this is all we get?! Why can’t the Congress do more?

The Senate filibuster is not to blame, at least not entirely. That threshold creates a barrier against many types of legislation, but not all. The process of budget reconciliation enables a narrow, 51-vote majority to change policies related to spending and taxes. This is how the GOP got tax reform passed in December. But Republicans are, as the Washington Post indicates, declining to pursue this option in 2018.

Time and again over the past decade, the GOP has lost eminently winnable races, allowing Senate Democrats to pad their caucus.

Some conservatives are wont to blame Mitch McConnell and the party establishment for failing to deliver on promises that they made during their campaigns for office. But that anger is displaced. A narrow majority can be worth a lot in the House of Representatives, but much less in the upper chamber. The Senate, it must be remembered, is a keenly idiosyncratic institution — highly dependent on the personalities within it. It is not for nothing that former majority leader Trent Lott titled his autobiography “Herding Cats.” The ability of the leadership to enforce discipline is strictly curtailed, so even under the lenient vote threshold of budget reconciliation, it is hard to deliver victories.

Instead, the cause for the legislative stall is to be found in the various maladies and mistakes of state Republican parties all across the country. To put it bluntly: Republicans have run too many lousy candidates for the United States Senate, and they are now paying the price: gridlock. Time and again over the past decade, the GOP has lost eminently winnable races, allowing Senate Democrats to pad their caucus. This has, in turn, stymied the Republican legislative agenda.

If we look at the Senate from the perspective of statewide partisanship, the occupants of most seats make sense. Strongly Democratic states such as California elect two Democrats, while strongly Republican states like Idaho elect two Republicans. Meanwhile, purple states such as Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania have one Democrat and one Republican. That doesn’t always hold across the purple states — New Hampshire has two Democrats while Iowa has two Republicans — but the deviations more or less cancel out.

The main exception to this is a group of six Senate Democrats who come from strongly Republican states. These are: Doug Jones of Alabama (which Trump won by 28 points); Joe Donnelly of Indiana (Trump by 19 points); Claire McCaskill of Missouri (Trump by 19 points); Joe Tester of Montana (Trump by 20 points); Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (Trump by 36 points); and Joe Manchin of West Virginia (Trump by 42 points). On the other hand, the only Republican from a strongly Democratic state is Susan Collins of Maine, which actually gave Trump an electoral college vote in 2016.

Candidate effects explain many of these Democratic-held seats. Jones, Donnelly, and McCaskill won their races because their Republican opponents said or did outrageous things that alienated the broad middle of their states. Tester and Heitkamp are still in office because their opponents, while not ridiculously bad, ran thoroughly lackluster campaigns in 2012, failing to win despite the boost they received from Mitt Romney’s winning their respective states with ease. Among the six, only Manchin, a former governor, had the sort of reputation that could inoculate him from a strong Republican campaign to oust him.

That’s not to say Republicans should have won all six of these seats. But they should not have lost all six of them. I would say that three to four should be in Republican hands right now. Imagine a Senate where that was the case. For starters, the chances that Republicans could lose the Senate in November would be practically zero. Beyond that, the GOP would probably have managed to do some kind of Obamacare repeal-and-replace via budget reconciliation last year. And looking forward to the 2018 legislative calendar, they probably could manage something else via reconciliation. It would be an entirely different legislative landscape.

But no. Lousy candidates and missed opportunities have cost the GOP seat after seat. The failure rests not with McConnell and the Beltway establishment, but with Republican voters and leaders in these states: They failed to select good candidates, and now the party is paying the price.

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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