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The Rushmore Report: Why Republicans Can’t Govern

You might think that securing the White House, Senate, House of Representatives, and a majority of seats on the Supreme Court would enable a party to practically dictate laws and policy. But so far, unified government hasn’t worked out too well for Republicans. The GOP controls it all – but has no major legislative accomplishments to show for it. So let’s tackle the obvious question. Why can’t Republicans govern?

The U.S. system is designed to slow down and complicate attempts at change, so parties in charge must learn to navigate their way. What makes this so hard? There are several things that a majority party needs in order to convert political victories into legislative ones, and the GOP doesn’t have them.

1. A prioritized agenda

This one seems obvious but can be deceptively difficult. Research shows that agenda control is a key source of power for the majority party in Congress. For a party to effectively implement an agenda, it has to agree on a) what that agenda is, and b) how that agenda should be prioritized. The first part isn’t a given; Republicans largely support lower taxes, for instance, but – as the recent healthcare debate showed – they are less unified on health care policy. Even when there is agreement on the issues, parties must also decide on which ones to focus. The President is short on details to his policies, and there is much diversity within the Republican Party. A prioritized agenda has yet to emerge.

2. Public support

Whatever agenda emerges, it helps a lot if it has public support. Public opinion doesn’t always direct policy, of course. But members of Congress tend to be motivated by an interest in reelection, and don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of a national debate.

The GOP is finding this out the hard way. Some of the few core positions that have been staked out by Republicans in Congress – such as bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act – have proven very unpopular. Trump also ran into this problem with the Russian sanctions bill: he opposed it, but widespread public support translated into veto-proof majorities in Congress.

In simple terms, President Trump won the Electoral College, but not the popular vote. Until he turns his low poll numbers around, it will be hard to garner much unified support behind his agenda.

3. A way to address internal divisions

Even with a governing agenda and public support, there will be disagreements over specifics, clashes between factions and disputes over resource allocation. Institutions can help resolve these disputes – especially organizational rules in Congress that create incentives for compromise.

An opposition party has the luxury of a unifying objective – pointing out the shortcomings of the majority. As the musical Hamilton tells us, “Governing is harder.”

About the Author

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties, and political rhetoric. She is the author of Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate. 

The Rushmore Report: Trump, Ryan Lost on Obamacare, What Now?

When it came to bringing Republicans together to repeal and replace Obamacare, President Trump’s sweet talk, threats, horse trading, and ultimatums were not enough. “At some point, you can only do so much,” a resigned White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Friday. Along with House Speaker Paul Ryan, the president was unable to convince enough members of his own party to vote for the historic measure.

Despite last-minute changes, and an overnight delay, there were still too many Republicans opposed to the White House-backed plan to unravel the 2010 health law known as Obamacare. Party leaders tried to appeal to conservatives by repealing requirements that health insurance plans cover “essential benefits” like maternity care and hospitalization, but opponents from the right-wing Freedom Caucus insisted the bill still maintained too much of the original architecture and would not sufficiently lower costs. More moderate Republicans, meanwhile, balked at the legislation because of the number of people projected to lose insurance coverage, among other things.

“I will not sugarcoat this – this is a disappointing day for us,” Speaker Ryan told reporters after the vote was cancelled. “All of us, myself included, will need time to reflect on how we got to this moment, what we could have done and do it better.”

The questions are twofold.

Is the Republican healthcare overhaul dead?

Republicans in Congress have expressed hope they could revisit healthcare, though no one offered a timeline. Senator Mike Lee said, “We will begin working collaboratively with our more moderate colleagues in the Senate and in the House to produce a bill that will reduce costs, save taxpayers money, and make our healthcare affordable again.”

In the meantime, Ryan conceded that Obamacare would remain in place indefinitely. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to replace the law.”

Where do Republicans go from here?

In the interim, both Trump and Ryan expressed confidence they can move on to other items on their agendas, starting with tax reform. “We will probably start going very, very strongly for the big tax cuts and tax reform – that will be next,” the president told reporters. Ryan insisted the healthcare plan’s failure is not a “prologue for other future things.”

On Friday, Ryan conceded that Republicans still have not figured out how to govern. “We were a ten-year opposition party where being against things was easy to do . . . and now, in three months’ time we’ve tried to go to a governing party, where we actually had to get 216 people to try and agree with each other on how to do things,” he observed. “We weren’t just quite there today. We’ll get there.”

The next few months will show if he’s being overly optimistic.

About the Author

Emily Cadei covers government, international affairs, and economics for OZY, a digital news and culture site.

The Rushmore Report: Paul Ryan to Run for Re-Election as House Speaker

Speaker Paul Ryan said last week that he will seek re-election to the top job in the House as Republicans hold onto their majority, an outcome confirmed in Tuesday’s elections. Ryan’s comment comes as some House Republicans have discussed trying to oust him from his post. He became speaker only a year ago after conservatives pressured John Boehner, R-Ohio, into retiring from Congress.

Ryan was asked about a report about “chatter” that he was no longer interested in being speaker. “Nope. Not true,” Ryan said. “Don’t believe everything you read. I am interested in staying on as speaker.”

The 46-year-old Ryan was his party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee and is considered a potential future presidential candidate. He has broad support among Republicans, who control the House.

Ryan said he wants to push his agenda. He also denied there is a schism within his party. However, many lawmakers have wondered whether Ryan might step aside rather than risk his political career by angering conservative voters. Upcoming budget talks and the need to extend federal borrowing authority next year could well produce results that would upset such voters.

Some members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus – the roughly 40-member group that forced Boehner’s departure – have discussed opposing Ryan. They’ve expressed worries that he won’t hold out for spending curbs in upcoming negotiations with President Barack Obama and Democrats over next year’s budget.

Others complained about Ryan’s lack of support for Donald Trump. The Speaker may have painted himself into a corner. But, for now at least, he seems determined to finish the coarse he started one year ago.

The 2016 election is now over – but the race for Speaker of the House may just be getting started.