Thursday, February 15, 2018

The GOP Made Trump More Conservative—But Trump's Also Making the GOP More Conservative

The single biggest pearl of Beltway conventional wisdom to suffer irreversible tarnish in 2017 was the notion that Donald Trump stood for an iconoclastic "populism" poised to redefine the dominant governing ideology of the Republican Party. Trump's past support for Democratic candidates and policies, his weak ties to conservative elites in Washington, and his infrequent rhetorical devotion to the American right's familiar themes of limited government, constitutional fealty, individual liberty, and traditionalist sexual ethics convinced many political analysts during the 2016 campaign that he represented a dramatic break from his adopted party's existing ideological legacy. Critics ranging across the political spectrum from National Review to Barack Obama reinforced the dominant news media judgment that Trump was not a regular conservative—and voters ultimately agreed, perceiving Trump as significantly closer to the ideological center than previous Republican presidential nominees.

But the existing Republican Party has exerted a strong gravitational pull on Trump, who seems to lack many personal substantive commitments and who does not command a larger faction of allies within the GOP dedicated to shifting its platform away from standard conservative positions. Indeed, Trump's record in office so far can be fairly described as the most consistently conservative of any president in modern history, as he has proven to be much less inclined than Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, either George Bush, or even Ronald Reagan to pursue centrist or bipartisan initiatives in select policy domains.

And in at least one major area, it's Trump who's pushing other Republicans in a conservative direction rather than vice versa. The extensive attention devoted by the mainstream media to Trump's verbal departures from conservative doctrine on topics like trade, Medicare, and the Iraq War in 2016 somewhat obscured the fact that on his signature issue—immigration—Trump quite conspicuously ran to the ideological right of the rest of the Republican presidential field, to say nothing of the Democratic opposition.

While Candidate Trump's invocations of economic populism and military non-intervention have not often guided the policy positions of President Trump's administration, his commitment to reducing the number of immigrants residing in the United States has only deepened once in office. The Trump campaign mostly emphasized combating illegal immigration via more aggressive internal enforcement and a "big, beautiful wall" across the Mexican border, but the Trump presidency is also pursuing a significant cut in legal immigration rates and proposing reforms to the criteria governing the process of granting authorization to would-be residents. Attempts by congressional Democrats and a few breakaway Republicans to provide "DREAMers" with legal status in exchange for increased border security funds have now foundered in Congress due in large part to newfound presidential demands over the past few weeks that major reductions to lawful immigration also be included in the deal.

To be sure, the Republican Party as a whole has not yet openly embraced Trump's call for slashing legal immigration rates. Even some supporters of the Senate legislation endorsed by Trump are not publicly defending the very provisions in the bill that would implement such a policy, and business interests within the Republican Party network are unlikely to be satisfied (the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already expressed its opposition). But the bulk of congressional Republicans, including top leaders in both chambers, have backed the Trump administration's proposal to resolve the DACA issue by rolling it into a larger reform bill that would otherwise shift immigration policy in a more restrictive direction on the legal and illegal fronts alike, while opposing the narrower DREAMers-for-security-dollars swap negotiated by a bipartisan Senate group.

There are political risks to the Trump approach. Previous Republican presidents departed from ideological purity because they also prized racking up legislative achievements and appealing to voters beyond their party base. Trump is making a very different bet—though not necessarily an incorrect one—that holding to a tough line on immigration will either compel Democrats to make further concessions or keep an issue alive that works to his electoral advantage even if he can't (accurately) claim progress in constructing his famous border wall. The pragmatic, deal-making, I-can-fix-it Trump we heard so much about during the 2016 campaign still makes occasional appearances for the benefit of the cameras; only last month this Trump publicly told Congress he'd sign any bipartisan agreement on DACA and "take the heat" from his supporters for doing so. But the Trump who actually governs, the Trump who shot down the bipartisan agreement with which he was then presented in a fusillade of anger, is best understood as the increasingly ideological leader of an increasingly ideological party.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Don't Expect Much Legislation From Congress in 2018

Even during normal political times, the internal operation of Congress gets much less than its rightful share of attention from the news media and public. With Donald Trump as president? Forget it. But amidst all the other drama of this eventful week, a few important clues emerged about the road ahead for Congress in 2018. They all seem to point in the same direction: to a relatively unproductive legislative year.

First, it's important to note that Congress has some major unfinished business left over from 2017, due to its failure to pass annual appropriations legislation by the end of the previous fiscal year on September 30. Instead, the government has been funded via a series of short-term continuing resolutions that periodically expire and require extension (allowing the Senate Democrats to engineer last week's temporary government shutdown simply by filibustering the latest iteration). Congressional leaders have signaled that they don't expect to reach a final agreement on domestic and military spending levels before March at the earliest, which means that another resolution will need to be passed next week to keep the government open until then.

When combined with an impending need to raise the federal debt ceiling in order to prevent default on the national debt, this means that a fair amount of legislative energy over the next two months will be devoted to what would normally be considered the basic necessities of government. Even next week's vote on a new continuing resolution is not free from complication; dissatisfied conservative purists threatened this week to join with Democrats to vote it down on the floor of the House and thus force another shutdown. Past experience suggests that Republican leaders will ultimately strike a deal with a sufficient number of party holdouts to push the bill through, but every day spent on negotiations over appropriations is a day lost to other priorities.

The decreasing probability that Congress approves a budget resolution this year also indicates that Republicans will not be able to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a major item on the party's legislative agenda by a simple majority in the Senate (as they did last year to enact tax reform). While some members of Congress express enthusiasm for taking another crack at repealing the Affordable Care Act, doing so would require not only passage of a budget resolution but also persuading two of last summer's three opposing Republican senators to change their minds (since the December election of Doug Jones in Alabama has narrowed the partisan margin in the chamber to 51–49).

President Trump's unusually policy-free State of the Union address also seemed to signal a lack of imminent congressional action. Trump's speech included a brief advance promotion of his infrastructure plan (the public release of which is, according to his aides, perpetually just around the corner) but did not leave the impression that he or his administration would devote much energy in the near future to pressuring reluctant conservatives or persuading opposition Democrats on the subject.

It's also an election year in which the current partisan majority, at least in the House, is vulnerable to defeat—which means that Republicans will be in no mood this summer or fall to spend long weeks legislating in Washington rather than attending to their home constituencies. Other leaders might have acted to build a longer list of legislative accomplishments prior to the midterms by finding topics with popular appeal that were well-situated for bipartisan dealmaking—anti-sexual harassment and assault measures? maybe something on opioids?—but it seems clear from this week's party retreat that Republicans have decided to focus their 2018 electoral message on taking credit for last year's tax cuts.

That leaves immigration as the most likely subject matter of any major non-budgetary legislative initiative enacted between now and November, though the chances still seem fairly modest from today's perspective. The approaching March expiration of DACA will compel the two parties to devote the next month to negotiations, but the probability of a comprehensive immigration agreement appears remote absent a significant concession by one or both sides. More likely, Trump will be faced with a choice between a narrow deal and no deal at all.

The decaying state of the legislative process in Congress is a subject that deserves much more public consideration than it has received. The decline of committee influence and expertise, the increasing power of party leaders at the expense of other members, the increasingly slapdash approach to major policy-making, and the fading institutional loyalty of incumbents to the legislative branch are all developments with wide-ranging implications for the workings of American government; they  should rightfully concern members of both parties. Even in a period of electoral triumph, many Republicans have expressed dissatisfaction with the congressional experience—and are voting with their feet by retiring in record numbers.

Relegated to the minority, at least for now, Democrats aren't any happier. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia briefly threw a scare into his fellow members of the Democratic caucus late last month when he flirted with retirement—which would almost certainly have thrown his seat to the Republican opposition. Manchin was persuaded to seek another six-year term in the Senate this November, though not before he expressed his displeasure with the operation of the institution whose members once frequently pronounced themselves the "world's greatest deliberative body."

"This place sucks," said Manchin.