The Real Reason Republicans Can’t Pass Major Legislation

It’s not Trump. It’s the fantasy-bubble that conservative voters live inside.

The most surprising thing about last summer’s many attempts to repeal ObamaCare wasn’t that they failed. It was the peculiar way that the legislation proceeded in both houses of Congress: without meaningful committee hearings, with minimal debate on the floor of either the House or Senate, sometimes without analysis from the CBO, and often without a even draft of a bill until the last possible moment. Again and again, Republicans were urged to vote Yes, not because the plan in front of them was good for American healthcare, but to “keep the process moving”. If McConnell and Ryan could have passed a healthcare bill in a sealed envelope, not to be opened until the White House signing ceremony, I think they would have.

The secret sauce that would make it all work was always going to be added later, by someone else: Moderates in the House supported the AHCA, believing the Senate would fix the aspects of it that President Trump later called “mean“. Senators offered to vote for the “skinny repeal” only if Paul Ryan could guarantee that the House would change it. Graham-Cassidy passed the buck to the states: Sure, it looked like less money that would give worse coverage to fewer people, but since all the details would be decided at the state level, senators could tell themselves the magic would happen there.

Republican governors, meanwhile, were mostly relieved the bill failed, because they had no magic either.

Gov. Brian Sandoval said Thursday that the flexibility fellow Republican Sen. Dean Heller promised will be good for Nevada in a health-care bill he’s sponsoring is a “false choice” because the legislation will also slash funding.

Because these efforts kept failing, Congress actually ended up spending a great deal of time on ObamaCare-repeal bills. The first one failed in the House in March, and Graham-Cassidy didn’t fail until the end of September. But it was more than half a year of breathless sprints, without any time to tell the public what they were doing.

All in all, it was no wonder the various ObamaCare-repeal bills polled badly. Literally no one was explaining to the people exactly what this particular bill did and why it would be good for them.

Go back, Jack, do it again. Now we’re on to tax reform, and the same strange process seems to be repeating. Republicans are absolutely in agreement that they are for tax reform. It’s going to cut corporate tax rates, but also give major benefits to the middle class. It will be “pro-growth”, and will avoid blowing up the deficit by “closing loopholes”, though no one can seem to agree on any particular loophole. Trump listed the “principles” tax reform will be based on, and then leaders from the House, Senate, and Trump administration agreed on a “framework“. Now the congressional leadership has even set a deadline: Thanksgiving.

But there’s no bill. It’s rumored a bill will appear in the House this week, maybe Wednesday, but no one seems to know what will be in it. They’re still announcing major changes (like property tax deductions), still negotiating on other significant details (401(k) deductions), and losing support over the few decisions they have announced (mortgage interest).

The framework says that individual income taxes will have three tax brackets (or maybe four), and names the rates for those brackets, but not the income levels where those rates kick in. 20% has been floated as a corporate tax rate, and maybe the deficit will be allowed to go up an additional $1.5 trillion over ten years, but that’s not set in stone either. Hardly anything is.

Thanksgiving is just a few weeks away, and the public is in the same situation it was with the various healthcare bills: Republicans can make lofty claims about what the tax-reform bill will ultimately deliver, but any hard analysis that refutes those claims can be hand-waved away, because the details aren’t set yet. [1]

Once again, Republicans are justifying their votes not on the content of what they’re voting for, but to move the process along. John McCain, for example, voted Yes on the Senate version of the budget resolution that sets up tax reform, but said: “At the end of the day, we all know that the Senate budget resolution will not impact final appropriations.” Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.) justified his Yes vote like this: “The budget that came back to us is a crap sandwich, but it happens to be the only thing on the menu.”

If the ObamaCare-repeal pattern continues to hold, the bill announced this week will debut to a hail of criticism and will go back into whatever secret negotiations produced it. This will happen as many times as is necessary to set up a last-minute, there’s-no-time-for-a-CBO-analysis vote. Wavering Republicans won’t be persuaded with facts and logic, they’ll be pressured with threats of mid-term disaster if the bill doesn’t pass. Whatever it actually says won’t be the point.

No one will claim this bill, but everyone will insist they have no choice but to pass it. Whether they do or not will come down to one or two votes.

Why does this keep happening? There’s no reason why Republicans couldn’t have introduced a tax-reform bill months ago, scheduled several weeks of hearings in all the appropriate committees, and tried to raise public support for their ideas in the usual way. They could argue that their bill is actually good, rather than claiming that they have no choice. They could have done the same on healthcare, and they could do the same on all the rest of their priorities: immigration, infrastructure, and so forth.

So why don’t they?

The answer is actually quite simple: Republican base voters live in a fantasy world that long predates Donald Trump. It has been carefully constructed over decades by politicians, Fox News, talk radio, and the rest of the conservative media establishment. Here are a few features of that fantasy world:

  • Tax cuts pay for themselves by creating economic growth.
  • Government spending is mostly waste, so it can be slashed without hurting anybody.
  • Climate change isn’t happening, or if it is, burning fossil fuels has nothing to do with it.
  • When the rich make money, everybody makes money.
  • The free market can solve all problems, including providing healthcare to the poor.
  • White Christians are the primary victims of discrimination.
  • The uninsured can get all the medical treatment they need in emergency rooms.
  • Elections at all levels are tainted by massive voter fraud, as millions of illegal immigrants cast ballots.
  • Big business wants what’s best for America, so there’s no need to stop them from polluting our air and water, or from making products that kill their workers or customers.

The fantasies are so extensive, and so divorced from reality, that there is literally no major issue that can be discussed in a rational way inside that bubble.

Any public debate Republican politicians participate in has to happen inside that bubble, because anyone who disputes any of those fantasies will be labeled a RINO and will likely face a primary opponent who sticks to the bubble orthodoxy.

That process worked great as long as they were out of power. The Ryans and McConnells and Cruzs and Gohmerts could have fantasy-world discussions that came to fantasy-world conclusions, and it was all fine, because none of it ever had to confront reality. They never accomplished what their voters wanted — nobody could have, since it’s impossible — but that was OK, because those horrible Democrats were blocking the way. It all would work, if only they were in charge.

So now they’re in power. All Republican public debate still has to happen inside the fantasy bubble, but now at some point the results of that debate have to transit over to the real world. There have to be actual pieces of legislation that do real things that can be analyzed by people who live in reality. And even if Republicans can discredit that analysis somehow, eventually there are still real events to deal with. Eventually, people pay taxes and drive on roads and send their kids to schools. They find (or don’t find) jobs and get (or lose) health insurance. The fantasies and rhetoric don’t help you then.

That’s what they found out in Kansas.

The strange process we keep seeing in Congress is an effort to stay inside the fantasy bubble until the last possible minute, then to sprint across the open ground between fantasy-world debates and real-world decisions as fast as possible.

So for a few more days, tax reform can be great and wonderful. It can give every worker a raise, set off an investment boom, and cut everybody’s taxes without losing revenue. Whatever tax break you’re worried about losing — don’t worry, the details aren’t set yet.

But soon they’ll have to publish a bill that the public can read. Then the sprint will start.

[1] For comparison, the first version of ObamaCare — the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act — was introduced in the House on July 14, 2009. The final version, the ACA, was passed on March 23, 2010, about 8 months later. Various things got changed during that time, but for every day of those 8 months, ObamaCare was a real proposal that could be authoritatively critiqued and analyzed.

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  • Jeff Diver  On October 30, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Excellent analysis! Confederate conspirators, however, have already achieved great success dismantling Federal agencies. While giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, Confederates are engaging in a carefully orchestrated effort to destroy the Federal government of the United States by bankruptcy, defiance of/failure to enforce Federal law combined with Executive failure to carry out Congressional directions and a direct attack on the political independence of the judiciary. Their carefully coordinated efforts are succeeding and the ugly consequences of their sometimes secret plot are unfolding. Confederates cheer as they dump the United States into the dustbin of history!

  • gordonc  On October 30, 2017 at 10:45 am

    The left often opposes tax cuts for the rich on the basis of fairness. The farmer in the video opposes them for a better reason: they don’t deliver on their promises. Broad-based tax cuts do have a good track record of creating jobs, though: Obama’s suspension of Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes and George W. Bush’s $300 ($600 couples) rebate of FY2000 taxes both successfully stimulated the economy. Both of those tax cuts increased the deficit, but so what? Conservatives argument that “deficits will burden our children and grandchildren” is just as wrong as their argument that tax cuts will increase revenue. Rich people don’t create jobs, customers do.

    • Larry Benjamin  On October 30, 2017 at 7:58 pm

      All of us who were around in the 1980s saw that trickle-down economics doesn’t work, but as Doug points out, it remains a tenet in conservative fantasyland. And it’s interesting how terrible deficits are when the Democrats are in charge, but now they suddenly “don’t matter.”

    • Dale Moses  On October 31, 2017 at 2:12 am

      As a reaction to recession yes. But there is much better policy in that instance for a variety of reasons.

      Since we are not dealing with a swift downturn those policies will not be effective unless coupled with commensurate increases in taxes on wealthier individuals.

    • telzeyamberdon  On November 16, 2017 at 1:19 pm

      “The left often opposes tax cuts for the rich on the basis of fairness.”

      No. I think you will find that the left often opposed tax cuts for the rich because they saw it was a massive economic boondoggle that would create a wage gap the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the Robber Barons of the late 19th century, which (a few, not enough) conservatives are only now grudgingly admitting is true. But somehow I’m getting the feeling you think the left is at fault because they foolishly thought to do the right thing for the wrong reason: i.e., “fairness”, as if being fair was somehow suspect.

      Oh, if only the left had couched their objections to one-percenter cash grabs with cold, hard facts instead of mushy “fairness” feelings! Oh, wait; it did. Numerous times, with charts, even. I believe conservatives referred to the left as “libtards” at that time.

  • jh  On October 30, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    And wouldn’t it be wonderful if states that had successful economies were the one’s who had the most say when it comes to applying economic policies to the entire country?
    I wish that representatives from productive states in the Union, the one’s who are least federally dependent, would just flat out say “We aren’t interested in turning into Kansas. When the people who sponsor these bills can produce better results, we’ll listen.” Why do we pretend that the Paul Ryans and others have any legitimate voice when they are failures?

    (And I’m still for keeping each state’s monies in state. NY money stays in state. None of it goes to other states via Federal Government ‘wealth reallocation”. Same for TX or DE or any other state that produces more funds for the federal government than they get back in federal “funding”. I have no desire to pay higher taxes because the people in Kansas will starve. Let the people in Kansas suffer in the bed they made and learn from their mistakes. Reality has a way of smacking people in the face if we don’t help them. Trickle down would be laughed at by all US citizens if they knew they would be left holding the bag rather than this false reality where they don’t suffer because the people of NJ paid higher taxes so they (the people of red states) could afford their roads and schools.)

    • Larry Benjamin  On October 30, 2017 at 8:04 pm

      That’s not exactly how it works. Surpluses in California aren’t sent to people in Kansas just because they need help. As a liberal, I find it gratifying to see the chart showing how the blue states contribute more while the red states receive more, but it’s more complicated than that. For example, I live in Georgia, which takes in a lot more federal money than it pays out in taxes, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that we have a disproportionate number of military bases here. It’s not like the governor can say “you know, Georgia needs to contribute more and receive less, so let’s shut down Fort Benning and Fort Stewart.”

      One of the weaknesses of the European Union is the resentment the producer countries like Germany feel toward the receiver countries like Greece. Since the federal system here is much stronger and states are not independent countries, the level of resentment is much lower. Also, when a disaster happens, like one just did in Puerto Rico, it doesn’t really matter that their government is bankrupt.

      • Dale Moses  On October 31, 2017 at 12:54 pm

        There are a lot of military bases everywhere. (Additionally the reason we can’t shut down Bragg et al is because of their simulating effect. If we wanted to reward productivity we absolutely can)

        Cali received abou 10,000 per capita in 2013. Georgia received about 8700.

        Georgia just produces a lot less revenue. And it’s one of the better low productivity states.

  • weeklysift  On November 2, 2017 at 6:28 am

    From Thursday morning’s NYT: “On Wednesday, lawmakers were discussing a potential bandage solution to buy themselves time to figure out the hard math. That solution would call for phasing in some rate cuts over a period of years, and making some cuts temporary, which would lessen the short- and long-term revenue hit. Industry groups familiar with the discussions said such a move was not meant to be the actual legislative solution, but rather a place holder that would allow Republican leaders to work out the details of a new set of revenue-raisers that would be inserted in the bill before the full House votes on it.”

    So we’re still on the ObamaCare-repeal track: You should support this bill, even though it’s not the real bill. The magic will be added later.


  • By Looking Behind the Tree | The Weekly Sift on October 30, 2017 at 11:46 am

    […] This week’s featured post is “The Real Reason Republicans Can’t Pass Major Legislation“. […]

  • By French Revolution Levels | The Weekly Sift on November 6, 2017 at 11:50 am

    […] In other words, this is the kind of process I predicted: We still haven’t seen the real bill, the one they hope becomes law. That will probably come out at the last possible minute, when the CBO can’t analyze it in time for the vote, and the public can’t mobilize its opposition. As I wrote last week: […]

  • By Soulless Battle | The Weekly Sift on November 13, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    […] So this is where we are: The plan is still for the House to pass its bill by Thanksgiving, and for the House and Senate to agree on something they can deliver to Trump’s desk by Christmas. But they still haven’t told us what that will be, and both the House and the Senate know that the bill they are currently discussing can’t be it. In other words, it’s all still playing out like I predicted two weeks ago. […]

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