This American Life Doesn’t Understand This American Government

The most recent episode of NPR’s “This American Life” continues a line of liberal laments that the legislative process does not work, and blames most of that ineffectiveness on a single source: Donald Trump. (Shocker there.)

But the idea of removing Trump to Make Congress Great Again doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Even if it did, such a development would not comport with the Framers’ design of our government, which put the “deliberative” in “deliberative process” far more than the modern-day Left would prefer.

“This American Life” correspondent Zoe Chace laments that the popularity of DACA—which covers individuals brought to the United States illegally as children—has impeded its enactment into law. She thinks lawmakers have used its popularity

as a spoonful of sugar to make tougher immigration measures easier to swallow—stuff like border security, restricting visas, or on the Democrat side, legalizing even more immigrants. That’s the curse of DACA. The most valuable thing about it, on Capitol Hill anyway, is the possibility that it could be used to pass other stuff. So even though we’re a democracy, even though 80% of the country wants DACA, the country doesn’t get what it wants because there’s no incentive for Congress to just put it to a straight up or down vote.

Having castigated Congress for using DACA “to pass other stuff,” Chace spends much of the episode highlighting Flake’s attempts to use “other stuff”—namely, tax reform—to pass DACA.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

Chace calls Flake “the most powerful senator in Congress right now.” Having announced his retirement, Flake has no political constituency to appease. That dynamic, combined with the current Senate split of 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats—Republican John McCain is recovering from cancer treatment in his home state of Arizona—at first blush gives Flake significant leverage.

Second, to pass the Senate, DACA requires not 50 votes, but 60, as most legislation needs a three-fifths majority to overcome a potential filibuster. The tax legislation, enacted under special budget reconciliation procedures, stands as an exception that proves the general rule that would apply to any DACA bill.

Third, by favorably viewing Flake’s attempt (which he privately admits to Chace is a bluff) to tie his tax reform vote to a commitment from leadership to take up DACA legislation, Chace supports the very problem she criticizes—namely, lawmakers using one bill or issue to “pass other stuff.”

Chace’s criticism of the legislative process therefore comes across as inherently self-serving. She doesn’t object to senators using unrelated matters as leverage. For example, she applauds Flake for threatening to hijack the tax bill over immigration, so much as she objects to senators using other matters as leverage on her issue: passing DACA. That double standard, coupled with an ignorance of basic constitutional principles, leads to some naïve misunderstandings.

Let’s Review Some of Those

That principle leads to the “other stuff” dynamic Chace described, because lawmakers have other competing priorities to navigate. Some might support DACA, but only if they receive something they perceive as more valuable in exchange—border security, for instance, or a broader immigration deal.

Occasionally lawmakers take this concept too far, but the system tends to self-correct. As the episode notes, Democrats’ tactics led to a partial government shutdown in January, as Senate Democrats refused to pass spending bills keeping the federal government operating unless Republicans committed to enact a DACA measure with it—“other stuff,” in other words.

But although most Democrats support DACA, they divided over the hardball, hostage-taking tactics that tied passing spending bills to enacting an immigration measure. That division and public pressure over the shutdown led them to beat a hasty retreat.

In 2007, under President George W. Bush an immigration bill famously failed on the Senate floor, in part because then-senator Obama and other liberals voted to restrict the number of guest workers permitted into the United States—a key provision necessary to win Republican votes.

Consider a Case Study in Virginia

To view the immigration debate in a nutshell, one need look no further than Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA). Or, to be more precise, former Rep. Eric Cantor. In June 2014, Cantor lost his Republican primary to an upstart challenger in Dave Brat. Outrage over the possibility that the House might pass an immigration bill the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” muscled through in 2013 helped Cantor go down to primary defeat, and ended any debate on immigration in the 113th Congress (again, well before most people thought Trump would run for president, let alone win).

The way Cantor’s 2014 defeat changed the landscape on immigration in Congress illustrates that, while not a direct democracy, the American system remains responsive to democratic principles, even if they resulted in an outcome (i.e., inaction on immigration) Chace would decry. Chace might argue that a June primary election where only 65,017 Virginia residents voted—only about one-sixth the number who voted in that district’s November 2016 general election—should not determine the fate of immigration legislation nationwide.

But by making it difficult to enact legislation, the American system of government accounts for intensity of opinion as well as breadth of opinion. In the case of Cantor, a group of 36,105 Virginia residents who voted for Brat—many of whom cared strongly about stopping an immigration bill—sent a message on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of Virginia residents who didn’t care enough to vote in the Republican primary election. (Virginia conducts open primaries, in which voters can choose either party’s ballot, so any resident could have voted for or against Cantor in the Republican primary.)

That outcome might resonate with a former resident of Cantor’s district, Virginia’s own James Madison. In Federalist 10, Madison wrote of how a geographically diverse country would make it difficult for any one faction to command a majority, and impose its will on others. In Federalist 51, Madison returned to the topic of limiting government’s power by separating its responsibilities among co-equal branches: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

The stalemate on immigration and DACA would likely prove quite satisfactory to Framers like Madison, who feared government’s powers and purposefully looked to circumscribe them. To the modern Left, however, a constitutional government with limited authority seems an antiquated and inconvenient trifle.

‘Slow Government’ Complaints Are Way Older than Trump

Although Chace’s report claims that congressional dysfunction “has changed in ways that are very specific to Donald Trump,” liberals have criticized government inaction for decades. In “The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point,” Haynes Johnson and David Broder use their seminal analysis of the rise and fall of “HillaryCare” to decry a Washington “incapable as a nation of addressing the major long-term problems facing the society:”

At no point, we believe, has the cumulative assault on the idea of responsible government been so destructive of the very faith in the democratic system as now. A thoroughly cynical society, deeply distrustful of its institutions and leaders and the reliability of information it receives, is a society in peril of breaking apart.

Again, these words far precede any Trump administration. Broder and Johnson wrote them in 1996, while the tycoon looked to rebuild his empire following several corporate bankruptcies.

As “This American Life” notes, Trump has proved more indecisive legislatively than most presidents did. The episode highlights how Trump went from supporting any immigration bill Congress would send him to imposing major new conditions on same in the matter of hours. That series of events illustrated but one of Trump’s many reverses on legislation.

For instance, Trump famously called the American Health Care Act “mean” in a closed-door meeting weeks after Republican representatives voted to approve the legislation, and Trump publicly praised them for doing so. But presidents prior to Trump have also engaged in legislative U-turns or ill-conceived maneuvers.

In his 1994 State of the Union message, Bill Clinton threatened to veto any health-care bill that did not achieve universal coverage. As Johnson and Broder recount, that was a major tactical mistake that Clinton later attempted to undo, but ultimately contributed to the downfall of “HillaryCare.” And of course, Clinton himself might not have become president had his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, not made then violated his infamous “Read my lips—no new taxes!” pledge—the “six most destructive words in the history of presidential politics.”

While Trump undoubtedly has introduced more foibles into the legislative process, he has not changed its fundamental dynamic—a dynamic “This American Life” criticizes yet does not understand. Chace says “we’re a democracy,” but she means that she wants a Democratic—capital “D”—form of government, one in which Congress passes lots of legislation, enacts big programs (more funding for NPR, anyone?), and plays a major role in the lives of the American people.

Yet Madison and the Constitution’s Framers deliberately designed a lower-case “r” republican form of government, one with limited powers and a deliberative process designed to make enacting major legislation difficult. That reality might not suit the liberal dreams of “This American Life,” but it represents how American democratic principles actually live and work.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.

Hillarycare Redux? A Review of “The System”

A young president promising hope and change takes over the White House. Immediately embarking upon a major health-care initiative, he becomes trapped amidst warring factions in his party in Congress, bickering interest groups, and an angry public, all laying the groundwork for a resounding electoral defeat.

Barack Obama, circa 2009-10? Most definitely. But the same story also applies to Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, a period marked by a health-care debate in 1993-94 that paved the way for the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress.

In their seminal work “The System,” Haynes Johnson and David Broder recount the events of 1993-94 in detail—explaining not just how the Clinton health initiative failed, but also why. Anyone following the debate on Obamacare repeal should take time over the holidays to read “The System” to better understand what may await Congress and Washington next year. After all, why spend time arguing with your in-laws at the holiday table when you can read about people arguing in Congress two decades ago?

Echoes of History

For those following events of the past few years, the Clinton health debate as profiled in “The System” provides interesting echoes between past and present. Here is Karen Ignani of the AFL-CIO, viewed as a single-payer supporter and complaining that insurance companies could still “game the system” under some proposed reforms. Ironic sentiments indeed, as Ignani went on to chair the health insurance industry’s trade association during the Obamacare debate.

There are references to health care becoming a president’s Waterloo—Johnson and Broder attribute that quote to Grover Norquist, years before Sen. Jim DeMint uttered it in 2009. Max Baucus makes an appearance—he opposed in 1994 the employer mandate he included in Obamacare in 2009—as do raucous rallies in the summer of 1994, presaging the Obamacare town halls 15 years later.

Then there are the bigger lessons and themes that helped define the larger debate:

“Events, Dear Boy, Events:” The axiom attributed to Harold Macmillan about leaders being cast adrift by crises out of their control applied to the Clintons’ health-care debate. Foreign crises in Somalia (see “Black Hawk Down”) and Haiti sapped time on the presidential calendar and press attention, and distracted messaging. During the second half of 2009, Obama spent most of his time and energy focused on health care, leading some to conclude he had turned away from solving the economic crisis.

Old Bulls and Power Centers: “The System” spends much more time profiling the chairs of the respective congressional committees—including Dan Rostenkowski at House Ways and Means, John Dingell at House Energy and Commerce, and Patrick Moynihan at Senate Finance—than would have been warranted in 2009-10. While committee chairs held great power in the early 1990s, 15 years later House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called most of the legislative shots from their leadership offices.

Whereas the House marked up three very different versions of health-care legislation in 1993-94, all three committees started from the same chairman’s mark in 2009. With Speaker Paul Ryan, like John Boehner before him, running a much more diffuse leadership operation than Pelosi’s tightly controlled ship, it remains to be seen whether congressional leaders can drive consensus on both policy strategy and legislative tactics.

The Filibuster: At the beginning of the legislative debate in 1993, Robert Byrd—a guardian of Senate rules and procedures—pleaded for Democrats not to try and enact their health agenda using budget reconciliation procedures to avoid a filibuster. Democrats (begrudgingly) followed his advice in 1993, only to ignore his pleadings 16 years later, using reconciliation to ram through changes to Obamacare. Likewise, what and how Republicans use reconciliation, and Democrats use the filibuster, on health care will doubtless define next year’s Senate debate.

Many Obama White House operatives such as Rahm Emanuel, having lived through the Clinton debate, followed the exact opposite playbook to pass Obamacare.

They used the time between 1993 and 2009 to narrow their policy differences as a party. Rather than debating between a single-payer system and managed competition, most of the political wrangling focused on the narrower issue of a government-run “public option.” Rather than writing a massive, 1,300-page bill and dropping it on Capitol Hill’s lap, they deferred to congressional leaders early on. Rather than bashing special interest groups publicly, they cut “rock-solid deals” behind closed doors to win industry support. While their strategy ultimately led to legislative success, the electoral consequences proved eerily similar.

Lack of Institutional Knowledge

The example of Team Obama aside, Washington and Washingtonians sometimes have short memories. Recently a reporter e-mailed asking me if I knew of someone who used to work on health care issues for Vice President-elect Mike Pence. (Um, have you read my bio…?) Likewise, reporters consider “longtime advisers” those who have worked the issue since the last presidential election. While there is no substitute for experience itself, a robust knowledge of history would come in a close second.

Those who underestimate the task facing congressional Republicans would do well to read “The System.” Having read it for the first time the week of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, I was less surprised by how that year played out on Capitol Hill than I was surprised by the eerie similarities.

George Santayana’s saying that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” bears more than a grain of truth. History may not repeat itself exactly, but it does run in cycles. Those who read “The System” now will better understand the cycle about to unfold before us in the year ahead.

This post was originally published at The Federalist.