They broke it. Now they own it.
The Republican Party has won total control over the federal government for the first time in a decade. Two interconnected revolutions have brought the country to this juncture: The tea party movement that gave a new breed of confrontational conservative decisive sway on Capitol Hill starting six years ago, and now the extraordinary triumph of the infuriated outsider in the form of Donald J. Trump.
The congressional wing of the GOP and the nation’s 45th president will face an enormously difficult task starting in January. They will have to rapidly blend their remarkably divergent priorities, and their profoundly different ideologies, so that they can set about fulfilling the fundamental promise they do agree on: putting Washington back in good working order.
The younger Republicans who’ve asserted themselves as the party’s balance of power on the Hill, and the outside-the-box Republican who’s just laid claim to the White House, all got to where they are by railing against dysfunctional business as usual — a capital where deadlock, fueled with millions of the Beltway insiders’ lobbying dollars, is the acceptable default setting that means nothing gets better for the average American.
Now Trump and the 115th Congress will have just 22 months, until the 2018 midterm elections, to prove their capacity for breaking the gridlock they all ran against.
The angry electorate would seem to have no patience whatsoever for anything else. And the GOP’s unified control over the levers of policymaking power leaves them with no excuses.
Finding common ground
A likely first area of agreement would be the Supreme Court.
Trump’s social conservatism may remain suspect to millions of his own supporters on the cultural right, thanks to his evolving views on many issues dear to them during his pre-political career in real estate. But he has been very specific in producing a roster of 21 potential nominees to fill the seat left open with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, all of them designed to allay concerns of strict constructionists
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can be counted on to advance any of them as quickly as possible through the confirmation process. And the Democratic minority, which spent all year labeling the GOP as obstructionists for not even considering filling the vacancy, would be hard-pressed to mount a filibuster of their own, absent very solid evidence that Trump’s nominee was unqualified or espoused views way outside the judicial mainstream.
A majority of voters, 52 percent in Tuesday’s exit poll, said the economy was their top concern, so the pressure will be on for the new president to come up with a plan for job creation that the congressional leadership will buy into.
Given Trump’s surprisingly strong congressional coattails, which looked to keep GOP losses in the House to single digits, it appears more likely than ever that the new president’s frequent critic Speaker Paul D. Ryan will remain on the job and become essential to the advancement of a Trump legislative program.
And while McConnell looks to remain principally a parliamentary mechanic, working to muster the votes to advance whatever the new president proposes, there’s every reason to believe Ryan will want to hold on to his reputation as the intellectual leader of the GOP, certainly at the Capitol if not in all the nation.
He spent much of his energy this year formulating his “A Better Way” legislative agenda in anticipation of this opportunity, and after having made life difficult for Trump all fall, he now faces the difficult task of persuading the new president to embrace much of the Ryan workbook as his own. (On this front, members of the House GOP leadership will be counting on the peace-making prowess of their old congressional colleague Mike Pence, the Indiana governor who’s now vice president-elect.)
The most obvious area of agreement would be on the most ambitious possible goal — overhauling and simplifying the tax code for the first time in three decades. This was Ryan’s highest aspiration when he was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Trump has talked boldly about streamlining the tax code along with delivering an enormous tax cut.
Potential conflicts ahead
There’s no immediate agreement, however, between Trump and the congressional mainstream on so many other aspects of economic and fiscal policy.
The president-elect has expressed little interest in holding down the size of budget deficits and has said he wants nothing to with curtailing the growth of Social Security and Medicare, the entitlement programs that are the biggest drivers of long-term fiscal imbalance.
Congressional Republicans, in contrast, are bound together as much as anything by a desire to shrink the size of government and slow the growth of the national debt.
Trump and the congressional GOP have both adopted the repeal-and-replace mantra to describe their approach to the 2010 health care law. But while the first part should be straightforward to accomplish — given the power of the majority to push budgetary bills to enactment under the filibuster-proof procedure known as reconciliation — there’s nothing close to consensus yet on what sort of a medical insurance system ought to supplant Obamacare.
As in so many areas, Trump’s campaign was minimally invested in developing detailed plans for carrying out his so flatly stated aspiration to “make America great again.”
And on the two lynchpins of his campaign, trade and immigration, the boldness and simplicity of his ideas are not in sync with the thinking of the congressional GOP conservative mainstream.
Many in his own party remain wary of imposing the sort of massive tariffs Trump has in mind for reordering the balance of trade, starting with China and Mexico. And, even if Congress goes along with igniting the sort of retaliatory trade war Trump would be tempting, very few economists believe the end result would be a widespread reopening of the Rust Belt’s coal mines, steel mills and other crucibles of the last century’s manufacturing base.
Similarly, many congressional GOP conservatives are much more interested in curbing domestic discretionary spending than almost anything else, so there does not look to be any congressional groundswell for spending tens of billions of dollars over a decade constructing the impenetrable wall along the Mexican border Trump envisions.
Without the mills and mines restarted and without the wall appearing, will the electorate of two years from now be any less angry than they were this week?