Policy

Inexperience Weakens Congress and the White House

A younger, less experienced Congress tackles some old and knotty issues

From left, President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Vice President Mike Pence talk as the president finishes his speech at the Republican congressional retreat in Philadelphia on Jan. 26. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo/Pool)

For the first time in U.S. history, we have a president with no government experience. And he’s looking to work with a Congress that has lost members with significant legislative prowess on some issues in recent years.

President Donald Trump’s administration started off with a flurry of executive actions, reportedly without consulting Congress and some members of his own Cabinet. The episodes had one senior lawmaker shaking his head.

“I think President Trump has shown dramatically that it’s not easy to legislate,” said Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat. “And anybody who says, ‘I know the issue and I have the answer,’ is really off-base.’”

Veteran members of Congress are more likely to understand the importance of bringing some humility to the process as they hammer out legislation, Levin said.

“I think experience shows that there are usually two sides to a coin — you got to look at both of them,” he said. 

As the president’s team moves forward with more executive actions, GOP legislators face the daunting task of crafting and shepherding major legislation on health care and taxes in the first year of the Trump administration.

And, by deciding to use a budget reconciliation process to pass these measures with simple majorities in both chambers, Republicans are not counting on Democratic cooperation.

Back to the future

Republicans’ first priority is repealing the 2010 health care law, their favorite legislative punching bag.

That task will require skilled legislators to keep the often-fractious caucus in line, similar to the challenge Democrats faced eight years ago, when they drew up legislation for the health care overhaul without GOP support.

Senior lawmakers in charge of committees back then emphasized listening to their members’ concerns. Levin recalled “what seemed like endless meetings” in the Ways and Means Committee to craft its portion of the law.

When Democratic leaders were tasked with merging the committees’ bills in the House and Senate, they continued the listening sessions, meeting with individual lawmakers so they knew where their members stood.

Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, whose Finance Committee has sizable jurisdiction over health care, said he will be able to keep the GOP united on the issue due to the reputation he’s earned in his years in the Senate.

“I think you do it by being honest and working straight up with people,” he said. “That’s what I’m known for.”

Hatch will remember the lessons of previous overhaul efforts, but a sizable portion of the GOP delegation was not in Congress when Democrats crafted the health care legislation eight years ago.

In the Senate, five of the 22 Republicans on the relevant committees are new since that debate. But the experience drop is starker in the House, where 43 of the 77 Republicans on the three relevant committees were elected after the health care legislation became law.

What new members lack in legislative experience, some say, they could make up for by bringing new ideas from outside of the nation’s capital.

Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Ryan A. Costello was first elected in 2014 and is a junior member on the Energy and Commerce Committee. He points to his previous experience on a hospital board, where he witnessed the law’s effect and the various stakeholders involved.

“I’ve had a lot of meetings through the course of my tenure here as well as before I got here, with various physician practices, insurance companies, consumers,” Costello said. “And that kind of stuff, I think, is probably more important than anything.”

The 2009 Democrats draw a stark contrast with today’s GOP lawmakers who are seeking to remake the health care law, said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.

“Health care is not really an issue that’s owned by Republicans,” she said.

But some Republicans disagree. Energy and Commerce member Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee points to the Blair House Summit in 2010, when President Barack Obama hosted lawmakers to discuss their proposals.

“We laid out a private-sector plan. [Democrats] laid out a government plan,” Blackburn said. “Their plan didn’t work so we’re circling back to those same concepts. And they are concepts and principles that outlive the term of any member.”

Under the current GOP plan to pass a series of narrow bills to replace the law, they will have to eventually reach across the aisle to get through the Senate, where Republicans need Democrats to garner the 60 votes required to end debate on legislation.

So far, though, it appears Republicans may be banking on figuring out how to approach that problem when the time comes.

Asked if Democrats in GOP-leaning states would require lobbying by Trump to go along with GOP ideas, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “Well, how we get from where we are to where we want to go is unclear.”

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Personalities matter

The second item on the GOP agenda is a tax overhaul. But it’s been years since lawmakers passed major tax legislation, so they haven’t had the same preparation as their counterparts during the last overhaul of 1986.

David Brockway, staff director of the Joint Committee on Taxation during the 99th Congress that accomplished the 1986 overhaul, said passing tax legislation in the early 1980s helped staff and members learn how to work with one another.

That was key, because the two chambers were controlled by different parties: Democrats ruled the House and Republicans presided over the Senate. Without bipartisan cooperation, nothing would get done.

“I knew I could trust everybody,” Brockway said.

Today, the members of the House Ways and Means Committee have a total of 508 years in Congress, compared to 498 years during the health care debate in 2009 and 404 years in 1985 when the committee tackled the tax overhaul.

Despite the boost in overall years of experience, a little over one quarter of the committee’s members were not in the House during the 2009 health care debate. Ten of those 13 newer members are Republicans, reflecting broader House turnover when Republicans retook the majority in 2010.

But Brockway said the lack of experience working on major tax legislation should not be that detrimental. Instead, he said, success will hinge on the substance of the bill.

Rep. Devin Nunes, a senior Ways and Means member, said developing a series of proposals in recent years has equipped the committee for the task ahead.

“The Ways and Means Committee has been working with Joint Tax to put out several proposals over, gosh, I guess it’s been eight years now,” the California Republican said. “The challenge is for members to understand — for members that are not on the committee — how much work has been [done] to build this product.”

But Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar and congressional expert at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said moving forward on a tax overhaul without prior experience in passing legislation was akin to driving a car on a complex, winding road for the first time.

“It’s a lot scarier and maybe a lot more dangerous,” Ornstein said.

Even for the veteran tax writers of the 99th Congress, the prospects for an overhaul were bleak. President Ronald Reagan elicited laughter from lawmakers when he declared in his 1984 State of the Union address that he wanted ideas for rewriting the tax code.

The success of the resulting legislation two years later was a combination of personality and prowess in the men whom The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief Al Hunt called the “unlikely heroes of tax reform” — House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowksi of Illinois and Senate Finance Chairman Bob Packwood of Oregon.

The two men were able to corral critical votes for their legislation and hammer out the details, as Journal reporters Jeffrey Birnbaum and Alan Murray wrote in their book about the 1986 effort, “Showdown at Gucci Gulch.”

They both took their committees on retreats and met with individual members to see how they could wheel and deal to get enough votes.

The bill’s success wasn’t just about the legislative experience and seniority of the chairmen. They also relied on a junior member of the Senate Finance Committee, New Jersey Democrat Bill Bradley, who developed the idea of broadening the tax base and eliminating loopholes.

By the time the conference was piecing together the House and Senate bills, Birnbaum and Murray wrote, Bradley’s expertise on the issue gave him “an unaccustomed role for a young senator: the elder statesman.”

The chairmen’s unique personalities also led to their success, according to Brockway.

“You could be in the Senate for forever but that doesn’t make you Lyndon Johnson, that doesn’t make you Bob Dole and that doesn’t make you Danny Rostenkowski,” Brockway said.

“These are individuals who understand how to use power in context,” he said.

Brockway pointed out that Packwood, though senior on the panel, was new to the chairmanship. At the start of the 99th Congress, he had served 16 years in the Senate.

Birnbaum and Murray wrote that Packwood gambled when he went with the “radical approach” of lowering the top individual tax rate from 50 to 25 percent, a decision made over beers at a Capitol Hill watering hole. Brockway said a more experienced legislator might have been more cautious.

A senior legislator also made all the difference when the conference committee stood at a standstill.

Louisiana Democrat Russell Long, by far the most experienced senator on the Finance Committee with nearly 40 years in the chamber, came up with what Birnbaum and Murray dubbed the “perfect solution.”

When Long spoke, the conferees listened, and he suggested Rostenkowski and Packwood develop a proposal on their own, which resulted in the legislation that became law.

Republicans today will be faced with a similar task of addressing the complex tax code, and they say they’re ready to go.

Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady is not the most experienced member of the committee, having been in Congress for 20 years, but the Texas Republican said he’s learned from past chairmen how to the keep the committee together.

Brady said Republicans were careful to listen to their caucus as they crafted their “Better Way” agenda, which will serve as the overhaul’s framework.

“On tax reform, for example, we incorporated their ideas — more than 50 House Republican lawmakers and nearly two dozen ideas from our Senate Republican colleagues [are] in the blueprint,” Brady said.

Still, Republicans will have to reckon with an unpredictable variable: Trump.

Looking to the president

In both the health care debate in 2009 and the tax overhaul in 1986, lawmakers looked to the White House for guidance.

Senate Democrats chastised senior White House adviser David Axelrod for what they considered Obama’s lack of involvement, according to the book “Landmark,” written by several Washington Post reporters about the passage of the law.

After Obama and the press left an event with the Democrats at the Newseum in Washington in February 2010, Democrats confronted Axelrod in private. Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken angrily asked the adviser, “God damn it, what’s the deal here?”

In 1986, Reagan was called upon to bring Republicans onboard, and met privately with lawmakers to assure them this was his priority, according to Birnbaum and Murray.

“Ultimately, lawmakers look to the executive branch and they’ll look to Trump to settle differences,” said Binder of the Brookings Institution.

Despite Trump’s lack of governing experience, GOP lawmakers said Trump’s nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, will be key to their health care plan.

“We’ll be working together more closely than ever,” said South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, vice chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. “[Price] has been the person I look to for the replacement of Obamacare from Day One.”

On taxes, Nunes said there are daily conversations between Trump’s team and lawmakers, but they are also waiting for Trump’s nominee for Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, to be confirmed.

“A lot of this will hinge on whether the administration jumps on board,” Nunes said. “But the Constitution clearly states that this originates in the House. We’ve done a lot of work and I think we’ll have what will be a very good product that most people should support.”

Whether that passes muster in what appears to be a new political era is the real wild card. 

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