October 11, 2017
A Day of Reckoning Looms
This past weekend’s war of words between the President and Senator Corker elevated ongoing governance challenges for the majority party to a new and potentially game-changing level. Comments by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his party’s President that the latter needed adult day care and was guilty of drawing us closer to World War III took my breath away. I found it astounding that a respected Senate Republican had the courage to speak them. I’d like to explore what this episode may mean for those of us engaged in the advocacy business.
Here are some inflection points worth noting:
- The President has chosen to take on his own party’s congressional leadership and rank and file in unprecedented ways. As I have often noted, Donald Trump is neither a Republican nor a Democrat; he remains a political phenomenon loyal only to himself. His tenure in the Oval Office has been defined by petulance, immaturity, lack of strategic vision, and policy coherence. Those personality traits will only intensify as his presidency proceeds.
- Organizational structure, and specifically management practices, are clearly not his strong suit. The first ten months of his term have been marked by chaos within his Administration: Cabinet and senior White House staff resignations; open war with his Cabinet appointees for their insufficient loyalty or toughness; pathetic expressions by many of those same appointees about how “privileged they were” to get to serve him; repeated declarations that he does not intend to fill all the Departmental positions available to him as well as the slowness with which he submits nominations; incendiary rhetoric about social issues which only deepen the divide amongst a bitterly divided electorate; and, oh yeah, that Russia/Mueller problem. Can anyone remember a previous Administration that welcomed such chaos?
- This President will NEVER be to blame for failure. Whether it’s the alleged inadequacies of the Senate Majority Leader or the sheer political cowardice of rank and file Republican Members in both Chambers, it will be THEIR failures which doom his agenda. No matter that his agenda regularly changes: the House GOP repeal and replace bill was fabulous until he deemed it “too mean”; his demands that the Senate abrogate its historical commitment to cloture rules; having an understanding with Schumer and Pelosi on DACA only to impose new demands that will likely kill any deal. Consistency of policy application is clearly not one of his hallmarks.
- An ever-growing number of Republicans in the House and Senate are coming to grips with the reality that they will remain political roadkill for this Administration. The irony of this belief is that their expendability isn’t determined by their ideological conservatism but rather by their perceived lack of loyalty to him. Twitter battles with Members of his own party raise the stakes for recalcitrant House Republicans who foresee primary challenges of their own. Expect voluntary retirements amongst House Republicans to significantly rise early in 2018, as more and more Members take a pass on remaining prisoners of this insanity. Or, as one Member recently observed to me, “who thought that serving in the majority could be such an unsatisfying proposition?”
Indulge me a crystal ball moment. Let’s think about tax reform’s next steps. Let’s assume that the House passes a comprehensive tax reform bill on a party line vote. Let’s ignore the details for the moment but presume that the legislation will be the most conservative construct of credible tax policy. The Senate undertakes its own tax debate, and either produces a bipartisan product or attempts to pass something with Republican votes only. Even if they succeed in getting fifty Republican votes for something, their provisions are likely to be more “moderate” in application. One friend recently likened a conference committee convened to reconcile the two bills to the mating of an elephant and a fly: difficult, painful, but hypothetically possible. At what point, if any, will Freedom Caucus members find the inevitable conference committee accommodations to be unacceptable? At what point does the President’s on-again, off-again determination to enact a fifteen percent corporate rate or any other provision of particular importance to him, undo any deal? No one knows with certainty how tax reform will play out, but the scenario I have suggested is widely viewed as plausible. Republicans whom I respect tell me that if tax reform craters with no new legislation enacted into law, many frustrated Republican incumbents may pack it in.
Here’s why I bring all of this up: in my opinion, two defining developments will meaningfully affect the business of lobbying and how we pursue our parochial agendas:
- If tax reform fails, look for an end to regular legislative order as we know it, and with it, the likelihood that the Second Session of this Congress will send significant legislation to the President for signature. If that is true, it highlights the power of Executive Orders (EO) as the only meaningful vehicle for action in town. From a looming EO on Obamacare dealing with Association health plans; to EPA Administrator Pruitt’s intention to terminate the Obama-era clean power plant rules; to potential labor and workplace EOs; the “action” is likely to shift mainly to the Executive Branch. It should be noted that any and all EO’s will still be subject to judicial review, as was the case in a recent ruling by the Courts that the delayed implementation of Obama era methane rules violated the law. So, once again, it would be wise to not conflate action with achievement.
- If tax reform passes in some form, but more immediately if it fails, expect the schism between the mainstream or traditional Republican Party and Trump loyalists to dramatically and publicly widen. I, for one, read significance into the emboldened activities of Steve Bannon and his calls for “holy war” against the traditional Republican order.
If I’m correct in my assumptions, then here are some of the challenges you will need to ponder:
- How do you manage the battle between Republican insurgents and the Party? Especially with respect to cooperation/support for incumbents that the White House views as recalcitrant, will there be Administration consequences?
- As the likelihood of Hill action decreases, the allure of EO’s axiomatically increases. What trade-offs should any constituency make to secure the latter while not damaging long-standing Congressional friendships?
- How do you best manage PAC resources to avoid being consumed by this internecine party fight? Do you ramp-up PAC giving now to GOP incumbents and challengers who may not meet with the Administration’s approval? If traditional GOP incumbents and/or challengers lose their primaries to Trump loyalists, do you shift support to them for the general; stay out; or support the Democrat? The pending December Alabama Senate runoff provides an excellent case in point.
- Is it possible that these frictions lead to open warfare? Will this White House punish or look poorly on business groups that support the established Party order? For example, will ongoing support for the Majority Leader’s PAC produce Administration ire?
- Is it time to begin internally role-playing what it would be like to focus on an EO strategy for your priorities? The critical questions to be asked here would be at what cost to your traditional Hill alliances?
Two final thoughts. The late Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was once asked, “How many Presidents have you served under?”. “None”, was his reply, “I have served with Presidents, not under them”. It bears repeating that the Founding Fathers envisioned three separate and coequal branches of government, each of which was to express its loyalties to the American people and not any individual. I happen to be Jewish and a Democrat. Being such has never dissuaded me from calling out the poor behavior of Bernie Madoff or Bill Clinton. Inappropriate behavior – remarks that damage the fabric of who we are as people or exacerbates relationships amongst us, especially when it comes from elected officials – should find no quarter from anyone. A long dead American poet by the name of Minot Judson Savage once authored a stanza of a poem that I’ve never forgotten:
“There comes an hour of sadness,
With the setting of our sun,
When we regret not the sins committed,
But the things we have not done.”
The challenges confronting America are complex and urgent, and will require bipartisan solutions. I offer-up these insights to galvanize your thinking about difficult decisions which lie ahead.