WASHINGTON — Republicans began this Congress in January with a sweeping legislative agenda: repeal and replace Obamacare, reform the tax code, pass an infrastructure bill.
But nearly seven months in, progress is, at best, slow going and at worst, utterly stalled.
Although the House passed a health-care bill in May, the Senate has struggled to follow suit. Tax reform has not moved, although some in Congress say they’re still hopeful. Infrastructure, too, is in a legislative purgatory.
Then there’s the nuts-and-bolts stuff: Congress has yet to pass a budget, and government funding expires in September. Neither chamber has passed any of the 12 appropriations bills that Congress is supposed to approve each year. Congress also must increase the debt limit. And the Senate still faces a laundry list of nominations in need of confirmation.
So lengthy is the to-do list that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week delayed the chamber’s traditional August recess for two weeks. In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan said he might call members back early from their break if the Senate passes a replacement for Obamacare.
On paper, this year appeared to offer the perfect set of circumstances for Republicans to enact their legislative agenda: they carry solid, albeit slim, majorities in the House and the Senate, and they now hold the White House.
But Sarah Binder, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said that a look between the lines on that paper shows the circumstances aren’t as rosy.
For one thing, the majorities are slim and fractious; the divide between conservative and moderate Republicans is sharp. For another, Trump has not enjoyed the positive approval rating that his recent predecessors had in their early months, which makes rank-and-file lawmakers less willing to cast risky votes.
And Trump’s rhetoric isn’t always helpful, Binder said. Although the president celebrated the House’s passage of its health-care bill in May with a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, he later told the Senate that the bill was “mean,” indicating that he didn’t support it after all.
His shoot-from-the-hip style is far from predictable, Binder said. “They don’t know where he’s going to be” on some issues.
The lack of progress has been maddening for lawmakers, who say they want to move.
“Should we really go home for August and not have a tax bill to talk to the American people about?” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, a member of the Freedom Caucus that called for the House to remain in Washington instead of recessing. He said he was “frustrated” that Congress didn’t immediately pass a clean repeal of the 2010 Affordable Care Act when the year began.
Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, acknowledged that progress has been “a little slower than expected,” but he said the House is still on track to pass more bills than any previous Congress since the Truman administration had passed at this point. He said he still believes that Congress will pass a health-care bill and a tax-reform bill.
“It’s not like we’re not doing anything,’ he said, “but the big things voters wanted and I want to get done are not done yet.”
By contrast, Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township, is a little more bullish.
“In an odd sort of way, I think the struggles with health care made tax reform more likely,” he said. “I think it puts more pressure on us and the Senate.”
For his part, Ryan said the budget process is actually moving smoothly. He said that traditionally, the process gets a later start during the first year of a new presidency. “We’re actually well ahead of schedule,” he said.
But Binder said the inability to pass any of the GOP’s major campaign promises is at odds with recent first-term presidents who enjoyed same-party congressional majorities. Republican George W. Bush managed to win passage of tax cuts by June 2001. Democrat Barack Obama was able to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January 2009.
Part of their success was because the legislative wins were set up well before they took the oath of office. Bush had vetoed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and Democrats were ready to go on that issue by the time Obama took office.
Republican President George H.W. Bush had vetoed the Family and Medical Leave Act, but his successor, Democrat Bill Clinton, signed it after a new Congress passed it again in February 1993.
“There’s a pattern that shows up often when unified parties come under control,” Binder said. “They take up what had been stalemated during past Congresses.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he’s “fine” with the Senate staying in session well into what would be its August recess, but he said it would be easier to move forward legislatively if Republicans worked with Democrats. He’s highly critical of how McConnell drafted the health-care bill, saying it occurred “behind closed doors” and with little input even from fellow Republicans.
“Republicans don’t like it either,” he said. “We’re not producing anything as a result.”
Others say that it’s not too late for Congress to begin checking off the items on its wish list.
“It’s too soon to say, ‘Oh, well, Congress has been unproductive,’” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “There’s still a ways to go.”