Perhaps I am a bit of a “Pollyanna.”
I believe that major sweeping legislation which impacts public policy for years to come is best shaped by bipartisan majorities.
The saga of Obamacare is a cautionary tale. Democrats were able to pass the Affordable Care Act without any meaningful Republican participation. The effort to repeal that program has thus far been even worse. Not only was it a Republicans-only effort, but normal Congressional procedures were circumvented and ignored. In the end, this violation of the regular order is what cost the majority Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) crucial vote.
The popularity of Obamacare in national polling rarely reached 50 percent ironically until this year when Republicans sought to repeal it.
But the sweeping efforts to create Obamacare at the outset of the Obama administration and to repeal it at the outset of the Trump administration certainly have never had much bipartisan buy-in.
Contrast this with the establishment of Medicare in 1965. The bill passed the Senate 70-24 with 13 Republicans voting in favor and the House 307-116 with 70 Republicans supporting it. Further back, in 1935, when Social Security was created, the Senate voted 77-6 with 13 Republicans voting “aye” and the House voted 372-33 with 81 Republicans supporting it.
Just this week, President Trump apparently reached out to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) in an effort to reinvigorate the healthcare legislative effort. However, it remains unclear whether this is merely an invitation to the Democrats to capitulate to repeal or an effort to start a real bipartisan process perhaps built on the efforts of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) to fix the current system.
Had the effort to strengthen the individual health insurance market started out following regular order and with a bipartisan approach, perhaps progress might have been made.
By resorting to the arcane Reconciliation rules under the 1974 Budget Act for no other reason than to circumvent the normal rules of the Senate and to prevent even the possibility of a filibuster, the Republicans made clear that they intended to go it alone. This had the effect of solidifying Democratic opposition.
While earlier in the year it has seemed possible that several Democratic senators up for reelection in red states which Trump had carried in 2016 might be willing to compromise, the GOP chose to push them away by abusing the reconciliation process to do something it was never intended for.
Now, the Republican majority may be repeating that error in the effort to pass a tax cut bill. Rather than seeking broad tax reform as President Trump promised, they have opted for a massive tax cut focused on the wealthiest Americans.
Contrast this with the last time tax reform was accomplished in 1986. Democratic House leaders, Speaker Tip O’Neill and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski decided to negotiate with President Reagan rather than fight him. In the Senate, Senators Bill Bradley (D-NJ), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), and George Mitchell (D-ME) worked with Republicans like John Chafee (R-RI) to shape a bill. In the end, the tax reform bill passed the Senate with a 74-23 majority. The House voted 292-196. President Reagan signed the bipartisan bill.
This year, the Republican strategy is likely to solidify and strengthen Democratic opposition. Overwhelmingly, for example, Democrats are opposed to eliminating the estate tax.
Once again, by using the reconciliation process, the Republicans are opting to go for a one-party, “leave the Democrats out,” approach on the tax bill, just as they did on the healthcare bill. Abandoning a bipartisan approach on the front end could turn out to be a fatal error on the tax bill as it was on fixing Obamacare.
With only 52 Republicans in the Senate, once again a major piece of the Trump agenda and the legislative agenda of the GOP in the Congress will teeter on the edge of the cliff.
Richard A. Arenberg is a Visiting Lecturer in Political Science and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. He worked for Sens. Paul Tsongas (D-MA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) for 34 years. He served on the Senate Iran-Contra Committee in 1987. Arenberg was co-author of the award-winning "Defending the Filibuster: Soul of the Senate" named “Book of the Year in Political Science” by Foreword Reviews in 2012. A 2nd edition was published in 2014. The U.S. Senate Historical Office published “Richard A. Arenberg: Oral History Interviews” in 2011. He serves on the Board of Directors of Social Security Works and the Social Security Education Fund. He is an affiliate at the Taubman Center for American Politics & Policy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Providence Journal, and The Boston Globe. He is a Contributor at The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @richarenberg.