House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes confirmed that he was on White House grounds to meet with a source, who’d allegedly given the congressman intelligence information about Trump transition officials. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer didn’t rule out the possibility that Nunes met with a source from the White House, but he added that the idea “doesn’t really pass the smell test.” The New York Times reports that the Senate Intelligence Committee will question Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser, about his meetings with Russian officials. During a White House press briefing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that local governments seeking federal funding must certify that they are not “sanctuary cities” and are in compliance with federal-immigration law. An Associated Press analysis shows that North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” the law that limits anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people, will cost the state $3.76 billion over 12 years.
The Unexpected Saviors of Obamacare: The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare can be blamed, in part, on years of misleading right-wing news coverage. It wasn't until voters learned of the actual costs of repeal that they began to push back against the GOP health-care bill. (Conor Friedersdorf)
The Will of the People: State legislators around the country are working to reverse a number of ballot measures passed by voters in November. “This isn’t how democracy works,” said Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “You don’t get to pick and choose when you like a process and when you don’t.” (David A. Graham)
Women’s Health on the Line: Republicans in Iowa are pushing to defund Planned Parenthood, and telling low-income women they can visit community-health centers for their family-planning needs instead. But can local clinics pick up the slack? (Elaine Godfrey)
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
The White House ‘SWAT Team’: The Washington Post reports that Trump plans to create a White House Office of American Innovation, a new body “designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington”—and he wants his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to lead it. (Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker)
‘Trump vs. Congress’: Robert Draper argues that Trump needs “to develop a rapport with Washington's 535 federal deal makers” if he wants the rest of his agenda to succeed. Can he do it? (The New York Times Magazine)
‘Breitbart Jerusalem’: Meet Aaron Klein, a Philadelphia native from an Orthodox Jewish upbringing, chosen by Steve Bannon to lead Breitbart’s Middle East outpost. Here’s how he’s working to build the website’s international brand. (Katie Glueck, McClatchy)
Trouble in the Treasury: Up next on the Trump administration’s agenda is reforming the tax code, but infighting between hardcore conservatives and the less ideological “Goldman Sachs branch” in the administration might make that difficult. (Ben White and Nancy Cook, Politico)
‘Lost’: A series by the Portland Press Herald explores the effects of Maine’s heroin and opioid epidemic, which claimed the lives of 378 people last year.
Who Stopped the Bill?: Thirty-three Republican lawmakers—some moderates and some hard-liners—were key to the collapse of the GOP health-care bill. View these graphics to learn who they are. (Wilson Andrews, Matthew Bloch, and Haeyoun Park, The New York Times)
Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace Obamacare flopped last week, but President Trump is ready to move to the next item on his agenda—tax reform. What would you like to see the Trump administration focus on and why?
Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org and our favorites will be featured in Friday’s Politics & Policy Daily.
As the Republican Party struggled and then failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, pulling a wildly unpopular bill from the House without even taking a vote, a flurry of insightful articles helped the public understand what exactly just happened. Robert Draper explained the roles that Stephen Bannon, Paul Ryan, and others played in deciding what agenda items President Trump would pursue in what order. Politico reported on how and why the House Freedom Caucus insisted that the health care bill repeal even relatively popular parts of Obamacare. Lest anyone pin blame for the GOP’s failure on that faction, Reihan Salam argued persuasively that responsibility rests with poor leadership by House Speaker Paul Ryan and a GOP coalition with “policy goals that simply can’t be achieved.”
But dogged, behind-the-scenes reporting and sharp analysis of fissures among policy elites do not capture another important contributor to last week’s failure—one Josh Barro came closest to unpacking in a column titled, “Republicans lied about healthcare for years, and they're about to get the punishment they deserve.”
The article isn’t an attack on conservatives and libertarians.
Plenty of plausible alternatives to Obamacare have been set forth by people who are truthful about the tradeoffs involved. For instance, The Atlantic published a plan in 2009; Ezra Klein and Avik Roy usefully illuminated the disagreements between serious conservative and progressive health-care wonks; and Ross Douthat suggested reforms that borrow heavily from Singapore. Barro is aware of many smart right-leaning critiques of Obamacare and sympathetic to some.
What he points out in his column is that the GOP didn’t honestly acknowledge the hard tradeoffs inherent in health-care policy before making the case for a market-driven system.
Republicans tried to hide the fact of tradeoffs:
For years, Republicans promised lower premiums, lower deductibles, lower co-payments, lower taxes, lower government expenditure, more choice, the restoration of the $700 billion that President Barack Obama heartlessly cut out of Medicare because he hated old people, and (in the particular case of the Republican who recently became president) "insurance for everybody" that is "much less expensive and much better" than what they have today. They were lying. Over and over, Republicans lied to the American public about healthcare. It was impossible to do all of the things they were promising together, and they knew it.
That is basically correct. And it helps explain how Republicans could win a presidential election and lots of congressional elections on the promise of repealing and replacing Obamacare, only to produce bill so wildly unappealing to voters.
Once Republicans commenced governing, the tradeoffs couldn’t be elided any longer.
Still, even the insight that Republicans spent years willfully obscuring the tradeoffs involved in health-care policy doesn’t fully explain the last week. Focusing on GOP officials leaves out yet another important actor in this debacle: the right-wing media. By that, I do not mean every right-leaning writer or publication. Over the last eight years, lots of responsibly written critiques of Obamacare have been published in numerous publications, and folks reading the aforementioned wonks, or Peter Suderman at Reason, or Yuval Levin, or Megan McArdle at Bloomberg, stayed reasonably grounded in actual shortcomings of Obamacare.
In contrast, Fox News viewers who watched entertainers like Glenn Beck, talk-radio listeners who tuned into hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and consumers of web journalism who turned to sites like Breitbart weren’t merely misled about health-care tradeoffs.
They were told a bunch of crazy nonsense.
As I was drafting this article, Ted Koppel made headlines by telling Fox News entertainer Sean Hannity that he is bad for America. This upset some conservatives, who felt it was just another instance of the mainstream media attacking a fellow conservative. I don’t think that conservatives are typically bad for America. But I lament the fact that Hannity is still employed in my industry, in large part because his coverage of subjects like Obamacare is dishonest—and I say that as someone who has preferred a very different health-care policy since 2009.
Back then, my maternal grandmother was still alive, and I remember her listening to Hannity on Fox and getting very angry, upset, and afraid about what would happen next. I do not exaggerate when I say that the Obamacare debate lowered the quality of her last years. But not because she was so opposed to the actual tradeoffs that Obama and the Democrats were proposing that it made her anxious.
She was upset because Hannity said scary things like this:
So it sounds to me like they're actually encouraging seniors in the end, "Well, you may just want to consider packing it all in here. This is—" What other way is there to describe this? So they don't become a financial burden on the Obamacare system? I mean, that's how they intend to cut costs, by cutting down on the amount of health care that we can give and get at the end of our lives and dramatically cutting it down for senior citizens? You know, welcome to the brave new world of Obamacare. We're going to encourage, you know, inconvenient people to consider “alternatives to living.” Well, that just sounds terrific, which by the way is not uncommon and has been a source of deep concern in places like Great Britain. You know, the place where they have a government rationing body that denies women with advanced breast cancer their health care.
She mistook Hannity for a man with integrity, who would never go on national television or nationally syndicated radio and willfully or carelessly mislead millions.
That was a mistake. Had Hannity had been an outlier in this respect, perhaps people like me could have persuaded people like my grandma that whatever the demerits of Obamacare, the bill would not cause a bureaucrat to send Dr. Kevorkian to her bedside, or render her grandchildren servile subjects in a totalitarian dystopia.
Instead, Sarah Palin posted this to her Facebook page:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care.
Such a system is downright evil.
Chris Baker said this on Glenn Beck’s radio program:
Sir, you're overweight. What? Yes, sir, you are overweight, we're going to have to require you to lose weight. And if you don't lose weight on your own, we're going to send you to a fat camp and make you lose the weight. And if you still don't lose the weight, then you know, we're just going to have to do surg—we're just going to have to put you in jail. And if you don't lose the weight in jail, sir, I don't know what else to do. Maybe some end-of-life counseling might be good. I mean, I remember a woman that got—that was greased by Dr. Kevorkian because she was fat.
Beck himself warned: “This is the end of prosperity in America forever if this bill passes. This is the end of America as you know it."
Said Rush Limbaugh, “When this passes, they will have even more power, regulating every aspect of our lives, because they believe in their minds and hearts that we have no competence whatsoever to lead our own lives and make our own decisions."
On another occasion Limbaugh added:
It's not going to be a matter of whether you can or cannot pay. It won't be a matter of whether you have coverage or don't have coverage. What'll matter is that all of us will be slaves; we'll become slaves to the arbitrary and inhumane decisions of distant bureaucrats working in Washington where there's no competition, nobody you can go to if you don't like what you hear from the bureaucrats that you have to deal with."
Said Jim Quinn:
Ladies and gentlemen, you have to understand that we are at a critical and pivotal moment in the history of the United States. If they pass health care, government health care, that is the end of the republic. That is the final nail in the coffin of the individual free human being. Once they own your body, they own everything. Once they can withhold health care from you, because you're too old, because you're too sick, or maybe 'cause they just don't like you -- did you ever think about that?
These aren’t just egregious, scare-mongering falsehoods that a few people uttered on a few occasions. They represent the tenor of coverage on right-wing TV and radio across scores of hours of broadcasting. This is the largely forgotten context that helps explain why my colleague David Frum could not have possibly succeeded in persuading elites on the right to work with Democrats to improve Obamacare (rather than guarantee that it would pass without any Republican input).
The coverage offered by right-wing media in those years also helps explain why elected Republicans never developed compelling arguments for why voters should prefer a different set of tradeoffs.
Right from the start, commentators who long ago traded their integrity for ratings spewed falsehoods so wild that anyone on the right could justify outright opposition to the legislation, without having to explain anything. “The Slaughterhouse Three, Obama, Pelosi and Reid, have authored the legislation that will make every American a POW, strip them of their Freedoms and Liberty and shove them in a meat cellar for cold storage,” a commentator at Breitbart declared in 2010. “So how is that Hope and Change working for you now?”
To take these people at their word was to assume merely repealing Obamacare would leave everyone better off. (Whose lot wouldn’t be improved by avoiding POW status?) Of course, Obamacare passed, and Americans were subject to neither cold storage nor death panels nor the end of individual freedom nor the abolition of all private insurance. Down syndrome kids were just fine. Millions gained coverage.
The right-wing entertainers never corrected bygone falsehoods or erroneous predictions when their fabricated catastrophes failed to unfold. They just shifted to new falsehoods. They are too numerous to detail, so let’s stick with a few more examples from Hannity. Here he is demagoguing a little girl’s lung transplant. Eric Stern re-reported a 2013 Hannity segment on specific Americans allegedly harmed by Obamacare to illustrate how egregiously the show misled viewers. The same year, Politifact explained why Hannity was wrong to make the outlandish claim that Obamacare would cause fully half of Americans to lose health insurance.
The point isn’t that Obamacare was without flaws, or that no one was pointing them out, but that many of the most-watched conservative entertainers were spreading wild falsehoods rather than cogently explaining the bill’s real costs and shortcomings. There were defensible reasons to oppose the law, but many who told pollsters they were against Obamacare had indefensible reasons, in that they were grounded in the wild falsehoods. What’s more, on a cable-news network that bills itself as “fair and balanced,” viewers were seldom given any information about Obamacare’s benefits or exposed to any stories of folks who were helped by it.
At more responsible right-leaning outlets, the right-wing audience still wouldn’t encounter direct refutations of Hannity or Beck, because most right-leaning journalism outlets pull their punches when it comes to Fox News and its personalities. They want their writers to be invited on the network; journalists who write books want to publicize them there; and they certainly don’t want to anger their core readers by criticizing popular talk-radio hosts.
In the long run, mendacious right-wing health-care coverage had consequences. A significant faction of conservatives felt Obamacare was so dumb and malign that repeal alone would be a tremendous boon to all Americans, imposing significant costs on almost no one.
As Peter Suderman wrote:
Trump spent the last two weeks selling the House plan. He met with specific individuals and with various congressional factions opposed to the bill. He personally called the offices of more than 100 legislators. He has cajoled and threatened, telling those who refused to back the legislation that they would lose their seats. He threw the entire weight of his personality and the office of the president behind the vote, saying that he backed the bill "one-thousand percent." But he never took the time to explain to either the public or congressional Republicans what the bill actually did.
He did not make a case for the bill's policy merits, preferring instead to describe it using generic superlatives. Contrast that with President Obama, who traveled the country making the case for his health care overhaul, and made a major prime time address outlining its provisions. Trump, in contrast, was, by virtually all accounts, indifferent to the policy content of the bill so long as it passed and he could say that he had fulfilled his promise to repeal and replace Obamacare.
The Republican Party had previously benefited politically from its indifference to substance on health-care reform.
In the end, however, less than 20 percent of U.S. voters favored the passage of the Obamacare repeal bill, because even large swaths of the Republican base eventually discovered that, contrary to everything they’d been led to expect, repeal imposed huge tradeoffs!
There are many people bear responsibility for the GOP’s failure to improve upon Obamacare. But when apportioning blame, the right-wing media should not be forgotten.
Updated on March 27 at 9:57 a.m.
When Kris Steele joined the Oklahoma house of representatives in 2001, he noticed that whenever a matter of criminal justice came up, legislators felt it was necessary to appear “tough on crime.” As a result, the state kept enacting harsher sentences and making more crimes punishable by jail.
In 2016, after leaving government, he spearheaded two ballot measures to reverse that trend. Both passed. But 2017 has seen legislators in states around the countries moving to try to reverse ballot initiatives passed by voters in Novembers election, seeking to roll back minimum-wage increases, tax increases, and other matters. In other cases, legislators are seeking to make it harder to place such initiatives on the ballot in the first place. And so despite his victory at the polls, the fate of Steele’s two measures remains uncertain.
Steele is a self-described conservative Republican, but the longer he sat in the legislature, the more he questioned the logic of ever-more-aggressive laws. He noticed that even though the sentences got tougher and tougher, and incarceration rates in the Sooner State rose and rose, sitting at No. 2 in the nation, and jails got more and more overcrowded, the state wasn’t seeing markedly lower crime rates or safer neighborhoods. (Oklahoma was unusual in making simple drug and property offenses felonies punishable by jail time.) The taxpayer tab for imprisoning so many people kept growing, and ex-cons struggled to find gainful employment because of their records.
“I began to say, wait a minute, I’m not going to be part of this sort of paradigm that is based on shallow and often hollow rhetoric,” Steele recalls. “A lot of elected officials measure their political worth or value based on those kinds of policy decisions. The body tends to make decision in relation to corrections policy based on emotion, fear, and anecdote, rather than on data, research, and facts. When you base your policies on emotion and anecdotes and fear, you tend to have policies that may not produce the best outcomes.”
Meanwhile, Steele rose, eventually becoming speaker of the Oklahoma House. He helped shepherd through some laws intended to reform the system, but the legislature never funded them—in part, he thinks because of the “tough on crime” imperative. In 2013, Steele ran into term limits and left the legislature, but he remained interested in reform in his new job as executive director of a nonprofit called TEEM.
“We did some initial polling and we realized that there was a pretty significant disconnect between the people and our elected officials when it comes to corrections policy, and primarily when it comes to a desire to address issues of addiction and mental illness with treatment rather than with punishment,” Steele said. “The best way we felt to ultimately change the path that we have been on forever was to bypass the political gridlock.”
He set about assembling a coalition that ran from leftist groups that saw criminal-justice reform as a matter of social justice to religious ones that saw it as a vocation to conservative ones that saw it as simple fiscal common sense. They placed two measures on the ballot in 2016, one reclassifying some drug and property crimes as misdemeanors, and the second directing the savings from de-incarceration to rehabilitation programs. Voters approved, passing both by comfortable margins.
That might have been the end of the story. But some legislators had other ideas. When the legislative session began in Oklahoma City in February, several legislators introduced bills that would roll back the reforms.
“Am I surprised to see this kind of pushback? Unfortunately, no. Am I disheartened? Yes,” Steele told me. “I would hope that our elected officials would focus on protecting and implementing the will of the people rather than trying to undo or usurp the will of the voters.”
He blamed an ongoing perception gap between legislators who still feel the need to appear tough on crime, despite the November results. Still, Steele was unsparing in his verdict.
“It’s indefensible,” he said.
* * *
“This isn’t how democracy works,” said Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a nonprofit that works with progressive ballot campaigns. “You don’t get to pick and choose when you like a process and when you don’t.”
Sarver sees a trend of legislatures trying to restrict voters’ ability to make laws and amend state constitutions around the country. The popularity of initiatives has ebbed and flowed across the years, and the roles of defender and critic have been fluid. But there are a few factors that make the present moment especially ripe for such conflicts. First, Republicans dominate state legislatures around the country, thanks to favorable redistricting maps drawn after the 2010 Census, even in states with sizable Democratic-leaning voter bases that want more progressive policies. Second, while ballots sometimes function to deal with purely state-level concerns, policy fights are increasingly nationalized. Groups like BISC and the Fairness Project are working to coordinate state-level pushes around the country on liberal reforms like paid sick leave, minimum-wage hikes, or recreational marijuana. Their opponents are working at the national level too. In November, ProPublica and The New York Times reported on how major corporate lobbies, some convened under the auspices of the Koch brothers’ political network, have sought to push back on ballot measures.
The first battle of the year came in January, when South Dakota repealed a set of ethics reforms passed by voters, including limits of giving to campaign by lobbyists and the creation of an independent ethics commission. But there are several contentious issues still on the table.
In November, Mainers passed several contentious ballot measures. On one, they voted to legalize recreational marijuana for people older than 21. A second question asked voters to increase taxes on households making more than $200,000 annually to fund public education. Each of these passed by narrow margins. A third question sought to raise the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020, including specific language to raise the minimum wage for workers who receive tips, like waiters. That passed by an 11 percent margin.
Since then, lawmakers have taken up measures that would reverse or dampen ballot measures that passed in November. A law passed in January pushes back the timeline for some parts of marijuana legalization. Meanwhile, legislators are considering bills that would roll back part or all of the wage hikes. They’re cheered on by Governor Paul LePage, the Republican best known for racist claims and threats against lawmakers.
“The legislature doesn’t even have to enact it,” LePage said of the minimum-wage increase in December. “This is a recommendation to the legislature of what the people are feeling. You know, if you read the constitution, legislature can just ignore it, or they can modify, they can work with it.”
Unusually for LePage, this statement turns out to be basically true. An initiative that voters pass must be enacted, but the legislature can easily just pass another law that effectively erases it. It’s not hard to see why some opponents of these laws would oppose them; the Maine Restaurant Association, for example, has led the charge against the wage-increase for tipped workers, since it would force members to pay employees more.
Representative Stacy Guerin, a Republican from Glenburn, is sponsoring a bill that would reverse the higher minimum wage for tipped workers. Several Democrats have joined to co-sponsor the bill. Guerin’s family owns a restaurant-supply store, and she said she’s heard workers are actually making less now.
“We are already hearing reports of declining tips,” she said. “Servers are overhearing people saying, ‘Oh, they’re making minimum wage, you don’t have to tip them anymore.’ Nobody wants to make minimum wage,” but before the law, Guerin said, servers could make good money off tips.
Servers didn’t rally against the law ahead of the election, Guerin said, because they didn’t understand what the law would do, based on the short text on the ballot.
“Working people are busy and they don’t have the time to investigate the backstory on these ballot initiatives that have been forced on Maine by an out-of-state lobby,” she said.
Guerin, like lawmakers around the country who challenge ballot measures, can claim political support for what she is doing, but the clearest gauge of voter sentiment is the election in November. Moving to reverse that is, depending on one’s view, either an act of political suicide or an act of selfless leadership.
“I think it does take some political courage, but I absolutely believe it is the right thing to do for Maine servers,” Guerin said. “I believe this referendum was brought by out-of-staters that did not really have the values of Maine … I think they played Maine, and not for the good of workers. I am working for the good of Maine.”
The backers of the ballot measures see this not as principled leadership, but blatant disregard for popular will.
“It really does call into question the whole direct democracy if the legislature doesn’t implement them as the voters intended,” said John Kozinski, who works in government relations at the Maine Education Association and helped run the campaign to increase taxes for school funding.
Guerin’s concern that ordinary citizens weren’t really able to disentangle what the November initiative did is a common critique of popular referenda. Critics say voters are not always well-prepared to adjudicate difficult issues, and may make decisions that, however well-intentioned, turn out poorly.
“Sometimes an idea on the face of it seems like a brilliant idea, when in fact most of us don’t have a professional staff at our disposal,” said Jennie Bowser, a freelance writer who was a longtime observer of ballot initiatives for the National Council of State Legislatures. “Most of us don’t have a bird’s eye view of the budget. How our idea might mesh with the related policies around it. Sometimes initiatives are just not as fully thought through as they should be.”
That doesn’t sit well with advocates of direct democracy. “I find that deeply patronizing and paternalistic,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project, which coordinated state-level ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage in November, and is now pushing back against attempts to roll back the increases via courts and legislation. “I would argue that having worked on Capitol Hill that most legislators aren’t qualified to make these decision. If you can trust someone to chose who to vote for, then why aren’t they qualified to decide the particular issues that decide their lives?”
* * *
The quality of state legislatures around the country is, to understate things, mixed, and offering citizens the right to weigh in on key issues has a straightforward appeal. Yet the foundation of American governance is representative democracy, not direct democracy. Critics can find plenty of ballot measures that have had unintended consequences.
Some popularly supported measures end up being quickly struck down by courts as unconstitutional. Others don’t age well, like the spate of state bans on same-sex marriage passed in the mid-2000s, and later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court; critics have argued for decades that civil rights cannot and must not be left to the whims of a voting majority.
The effects of a ballot measure are not always so immediately clear, or straightforwardly reversed. In California, the ballot is often cluttered with initiatives—17 of them in November 2016 alone—which has raised the familiar question of whether voters can possibly be expected to know the ins and outs of so many proposals. But set aside the process: What about the outcomes? The profusion of initiatives in California has handcuffed the state government, led to credit downgrades, and made the state by some measures “ungovernable.” (The Golden State’s credit rating has rebounded somewhat since its 2011 nadir.)
Colorado voters in 1992 amended the state constitution with a “Taxpayers Bill of Rights” (TABOR) that bars the state and local governments from raising taxes without voter approval and capped the amount the state could spend. The result was that even as the state’s economy boomed, spending on things like schools and infrastructure maintenance tumbled. Since TABOR was enacted, the state has moved to the left, and in 2005, frustrated voters approved a five-year suspension of some of TABOR’s caps. But despite the criticisms, TABOR remains in place.
Colorado’s situation is an extreme example, because TABOR is a constitutional amendment, which makes it especially difficult to reverse if voters have a change of heart. There are 24 states that give voters the right to put legislative issues to the ballot, but only 18 allow voters to pass constitutional changes.
The roots of the ballot-initiative process stretch back to the Progressive Era, when reformers sought a workaround to legislatures that were dominated by huge corporate interests. And advocates insist that despite their flaws, there remain cases where ballot initiatives are an essential tool.
“I’ve almost always lived in initiative states, and I have an absolute love-hate relationship with the process,” Bowser said. “It drives me crazy sometimes, but I wouldn’t want to live in a state that didn’t do it. There are some things the legislature just doesn’t want to do.”
It’s very hard to get legislators to pass measures, for example, that limit their own fundraising. In other cases, gerrymandered districts produce state legislatures that are to the left or—more likely in the current era of Republican dominance in state government—right of a state’s electorate. Such is the case in Washington state and Arizona, where voters passed minimum-wage increases by significant margins. In Washington, a GOP-led coalition controls the state senate and had shown no interest in passing an increase, but voters approved a hike to $13.50 per hour by 2020 and paid sick leave by a 15-point margin.
Unlike Washington, which is essentially a Democratic state despite a sizable Republican voter base, Arizona is a red state. Yet voters there approved a minimum-wage hike, to $12 by 2020, as well as paid sick leave and a cost-of-living adjustment, by an even wider margin than Washingtonians in November—nearly 17 points.
As in Maine, organizations representing businesses affected by the law were eager to stop it. But rather than fight the measure, which looked like a surefire winner at the polls, they tried to stop it after the fact in the courts, arguing that the proposition passed in November was unconstitutional because it would cost the state government money. The Arizona Supreme Court unanimously rejected the suit in a March 14 decision.
The battle over the wage increase may be settled—at least for now—but some legislators want to change the process to make it harder to place initiatives on the ballot and easier for the legislature to reverse voters’ decisions. This is a somewhat touchy subject in the Grand Canyon State. Ballot initiatives have been enshrined in Arizona’s constitution since statehood in 1912, and in 1998, voters passed a new constitutional amendment specifically designed to prevent legislative tampering with ballot measures passed by citizens.
There are five measures under consideration now; all of them have passed the state house and gone on to the state senate. Three of them would alter the 1998 “Voter Protection Act.” One would repeal the act altogether. The second would say that if voters overturned a law passed by the legislature, lawmakers could simply pass the law again, which is currently prohibited. Since they alter an existing constitutional amendment, both of these measures would have to be approved by voters in a ballot initiative to become law.
Another bill would require that the initiative language and any related pamphlets state that if passed, a proposition would be subject to the Voter Protection Act and difficult to overturn. The governor could sign this into law.
Other proposals would make it harder to get initiatives onto the ballot. One would change the formula for the number of signatures required for placement. Current law sets a minimum based on the total voter population, but the bill would set minimums in each legislative district. This would require voter approval, but another, which would prevent campaigners from paying workers to gather signatures, could become law with the governor’s signature.
Representative Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican, is behind the first three proposals. She told me that while Proposition 206, the minimum-wage increase, is the hot issue at the moment, she has been trying to reform the process for years.
“This is not taking away the initiative process,” she said. “Half the states don’t have this process. They don’t even give this as an option. We are different in that regard, and we’re proud of that. That’s been something that’s been important to us.”
But Ugenti-Rita thinks that the Voter Protection Act takes an important safety valve and expands it into a massive breach. The 1998 amendment was passed in response to what she concedes was legislative overreach in reaction to a medical-marijuana initiative passed by voters, but said the unintended consequences have become a problem—as with initiatives overall.
“It’s been very difficult to manage our state priorities, budget priorities, when a decent amount of our statutes and our budget are voter-protected, or how I like to call it, legislatively restricted,” she said. “I don’t think that provides for good public policy, and [it] really hurts the voter.”
She said she just wants to bring Arizona’s ballot-initiative process closer more in line with those in most other states, which give legislators a little more leeway.
In Oklahoma, however, voters might be wishing they had some measure of voter protection.The state house passed a bill gutting the voter-approved criminal-justice reform in mid-March, and it’s been sent to the senate. Representative Scott Biggs, the bill’s sponsor, did not respond to a request for comment. (A separate tough-on-crime senate bill was withdrawn in February, and its sponsor has now been forced to resign after being charged with child prostitution.)
Steele said he was cautiously optimistic that the reforms would survive, and said he was sure that if they did, they’d soon come to feel like the new normal. They would also stand as a symbol of unity in a fractious age.
“I love the issue because it does transcend partisan politics,” Steele said. “It seems to be an issue that unites and gives us a chance to remember who we are at our best. When we work together we can solve problems.”
That may be true, but the debates in Oklahoma, Maine, and Arizona are a reminder that Democrat vs. Republican is not the only battle line in politics. Sometimes it’s voters vs. legislators.
Breitbart News’s quest to obtain permanent congressional press credentials is forcing the secretive company to disclose more information about its operations, staff, and its links to White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
The U.S. Senate Daily Press Gallery’s standing committee of correspondents is so far still refusing to grant a permanent press pass to the outlet, which was led by Bannon as executive chairman until he went on leave to join the Trump campaign in August. That’s been a sticking point for the committee, which has sought more information about Bannon’s involvement with the site. The committee is seeking clarification from Breitbart about issues related to its office space and the level of involvement of the Mercer family, the powerful Republican donors who have invested in Breitbart.
The committee met on Monday and considered a letter it had received that it had requested after a meeting last month attended by Breitbart CEO Larry Solov in which Solov had stated that Bannon had resigned from Breitbart in a phone call.
Solov’s letter to the committee, dated March 23, asserts that Bannon resigned from Breitbart News “on or about” November 13, 2016—five days after the election.
“Bannon has no editorial, executive, financial or other role or interest in BNN,” Solov writes in his letter.
At the last meeting in February, Solov disclosed Breitbart’s ownership structure publicly for the first time. “I want to disclose as little as possible about our financial structure,” Solov said, according to minutes of the meeting.
But he acknowledged then that the owners of Breitbart are himself, Andrew Breitbart’s widow Susie, and the Mercer family.
At the committee’s request, Solov also included the company’s masthead in his March 23 letter, which includes three names which are connected to Mercer-linked entities. Managing editor Wynton Hall and Senior Editor-at-Large Peter Schweizer are both tied to the Government Accountability Institute. Schweizer is its president, and the group reportedly paid Bannon $376,000 over the course of four years while he also ran Breitbart. The committee is also concerned about London editor Raheem Kassam having been involved with Glittering Steel LLC, a production company owned by the Mercers.
Press gallery rules bar reporters from being involved with any lobbying or paid advocacy for individuals, corporations, government entities or political organizations.
The committee also wants Breitbart to clarify its office situation in Washington. For years, the company has operated here out of the “Breitbart embassy,” a rowhouse on Capitol Hill owned by an Egyptian politician named Moustafa el-Gindy. USA Today reported last week that Breitbart is planning to move out of the embassy and into office space in downtown Washington; the embassy is not zoned to be an office.
Breitbart is being asked to clarify these issues to the committee by April 14, and the next committee meeting is scheduled for April 25. It has been given a two-month extension on its temporary congressional press pass, giving it until May 31.
Breitbart editor-in-chief Alex Marlow did not respond to a request for comment.
On March 6, House Republicans proposed legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. It contained language that would defund Planned Parenthood—that is, end the provider’s reimbursements through Medicaid—for one year. The House abandoned that legislation on Friday. But this July, it’s possible that a small-scale version of that defunding will happen in Iowa, where Republicans are pushing for a repeal-and-replace of their own: They want to scrap the state’s family-planning program and redraft it to exclude Planned Parenthood from the list of eligible providers.
The argument for this in Iowa is the same as it was in Texas when the state passed similar legislation in 2013—and it’s the the same in most states where moves have been made to block the organization from funds: Lawmakers want to prevent state dollars from going to providers that facilitate abortions, and they say Planned Parenthood patients can instead receive family-planning care, like contraception and pelvic exams, at community-health clinics.
There are currently 12 Planned Parenthood clinics in Iowa, and the legislation stands to affect nearly 4,000 Planned Parenthood patients in the state who will have to go elsewhere for their family-planning needs. The question is: Can those patients get equal health-care elsewhere?
In Iowa, the answer—like the debate itself—is complicated. Some clinics simply aren’t capable of providing that care. The ones that can will require significant coordination and investment to serve these women. And despite their eagerness to defund Planned Parenthood, the lawmakers pushing the legislation seem to have made little effort to prepare for what would follow.
* * *
On February 2, Republicans in the Iowa Senate passed Senate File 2, a bill that would scrap the Iowa Family Planning Network waiver (IFPN) and replace it with a state family-planning program. The IFPN waiver currently allows people who don’t qualify for Medicaid to receive family-planning coverage, including contraception, pelvic exams, pap tests, and STD testing. The new state-run program would, according to Republicans, have the same requirements as the IFPN waiver, except funds wouldn’t go to any provider that performs or facilitates abortions. (No federal dollars are currently spent on abortions in keeping with the Hyde Amendment, but Republicans argue that funds actually free up money to be used for abortions.) The legislation is under deliberation in the House, but state Republicans have the votes—and Governor Terry Branstad is likely to sign it.
If it passes, beginning in July, patients receiving care under the IFPN waiver would no longer be able to get their family-planning services covered at Planned Parenthood and a handful of other providers in the state. According to the Iowa Legislative Services Agency, there were 12,219 people participating in the IFPN program in December 2016. Of those participants, 3,781 (30 percent) of them went to Planned Parenthood in 2016, for a total of 10,941 visits.
“This effort to block patients is really just a microcosm of what is happening at the federal level,” Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards told me in a recent interview. “This is saying for many folks, you can no longer go to the health-care provider of your choice. At the federal level, it’s expanded, but it’s the exact same principle.”
Richards predicts that if legislation like this passes, it will trigger a statewide—and, eventually, a national—health-care disaster. “If women are denied the ability to go to Planned Parenthood, don’t think someone else is going to swoop in.” But that’s exactly what Iowa Republicans think will happen.
* * *
In recent months, Republicans have offered lists of alternative clinics where IFPN patients can receive family-planning care. An initial list released by Republicans included a dentist’s office, a school nurse, and a youth shelter. A more recent list, sent to me in February by Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix’s office, was more thorough: an Excel spreadsheet containing 47 federally qualified health centers and 170 rural health clinics. Many of the providers listed were duplicates, at least one clinic was permanently closed, and several told me they didn’t actually provide family-planning services. On the rural-clinic side, only a few would likely be used by patients as alternatives to Planned Parenthood, since most were at least an hour’s drive from the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic.
But several of the federally qualified health centers could feasibly serve as alternatives, so I called a few of them to ask if they could pick up those extra patients. The problem was, no one I spoke with could give me a definitive answer, because they were all very unclear about what the new state-run program would entail.
“We’ll respond, we just don’t have a clear plan or strategy in place other than trying to get clear information,” said Ron Kemp, the CEO of Community Health Centers of Southeast Iowa. The Planned Parenthood in Burlington, Iowa (population 26,000), serves 198 IFPN patients, and a nearby Planned Parenthood in Keokuk, Iowa (population 11,000), serves 96, according to figures from Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. Lawmakers had listed Kemp’s health centers as alternatives to those two Planned Parenthoods.
“We have some capacity,” he told me, cautiously. “We don’t know the funding volume, we don’t even know all the equipment, but we’re committed to do that.” Accepting an influx of new patients seeking pelvic and breast exams, as well as contraceptives like IUDs and implants, will require new equipment and an evaluation of provider capabilities and specialization, Kemp said. “We’ll figure out a way to adapt, and expand capacity if that’s what comes in the door… sometimes that takes longer than we would like it to.”
Ted Boesen, the CEO of the Iowa Primary Care Association, a non-profit organization comprised of clinics like Kemp’s across the state, was equally cautious: “They're assuming we're the alternative...but we're waiting to see what kind of a scale it is.” Boesen said he can’t “buy in” until Republicans respond to his questions about the new state-run family-planning program. Kemp also characterized interactions with GOP lawmakers as “limited,” telling me, “If there had been more detailed discussions, we might be able to be more further along.”
That uncertainty is a key problem in the debate: Natoshia Askelson, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, told me that providers are still in the dark about basic details on how program will be run, like what contraceptives will be provided or whether there will be enough providers for displaced patients. The new program is also supposed to be entirely state-funded, instead of relying mostly on federal funds, which the IFPN waiver currently does through a federal matching program.
Askelson is “very concerned” about that. “[Iowa is] not in a position right now where we can afford things the federal government would pick up the tab for otherwise.” She believes SF2 could very well be ruining a good thing.
Scrapping the IFPN waiver limits the choices of patients in two ways: First, it shortens the list of provider options. It tells patients they can no longer go to the local Planned Parenthood if they want their reproductive-health services to be covered. Boesen, the Iowa clinic spokesman, admitted that was one of his main concerns. “Those gals…for generations, that’s been a safe place for them to go,” he told me, “so everybody’s wondering how we can provide that.”
I asked state Senator Dennis Guth, a Republican representing Iowa’s 4th senate district and an SF2 proponent, if he sees that as a problem: If someone likes their doctor, shouldn’t they be able to keep her? Guth acknowledged that that might be an issue for some women, but in the end, his view was that visiting a general-health practice is more efficient.
“[You can] take care of your women’s-health needs and take care of your strep throat at the same time,” Guth told me. “It’s usually it’s better to do both of those at once, anyway.”
Askelson said that idea indicates “a general lack of understanding around women’s health and contraceptives.” In an ideal world, a single provider would be able to address all of a woman’s health-care needs, but there’s a reason people go to—and prefer—Planned Parenthood. “We’re talking about, for the most part, women of child bearing age [who] don’t need to be going to the doctor a lot,” Askelson said. “We’re talking about women going to a health-care provider for sexual and reproductive health. When you take that away, your average family practice doctor is just going to prescribe birth-control pills.”
The second way this bill could limit choice is by reducing access to long-acting contraception. The way government funding for family-planning services works is that providers front the money for contraception and exams, and then submit a request to the government for reimbursement. Rebecca Kreitzer, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me “It’s cheap to provide oral contraceptives and prophylactics,” but “it’s expensive to provide long-acting reversible contraceptives that we know to be the most effective.” That’s why IUDs and contraceptive implants (two kinds of long-acting reversible contraceptives) aren’t readily available at many general-health clinics, and staff isn’t always trained in inserting them. But Planned Parenthood is a big enough organization that they are able to front the money for those services, Krietzer said. And since their focus is on family-planning care, they usually have the staff and equipment on hand to provide those services quickly.
Calls to a few of the Iowa clinics listed as Planned Parenthood alternatives seemed to bear that out. Kemp’s Community Health Center in West Burlington doesn’t provide any form of contraception that has to be inserted, like implants or IUDs. The Keokuk clinic does, but their earliest opening for a contraception consultation—or a breast or pelvic exam—was in 11 days, while two nearby Planned Parenthood clinics both had same-day openings.
In Council Bluffs, the federally qualified All Care Health Center has one family-planning provider working only on Fridays. The local Planned Parenthood is open on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The earliest appointment at Eastern Iowa Health Center in Cedar Rapids was two weeks away, and at Siouxland Community Health Center in Sioux City, a new patient wanting an IUD might have to wait about a month. Both the Cedar Rapids and Sioux City Planned Parenthoods had same-day appointments for all of those services.
Would the Republicans’ new state-run program provide enough funding to enable clinics to have implants and IUDs at the ready? To hire enough women’s-health specialists? To provide same-day appointments? Clinics don’t know. Even if they will be able to provide all of those services, Askelson worries it won’t matter. If women aren’t already going to a general-health clinic for care in Council Bluffs, for example, are they going to start now?
“It’s hard enough to get people to use contraceptives every time,” Askelson said. “Now you change providers from someone they trust … I don’t know whether [clinics] will be seeing a lot of people.”
The Iowa Family Planning Network waiver was set up in February 2006 as a way to extend health services to low-income women who otherwise wouldn’t receive Medicaid coverage. In May 2016, the University of Iowa Public Policy Center conducted an evaluation and concluded that more than 80,000 women had accessed family-planning services through IFPN in those 10 years. There was a $345 million reduction in Medicaid costs for deliveries and births, and a net Medicaid savings of $265 million.
The abortion rate declined 23 percent in Iowa between 2011 and 2014, according to the Guttmacher Institute, something public-health experts attribute to wider access to publicly funded family-planning services. If access to those services becomes more limited, Askelson predicts that unintended pregnancy rates could increase, and with it, the number of abortions.
In 2011, the Texas state legislature reduced funding for family planning from $111 million to $38 million as part of an effort to defund Planned Parenthood. After the cuts, 82 clinics closed—two-thirds of which were not Planned Parenthood clinics. In 2013, the state prevented abortion providers from participating in the state’s family-planning program—just like what Iowa is trying to do now. After the cuts, nearly half of the organization’s clinics closed, and many patients were left without access to long-acting contraceptives.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February concluded that excluding Planned Parenthood from Texas’s family-planning program resulted in about 36 percent fewer requests for IUDs and implants, and the number of women who were regularly receiving contraceptive injections declined in counties where they could no longer go to Planned Parenthood. For the women relying on injectable contraceptives, the rate of childbirth covered by Medicaid increased by about 27 percent.
The study closed with a warning that the team’s findings indicate “the likely consequences of proposals to exclude Planned Parenthood affiliates from public funding in other states or at the national level.”
But at the national level, the House Republicans’ failed bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act included a proposal to exclude Planned Parenthood from Medicaid reimbursements for one year. The much-awaited report from the Congressional Budget Office projected that a change like that would leave 15 percent of patients in low-income communities “without services that help women avert pregnancy.”
The CBO estimated that cutting Planned Parenthood would save $178 million under Medicaid, but that savings would be partially offset by “several thousand” more births—paid for under Medicaid.
Critics warn that excluding Planned Parenthood from state or federal funding—without ensuring that community-health clinics can serve as adequate alternatives in practicality—is a dangerous move. This is a “big deal for women,” Askelson said. “It concerns me that there’s a disregard for what the evidence says, that people aren’t crafting legislation based on data and evidence.”
It’s possible that Senate File 2 and similar legislation in Texas and other states, as well as the recent failed House Republican proposal, are all incremental moves leading to something much bigger.
One Iowa clinic representative told me he was concerned, above all, that SF2 would lead to the state barring Planned Parenthood from receiving Title X funds. That’s the federal-grant program enacted by President Richard Nixon in 1970 designed to help low-income Americans with family-planning coverage. If that were to happen, he said he couldn’t fathom the impact it would have—and he didn’t think clinics would be able to pick up the slack.
Kreitzer suggests there is “not a small chance” that Americans might soon see proposals to cut or even abolish Title X. “It’s something that Republicans have floated around,” Kreitzer said. “And if that were to happen, that would affect millions of women.”
The continuing resolution to fund the federal government is set to expire on April 28, and the House Freedom Caucus, a congressional faction of strict fiscal conservatives, is expected to make defunding Planned Parenthood a non-negotiable condition in passing the bill.
In recent decades, contraception has “become intertwined ideologically with abortion,” Kreitzer said. “In this intermingling of contraception and abortion, women’s health care is really taking a hit.”
Friday was the worst day of Donald Trump’s young presidency—an unprecedented defeat on his first legislative priority, which also happened to be his party’s signature promise for the last seven years and one of his own top campaign promises. What’s more, the collapse undercuts the central premise of Trump’s political identity, his supposedly formidable reputation as a dealmaker.
But what if, instead, Trump dodged a serious bullet on Friday, setting him up for a recovery? If that’s the case, Friday might even have perversely been the best day of Trump’s presidency so far—or at least the point where he hit rock-bottom, allowing him to turn things around.
This is not to argue, as Hugh Hewitt did, that last week was “a very good week for the conservative cause generally” and even less so, as Hewitt did, for “President Trump specifically.” Whatever progress was made on Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, Trump’s approval rating continues to plunge and his administration is under siege. Still, the coverage of the collapse has been so uniformly apocalyptic, and the press’s animosity toward Trump so manifest, that it may be useful to consider things from a fresh perspective.
With the failure of the repeal-and-replace effort, Trump—despite his own best efforts—unwittingly rescued himself from the passage of a hugely unpopular bill that would have hurt his own voters most. In a broader sense, Congress’s fractiousness saved Trump from having to follow through on an impossible campaign promise to repeal Obamacare, replace it with a conservative alternative, and expand coverage. Looking forward, post-health-care tension threatens to drive a wedge between Trump and Paul Ryan’s agenda, which is in many ways anathema to the Trump coalition.
Start with the bill in question. Trump had promised during the campaign to repeal and replace Obamacare “immediately” with something that would avoid mandates but maintain popular provisions that prohibit discrimination for preexisting conditions and allow people to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until 26. He also planned to make coverage available to anyone who wanted it, and to not touch Medicare and Medicaid. There is a plan that would do this: a single-payer universal health system. But since that wasn’t going to happen with a Republican president and Republican Congress, there was no obvious way for Trump to fulfill his promises.
Even by those standards, the American Health Care Act was politically toxic—which is, of course, one reason it failed in Congress. One poll found it had 17 percent approval. It would have cut federal funding for Medicaid, and it would have dramatically increased premiums for many voters, including Trump supporters. In the short term, the demise of the AHCA was a political disaster for the Trump administration, but in the long run, passing it might have been a greater disaster.
One side effect of the bill’s failure has been strain between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan. The two were always an odd pair; they disagreed on a range of fundamental issues, especially entitlements (Ryan wants to cut them; Trump promised to preserve them) and free-trade agreements (Ryan likes them; Trump hates them). They were temperamentally different; Ryan was obviously skeptical of Trump during the election, while the Trump-friendly site Breitbart had long sniped at Ryan.
Yet for a brief moment it seemed like there might be a productive truce between the two sides. Ex-Breitbart boss Steve Bannon, now Trump’s chief strategist, met with Ryan in January and managed to find some common ground. Trump allowed Ryan to direct the design of the health bill and the process for passing it. On Friday, Ezra Klein wrote that despite promising to change the way Washington and the Republican Party worked,
Trump has become a pitchman for Paul Ryan and his agenda. He’s spent the past week fighting for a health care bill he didn’t campaign on, didn’t draft, doesn’t understand, doesn’t like to talk about, and can’t defend. Rather than forcing the Republican establishment to come around to his principles, he’s come around to theirs — with disastrous results.
Immediately after Ryan and Trump agreed to pull the bill on Friday, Trump insisted he didn’t blame Ryan. But White House officials were already placing the blame at his feet in anonymous quotes to reporters. Trump also enigmatically encouraged his Twitter followers to tun in to Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News show on Saturday; she led off her show calling for Ryan to step down, which White House officials insisted was merely coincidental.
Although Ryan doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, a split with the speaker might be the best thing that could happen to Trump in political terms, freeing him up to pursue the deficit-bloating spending agenda he laid out during the campaign, rather than the far more austere and fiscally conservative one that Ryan desires. Say what you will about Trump losing the popular vote; his agenda still has more of a voter mandate than Ryan’s does. The tax reform that Ryan and Trump still say they will pursue is likely to be highly regressive, and if the failure of the AHCA makes it harder to push through a regressive tax plan, that too may be a case of Trump unwittingly dodging a bullet.
Rather than attack Ryan, Trump lashed out at the House Freedom Caucus on Twitter. The staunchly conservative faction has shown that it can withstand pressure from Ryan. Though it withstood Trump’s apparently clumsy last-minute charm offensive, a sustained attack from the White House might be one of the few things that could break it. (One member, Representative Ted Poe, has already left over the health-care failure.) And even if it doesn’t work, this gives Trump an excuse to reach out to Democratic lawmakers on future plans. He attacked them on Friday, but there’s already a growing sense that Republicans will have to reach across the aisle.
Trump enters the final third of his first 100 days with his political capital much depleted, a cratering approval rating, and his presidential campaign at the center of an FBI investigation. It’s an ample supply of lemons, but there are ingredients for lemonade, should Trump decide to make it. As I reported last week, Bill Clinton’s chaotic early presidency holds out an example of how a president can execute a successful turnaround.
If the past is precedent, Trump won’t do that. The AHCA debacle showed that Trump has little handle on the way Capitol Hill works, and minimal interest in learning. As a general rule, he lacks discipline. Moving to take advantage of the moment would also require a unified, concerted effort from a White House that has shown little ability to act in that way; and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who is perhaps best positioned to lead a turnaround, has come out of the health-care experience weakened internally. Still, if the failure of repeal and replace turns out to be an unmitigated disaster, that will only because Trump missed a golden opportunity.
The Republican Party’s marquee legislative initiative had just imploded in spectacular, and humiliating, fashion Friday afternoon when Paul Ryan stepped up to a podium on Capitol Hill. The beleaguered house speaker wasted no time in diagnosing the failure of his caucus. “Moving from an opposition party to a governing party comes with some growing pains,” he said. “And, well, we’re feeling those growing pains today.”
Ryan wasn’t wrong. The GOP’s inability to maneuver a health-care bill through the House this week—after seven years of promising to repeal and replace Obamacare—is, indeed, emblematic of a deeper dysfunction that grips his party. But that dysfunction may not be as easy to cure as Ryan and other GOP leaders believe.
That’s because it has been nearly a decade since Washington Republicans were in the business of actual governance. Whether you view their actions as a dystopian descent into cynical obstructionism or a heroic crusade against a left-wing menace, the GOP spent the Obama years defining itself—deliberately, and thoroughly—in opposition to the last president. Rather than engage the Obama White House in a more traditional legislative process—trading favors, making deals, seeking out areas where their interests align—conservatives in Congress opted to boycott the bargaining table altogether. Meanwhile, they busied themselves with a high-minded (and largely theoretical) intra-party debate about what 21st-century conservatism should stand for. They spent their time dealing in abstract ideas, articulating lofty principles, reciting memorized quotes from the Founding Fathers.
In many ways, the strategy paid off: Republicans took back Congress, slowed the progress of an agenda they genuinely opposed, and ultimately seized control of the White House. But it also came at a cost for the GOP—their lawmakers forgot how to make laws.
Indeed, without any real expectation of their bills actually being enacted, the legislative process mutated into a platform for point-scoring, attention-getting, and brand-building.
At its most benign, this dynamic manifested itself in performative filibusters and symbolic votes that had no meaningful effect beyond raising a senator’s profile or appeasing the cable news-watching constituents back home. Texas Rep. Joe Barton admitted as much Friday when reporters asked him why Republicans were refusing to repeal Obamacare now after having voted so many times in the past to do so. “Sometimes you’re playing Fantasy Football and sometimes you’re in the real game,” Barton said. “We knew [Obama], if we could get a repeal bill to his desk, would almost certainly veto it. This time we knew if it got to the president’s desk it would be signed.”
Of course, this lack of legislative seriousness has also created toxic moments over the years, as presidential wannabes and aspiring Fox News hosts manufactured congressional crises—from the debt ceiling, to the fiscal cliff, to the government shutdown—that ended up costing millions and wreaking havoc on global markets. But one of the most damaging consequences for the Republican Party today may be its noticeable dearth of D.C. dealmakers and operators—that loathed breed of elected officials who know how to work the levers of government to get things done.
Paul Ryan’s ascent to House Speaker is illustrative. His fans on both sides of the aisle have long described him as a savvy policymaker. “He is, arguably, the most skilled policy entrepreneur of his generation,” Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote last week. “He is known for winning support from political actors and policy validators who normally reject his brand of conservatism.” But there is a difference between a “policy entrepreneur” and a “legislator.” The former deals in theories and spreadsheets and white papers and Powerpoint presentations; the latter deals in real-life political power. And while Ryan can be credited (or blamed) for popularizing a certain strain of conservative fiscal policy within his party, his record of translating those ideas into law is quite modest.
In that way, Ryan is prototypical of today’s Republican congressman. To the extent that the mythical backroom wheeler-dealer types ever truly existed, they have been largely purged by the purifying flames of ideological orthodoxy. Those who remain adhere to an incentive structure that would be all but unrecognizable to a lawmaker who left town a decade ago.
The democratization of media has made it so that D.C. Republicans are just as likely to pander to Sean Hannity as they are to their local newspaper editorial boards. And the deregulation of political money has enabled cash-flush outside groups with narrowly tailored agendas to strip party committees and old-guard gatekeepers of their power and relevance. The result is a caucus full of conservatives with excellent ratings from the Heritage Foundation, and no idea how to whip a vote.
President Trump made headlines last month when he mused that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” The GOP’s health-care bill may be dead, but the truth is that governing is only likely to get harder from here on out.
Updated on March 27 at 12:55 p.m.
As House Intelligence Committee chairman, Representative Devin Nunes’s job is to oversee American spycraft. But Nunes’s own actions over the last few days suggest more the cloak-and-dagger actions of a would-be John Le Carré character than those of a sober government investigator.
Amid accusations from Democrats on the panel that Nunes is acting as a surrogate for the Trump administration, CNN revealed Monday that Nunes was seen on the White House grounds on Tuesday, the day before he announced he had new and important information about surveillance of Trump transition team figures by the intelligence community.
Nunes told CNN he was there “to confirm what I already knew” and that he needed a secure location to view intelligence information, and his spokesman gave a similar statement to NBC News. Nunes also said that no administration officials knew he was there. That claim, like many of Nunes’s statements so far, raises at least as many question as it answers.
CNN said Nunes had visited the National Security Council offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, adding, “The official said Nunes arrived and left alone.” And after days of refusing to say who his source was, Nunes told Eli Lake on Monday that it was an intelligence official.
Since Wednesday’s bombshell, the story has gotten only weirder. Nunes’s own claims, already difficult to pin down, have become only more enigmatic, while the focus has shifted to how exactly the California Republican obtained whatever documents he’s citing, and whether the White House was involved.
Nunes’s announcement was curious for several reasons, including the fact that by his own admission he did not yet have full information; his decision to take the partial information he possessed to the White House to brief President Trump, without informing other members of the committee first; and the fact that even as he railed against improper revealing of intelligence information, he was hastily releasing this.
The next few days saw an escalating war of words between Nunes and committee Democrats. On Thursday, Nunes apologized to Democrats for not informing them, but later said he had would have done things the same way again. That night he told Sean Hannity he had “a duty and obligation” to brief the president “because as you know he’s taking a lot of heat in the news media,” which is at odds with his supposed role as an independent investigator. On Friday, he precipitously canceled an open committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday, infuriating Democratic ranking member Adam Schiff, who called for an independent commission to look into the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, and said he thought Nunes was acting in response to pressure from the White House.
It’s the White House’s role, or lack thereof, that is now squarely in focus. The Daily Beast’s Tim Mak reported Friday evening that Nunes was in a car with a senior staffer on Tuesday when he suddenly hopped out and disappeared. Nunes staffers didn’t learn anything more before Nunes’s dramatic announcement on Wednesday. They had no idea what he planned to say until he said it. (He told reporters about his new information at the Capitol, then left for the White House, briefed the president, and then held a second presser there.)
Nunes is legally required to visit a secure facility to view classified information. The Washington Post reported Monday that “Congressional officials said that the director of National Intelligence, the FBI and National Security Agency had all indicated that they got no late-night visit from Nunes, a trip that probably would have been entered in security logs.”
CNN filled in some of the missing period: Nunes apparently got into an Uber and went to the White House complex.
But why did Nunes need to go to the White House to see the information? There are secure facilities at the Capitol. Nunes has refused to say whether his revelations came from White House officials, saying will not confirm or deny anything about his source. How does he know that no administration figures knew he was at the White House Tuesday? (Clearly, someone saw him and tipped off CNN. Who else did?) And if, as he told CNN, he was simply confirming what he already knew, where and when did he obtain that insight in the first place?
Even if Nunes’s reasons for viewing the information on the White House grounds are entirely innocent, they were politically foolhardy. With his late-night escapades and questionable explanation for his visit, he has fed speculation that he is working in concert with the White House and attempting to help the president. The groundwork for that idea had been laid by his hasty briefing for Trump, his comments to Hannity, and his confusing cancellation of the upcoming briefing, though, as the Post reports, Nunes has long been a close ally of the president’s and was on the transition team he now says was subject to surveillance. Although Nunes said the new information does not validate Trump’s accusation—offered with no evidence—that President Obama surveilled him, the administration has claimed it as vindication.
Some of Nunes’s allegations are already looking dubious. He has acknowledged that all of the information to which he has referred was legally collected, though he expressed concern that the names of Trump transition team members were not adequately redacted. But he has since said he cannot be sure that any transition team members were even directly caught up in surveillance, or whether they simply may have been mentioned.
Meanwhile, Nunes cannot or will not answer most of the questions about his information, citing classified-information rules. Like a spy-novel character in over his head, Nunes’s inability to answer pointed questions has placed him in an impossible situation.
The top Republican and Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee escalated their feud on Friday, with GOP Chairman Devin Nunes announcing that he wished to cancel a public hearing next week and Ranking Member Adam Schiff charging Nunes with bad faith and attempting to choke off an independent hearing.
In a press conference at the Capitol Friday morning, Nunes announced that Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, had offered through his attorney to testify before the committee as it investigates Russian interference in the presidential election. But Nunes also announced he wanted to cancel an open hearing scheduled for next week, with former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, until the committee had a chance to have a closed hearing with FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers. He said his decision did not have anything to do with new documents he received this week.
About an hour later, Schiff held his own press conference, calling Nunes’s announcement a “serious mistake” and accusing him of bowing to White House pressure.
“I think that there must have been a very strong pushback from the White House about the nature of Monday’s hearing,” he said. “It’s hard to come to any other conclusion about why an agreed-upon meeting was canceled.”
While Schiff did not say Democrats would pull out of the investigation, he called for an independent commission and said anyone watching this week’s drama would have “very legitimate concerns” about whether the House investigation would be credible.
The dueling press conferences cap an astonishing week in the Russia investigation. On Monday, the committee held hearings with Rogers and Comey, in which Comey confirmed for the first time that the FBI is investigating potential collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia to interfere in the election.
On Wednesday, Nunes made a strange announcement in which he said he had obtained documents about surveillance of Trump team officials. But Nunes’s revelation was extremely vague: First, he repeatedly said he did not yet have all the facts. Second, he said that all surveillance appeared to have been lawful, and involved Trump transition team officials whose information was “incidentally collected” in the course of communication with foreign nationals under legal surveillance. He said he was concerned about “unmasking” of U.S. persons—citizens’ names and information are generally redacted, or masked, unless somehow relevant. But Nunes could not or would not say who or why it appeared “inappropriate,” in his words.
Even stranger was Nunes’s handling of this revelation, which came from a source he would not reveal. Despite having only partial information, he did not inform Schiff or other members of the committee. Instead, he briefed Speaker Paul Ryan, made a public announcement, and then went to the White House to brief Trump. Although Nunes continued to say that Trump’s claims of having been “wiretapped” by President Obama were baseless, the cloak-and-dagger handling, along with Nunes’s close ties to the president, elicited accusations that he was trying to throw Trump a political lifeline. Whether or not that was true, the president took it that way. He said on Wednesday that he felt “somewhat” vindicated, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer again used the v-word on Thursday.
Schiff was furious. He blasted Nunes in a press conference, accusing him of “act[ing] as a White House surrogate.” Then Schiff went on MNSBC’s Meet the Press Daily, where he announced that there was evidence that was “more than circumstantial” of collusion between Russia and the Trump administration.
On Thursday, Nunes gestured toward making nice, apologizing to the committee for going to Trump before he spoke with Schiff. But in a contradictory move, he later told reporters he did not regret handling the situation in the way he did. Nunes also seemed to back away from some of his comments on Wednesday, with a spokesman telling ABC News the chairman did not know for sure whether Trump or any of his associates were even on the communications he had cited.
Later Thursday, he went on the Fox News show of close Trump confidant Sean Hannity, where he explained that he had felt “a duty and obligation” to brief the president “because as you know he’s taking a lot of heat in the news media. The answer seems to validates concerns that Nunes is acting more as a Trump ally then as the head of an independent congressional investigation.
Meanwhile, Schiff built on his “evidence” comments in an interview with CNN. “I do think that it's appropriate to say that it's the kind of evidence that you would submit to a grand jury at the beginning of an investigation,” the former federal prosecutor said. “It's not the kind of evidence that you take to a trial jury when you're trying to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Finally, Fox News reported that GOP investigators in Congress “expect a potential ‘smoking gun’ establishing that the Obama administration spied on the Trump transition team, and possibly the president-elect himself.”
That brings things to Friday, and the latest public bout between Schiff and Nunes. Nunes has put himself in an apparently untenable situation, in which he feels compelled to act as both investigator and ally of the president. By coming forth with new information, he has opened up an enormous set of questions, but because the information is incomplete and, presumably, classified, he cannot and will not put any of those questions to rest, as his increasingly quizzical exchanges with reporters show. Meanwhile, the sniping between the chair and ranking member casts doubt on whether the House investigation can proceed, or whether it can be perceived as credible. It’s hard to imagine that the committee could become any more dysfunctional—but given the week’s pattern, just wait a few hours.
American politics is deep into the theater of the absurd—but unfortunately, it is a deadly absurdity, like being in a horror funhouse where the creatures leaping out at you have real knives and chainsaws. Americans now have to face at least the possibility, a tangible one, that the election itself was subverted by a hostile foreign power in league with the winning presidential campaign, with implications all the way down the ballot.
What to do if that proves to be the case? It is a question I have been asked a lot; my stock answer begins with, “The Constitution does not have a do-over clause.” But I am now rethinking the response: Maybe it needs a do-over clause. And it does not have to require a constitutional amendment.
From the day after the 9/11 catastrophe, I threw myself into creating a set of safety nets for the constitutional system, ensuring that the United States would have a rapid, orderly, and legitimate set of ways to ensure the continuity of government in the event of a terror attack that could decapitate one or more of its three branches. It started with Congress, and the need to have emergency interim appointments if an attack dropped either or both of its houses below the constitutionally mandated quorum of half the membership to do any business, until reasonable, deliberative elections could be held to fill vacancies.
But the Continuity of Government Commission that Tom Mann and I worked to create also focused on presidential succession. Unlike Congress, this did not require a constitutional amendment, but could be done legislatively. It was clear to us that there were real problems in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. It was enacted at the urging of President Harry Truman, when, in the dangerous environment just after the war, he traveled with his Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, then next in line for the presidency, to Potsdam and realized the system’s vulnerability.
Here is what the Constitution says about presidential succession:
The Congress may by law provide for the case of removal, death, resignation or inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what officer shall then act as President, and such officer shall act accordingly, until the disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
Congress accepted Truman’s recommendation to return the leaders in Congress to the line after the Vice President, starting with the speaker of the House and then the president pro tem of the Senate (an earlier succession plan from 1792 had included first the Senate leader followed by the speaker; when revised in 1886, congressional leaders were dropped.) They were then followed by Cabinet members in order of the creation of their offices.
The 1947 Act was flawed in many respects, starting with the dubious constitutionality of having congressional leaders in the line of succession (they are not “Officers” of the United States, as the Constitution requires) not to mention their inherent conflicts, including their role in impeachment of the president. But it was also the case that everyone in the line resided in Washington, creating a vulnerability in the modern age of small but potent nuclear and other weapons that Truman and his allies could not have foreseen. At the same time, having all Cabinet members in the line—many of whom were not chosen because of their breadth of policy expertise or qualifications to step in as commander in chief—was not wise.
So the Commission recommended streamlining the line of succession, dropping lower-level Cabinet members, and adding a new category of people deputized as Officers, chosen by the president to be confirmed in the posts by the Senate, representing geographical breadth and presumably policy and even political depth.
Unfortunately, that reasoned and reasonable suggestion went nowhere (along with all the other recommendations of our Continuity of Government Commission; once the immediate threat faded, Congress had no interest in looking ahead and building in some insurance for the future.) That is more than unfortunate; it is potentially tragic, since the threat is even greater now. Those issues can and should be revisited. But in particular it is now time to revive the dormant interest in, and importance of, presidential succession to take the new nightmare into account.
Here is the big problem. What if the election was effectively stolen? Under the current presidential succession structure, if Donald Trump were impeached and removed from office, Mike Pence would replace him. But if the election had been stolen, Pence’s place as president would be no more legitimate than that of Trump. After Pence—Paul Ryan, the speaker, followed by Orrin Hatch, the president pro tem, followed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. If voters’ collective desires were subverted by foreign interference and a party’s collusion, none would have a legitimate claim—especially since the control of the Senate, at least, would have been affected by the Russian role.
The Constitution leaves a lot of leeway for Congress. So it is time to consider a new law, one that cleans up the issues and discrepancies in the existing succession act but does more. It should allow for a special election for president and vice president under extraordinary circumstances. Those could include a terrorist attack or an attack by a foreign power or others on Election Day or on the election system or process that destroys or distorts the results. It can also include foreign interference in the election combined with a winning party’s involvement in or reinforcement of the interference. Such a provision would have to be carefully drawn and set a high bar, to avoid any chicanery to call an election for the wrong reasons. It would probably have to require a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress.
Of course, realistically, no do-over option will or could happen to deal with the current ungodly mess. It may well be that the Trump campaign’s role has been exaggerated by its critics; there is not yet any public evidence of collusion. But if the worst case proves to be true, America will have to live with the consequences, including the dark cloud of illegitimacy that would hang over all actions taken by an administration that won with the aid of foreign interference. The evidence that is already public makes it clear that malign foreign forces have tried, and will try again to influence, distort and even swing American elections. That’s why Americans need to begin serious work and debate toward crafting a reasonable option so that this Friday the 13th doesn’t turn into a series, and so that Americans finally give themselves some protection against the kind of nightmares that modern cyberwarfare and terrorism can allow.
Manik Suri is the archetypical overachiever from an Indian American family. The 34-year-old runs a start-up in Silicon Valley. He speaks four languages. He’s got two Ivy League degrees.
And yet, when the windows at an Indian restaurant near his house were shot out in late February, along with those of an Eritrean place nearby, he felt shaken. “We catered my wife’s sister’s wedding in that restaurant,” he said. “The whole conception of the Indian community as a model minority—we benefitted from that perception.” This is “the first time I’ve ever felt, ‘Wow, it doesn’t matter.’”
Many Indian Americans seem to be going through a period of disorientation during these first few months of the Trump administration. As more than one percent of the U.S. population, Indians are one of the country’s largest immigrant groups, and they’re also one of the most distinctive: They tend to be wealthier, more highly educated, and more geographically dispersed than other immigrants. While they do face discrimination, they’re often referred to as a “model minority,” as Suri noted: Middle- and upper-class Indians are more willing and able to assimilate to America’s majority culture because of their educational and economic status. The quickly growing minority has not always been that politically engaged, and their political identity isn’t necessarily connected to their ethnic or religious background: Mobilization around Indian or Hindu American identity is relatively rare compared to other minority groups, according to Sangay Mishra, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Drew University.
Especially with the recent violent attacks against a Sikh man in Washington, an Indian immigrant in South Carolina, and two Indian engineers in Kansas, Indian Americans have found themselves jolted out of this comfortable liminal space. For years, many middle- and upper-middle-class Indian Americans have largely escaped the kind of marginalization that other brown-skinned immigrants and religious minorities have faced.
While some Indian Americans are Muslim and Sikh, and were targeted as the subjects of hate crimes because of their religious identity after 9/11, others are Hindu, and are more likely to be caught in cases of “mistaken identity.” To take one example, the shooter in the recent Kansas attack apparently thought his two Indian American victims were Iranian. Now, Indian Americans’ sense of security is being shaken, which may give rise to a new political identity.
Despite the election-season hype about the Republican Hindu Coalition, which famously hosted a Bollywood-style Trump rally in October, only a small minority of Indian Americans voted for the president. New data from the National Asian American Survey shows that roughly 16 percent of this group chose Trump in November—the same share that voted for Romney in 2012. Among Hindus, 17 percent went for Trump—lower than other religious minority groups, including Jews and the unaffiliated. Indian Americans have been the most Democratic-leaning of any Asian American group, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor in political science at the University of California, Riverside, who oversees the survey. “Discrimination plays a significant role in [their] political understanding.”
“There is definitely a greater sense of urgency. There is a greater sense of fear.”
In the same survey, roughly one-fifth of Indian Americans said they had been not hired for a job or denied a promotion for unfair reasons, or had been treated more poorly than others in a restaurant or store. Compared to answers from a similar survey in 2008, these results represented an uptick in perceptions of workplace discrimination. They were also gathered in December, right after the election. Especially following the shooting in Kansas last month, it’s likely that perceptions of other kinds of discrimination—including threats to personal safety—would be even higher. “For a few days, that was the leading news in television and newspapers and social media,” said Mishra. “There is definitely a greater sense of urgency. There is a greater sense of fear.”
Ro Khanna, a second-generation Indian American Congressman, said he’s gotten a few hundred calls, emails, and social-media messages from worried constituents—his Silicon Valley area is the only Asian American-majority district in the continental U.S., according to Mishra, and is home to many Indian immigrants. Like his constituents, Khanna said he feels a sense of urgency about discrimination toward ethnic minorities.
But Indian Americans’ worries about discrimination may also look different than those of other groups because of their distinctive identity. A majority of Indians currently living in the U.S. arrived after 2000, and they’re more likely than other immigrant group to have arrived recently. H1-B visas, which are given to foreigners in “specialty occupations” like tech, are also awarded to Indians more frequently than any other group. In early March, the Trump administration suspended expedited processing of these visas, inspiring angst from Silicon Valley to India itself, where families often receive cash from their immigrant relatives in the United States.
Because of their high levels of education and professional status, Indian Americans have often been able to assimilate into their broader communities. Khanna’s family offers a perfect example: When they moved into his childhood neighborhood in Pennsylvania in the 1980s, he said, his family faced some suspicion from neighbors. “The concern was: ‘What’s going to happen to the Christmas candles out on the streets?’” he said. “So my parents put out the Christmas candles, enthusiastically, and we had some of the best Christmas lights on the street.” This wasn’t a way of giving in: “That was in no way seen as not being proud of being Hindu,” he said. But “there was a respect for the kind of cultural traditions of the street and the country.”
Of course, blending in with America’s majority culture has always been more of an option for Indian Americans who are wealthy and educated. “For every engineer, doctor, and software professional in the community who most likely joins the middle or upper class, there are domestic workers, gas-station attendants, taxi drivers, and construction workers who negotiate the social and economic realities of the United States very differently,” wrote Mishra in his recent book, Desis Divided. Upper-class Indian Americans may not identify significantly with marginalized groups: As Suri put it, “connection to other Americans who have brown skin color … [has] not meant a lot to me personally.” Poorer Indians, on the other hand, are much more likely to identify across lines of religion and national origin, Mishra argues. For example: The California organization South Asian Histories for All explicitly identifies as interfaith and “inter-caste,” and South Asian Americans Leading Together, or SAALT, advocates on behalf of people who are poor or immigrants.
“It took a kind of boldness post 9/11 to be vocal. Now, I think you’re seeing everyday people getting more involved.”
Religious differences also make the Indian American experience distinctive. While there’s a lot of religious diversity among the group, which includes Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, and Parsis, most Indian Americans come from a Hindu background.
“There is one kind of approach within the Hindu American community which thinks that foregrounding Hindu identity or seeing themselves primarily as Hindu is the way to go” in the face of discrimination, said Mishra. “But there is an equally strong approach in the community that feels that they would not be safe.” That’s especially true now: Hindus increasingly “feel that they are also being targeted or seen as ‘the other,’ in many cases, as Muslims,” he said.
The Indian American community has a complicated relationship with Islam. The controlling political party in India, the BJP, promotes a strong national identity rooted in Hinduism and at times draws on anti-Muslim rhetoric. The party resonates with many Indians in America: Sunayana Dumala—the widow of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the man who died in Kansas—posted a Facebook memorial for her husband praising India’s prime minister and the BJP’s leader, Narendra Modi.
Yet, Indian Americans have been widely unsympathetic toward Trump’s proposed immigration policies that would disproportionately affect Muslims. In a spring 2016 survey directed by Ramakrishnan, Indians were more likely than any other Asian group to say they wouldn’t vote for a political candidate with strongly anti-Muslim views. This hasn’t always translated into political action: Unlike Indian Sikhs, who have championed anti-discrimination campaigns in solidarity with Muslims, Hindus have not carved out a widespread activist identity as a group. Among some Indians, protesting and activism may also seem culturally alien: The head of a prominent university in India once told students they “should not get into politics,” an attitude that may be shared by some in the United States.
As Indian Americans experience increasing anxiety, this sense of political disengagement may shift. Their fear is certainly political: “It’s a hair-trigger thing” when violent attacks like the Olathe shootings happen in the U.S. now, said Devesh Kapur, the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. “However heinous it is, every society has a suicide rate and a murder rate. The fact that this happened when Trump came in … poisoned the atmosphere.”
Now, said Ramakrishnan, Indian Americans of all backgrounds seem to be going through a political awakening. “It took a kind of boldness post 9/11 to be vocal,” he said. “Now, I think you’re seeing everyday people getting more involved.”
Updated on March 24 at 4:35 p.m. ET
Before his confirmation, the most controversial part of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s past was his role running a bank that critics dubbed a “foreclosure machine” at the height of the financial crisis. But it’s his role as the executive producer on The LEGO Batman Movie that is landing him in his first dustup.
At an event held by the online news outlet Axios, Mnuchin was asked about the many movies on which he has served as a producer. Mnuchin at first hedged: “Well, I’m not allowed to promote anything that I’m involved in. So I just want to have the legal disclosure that you’ve asked me the question and I am not promoting any product,” he said, seemingly referring to a federal rule that “An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, [or] for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise.”
“But you should send all your kids to LEGO Batman,” he continued.
Critics immediately cried foul. Mnuchin, they said, was violating the very rule that he had just apparently acknowledged. “In my view, the Secretary is using his public office for private gain in violation of” the rule, Norm Eisen, who served as an ethics lawyer for the Obama administration, said via email. “There can be little doubt that [Mnuchin] was invited to speak because of his position, and about issues related to it.”
Asked about Mnuchin’s statement, a spokesperson for the Treasury Department pointed out that Mnuchin had been specifically asked if he had any recommendations for a movie the interviewer should see. “As his statement reflects," the spokesperson said via email, “the Secretary clearly recognized that he generally may not promote private interests and specifically gave the legal disclosure that he was not promoting a movie, but answering a question he was asked directly.”
Eisen sees Mnuchin’s statement as part of a series of similar ethical lapses on the part of the Trump administration. “He is promoting a product, just as Conway promoted Ivanka [Trump]’s brand and was found to have violated the rules,” Eisen continued, invoking the controversial incident in which, in the aftermath of Nordstrom’s decision to drop the elder first daughter’s fashion line, the counselor to the president Kellyane Conway provided what she herself dubbed a “free commercial” for the brand on live television from the White House briefing room. Amid loud public outcry, including from the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics and both Jason Chaffetz and Elijah Cummings, the Republican chairman and Democratic ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, respectively, the White House announced that Conway had been reprimanded.
That the Trump administration already appears to have tripped this particular wire twice in just over two months in office is a marked departure from previous administrations. The story of Michael Punke, the author of The Revenant, which in 2015 was adapted into a film that would go on to gross $180 million and win three Academy Awards, offers a more typical approach to the rule. A profile of Punke in The Washington Post noted that, at the time of the film’s release, Punke’s role as the deputy U.S. trade representative and ambassador to the World Trade Organization prevented him from even mentioning his book or the ensuing film, let alone telling people to go to see it. Punke never did.
Eisen and Richard Painter, who served as ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, have been continually criticizing what they see as the administration’s “flagrant disregard for ethics and other law.” The duo lead the watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is suing Trump for allegedly violating the Constitution. On March 20, before Mnuchin mentioned The LEGO Batman Movie, they published a column stating that “the president and his Cabinet are heading for a train wreck of a magnitude unseen since Watergate.” Since then, Eisen says, “you have additional issues cropping up: Ivanka falsely claiming she is not an employee and ethics rules don’t apply to her; news that [the former national security adviser Michael] Flynn did not sign the ethics pledge despite being required to do so; and troubling new allegations about Wilbur Ross and his conflicted investments.”
This trend, Eisen says, fits in with the Trump administration’s broader stance toward the rule of law: “Disregard for ethics is of a piece with the disregard for law and norms that has among other things created the Russiagate and Muslim Ban messes. They are driving off a cliff, ethics and otherwise.”
President Trump’s initial budget proposal would end aid for poor families to pay their heating bills, defund after-school programs at public schools, and make fewer grants available to college students. Community block grants that provide disaster relief, aid neighborhoods affected by foreclosure, and help rural communities access water, sewer systems, and safe housing would be eliminated. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, suggested recently that even small amounts of federal funding for programs like Meals on Wheels, which delivers food to house-bound seniors, may not be justified.
With billions of dollars worth of cuts to federal social services likely ahead, the wars of religion have begun. Bible verses about poverty have suddenly become popular on Twitter, with Republicans and Democrats each claiming to better know how Jesus would think about entitlement spending. While conservatives tend to bring religion into public-policy conversations more than liberals, the valence is often switched when it comes to the budget: Liberals eagerly quote the Sermon on the Mount in support of government spending, while conservatives bristle at the suggestion that good Christians would never want cuts.
But it’s more than posturing. If government steps back, religious organizations may need to step up. Much of the infrastructure and money involved in the charitable provision of social services is associated with religion, whether it’s a synagogue’s homeless-sheltering program or a large aid organization such as Catholic Relief Services. People like the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner believe these private services could potentially be expanded even further. While some government programs should be scrapped altogether, he argued, “other programs may well be replaceable by private charity—either dollar-for-dollar, or more likely, they can be done more effectively and efficiently.”
I spoke with roughly a half dozen scholars from a variety of ideological backgrounds who study religious giving, and they were all skeptical that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith-based organizations could serve as an adequate substitute for the government in providing for the needy and vulnerable. The scale and structure of government services, the sectarian nature of religious programs, and the declining role of religion in public life are all challenges, they argued; if anything, states would have to step in to take on the burden, or some current services would go away entirely. The budget debate may seem like a wonky back-and-forth about economic forecasts. But it probes long-standing questions about how society should provide for people’s needs. As David Campbell, a political-science professor at the University of Notre Dame, put it, “No religion is on the sidelines when it comes to caring for the poor.”
People’s views on budget questions are often determined by their political beliefs, said Campbell. Whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, “religious people across the spectrum would agree the poor need to be helped.” The question is who should do the helping, and how much government should be involved.
In their private lives, religious Americans are extremely generous. According to the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at Indiana University, donations to congregations, denominations, mission board, and TV and radio ministries account for roughly one-third of all annual giving in the U.S. The impact of this money is difficult to calculate, but it’s large: In 2001, the University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan tried to tally the financial value of all congregational social services in Philadelphia, estimating that it added up to roughly $247 million. When all social-service organizations with a religious mission are taken into account, the value of those services in many communities would likely be much higher.
“Religious congregations do a lot … the scale of what they do is trivial compared to what the government does.”
These services aren’t exactly private, however. According to Oklahoma Representative Steve Russell, who testified on religious-freedom issues before Congress last spring, more than 2,000 federal contracts are awarded to religious organizations each year. If programs like the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants are cut, as Trump has proposed, many religious organizations would lose major parts of their operating budgets. This kind of federal-spending cut can have tangible consequences: World Relief, an evangelical organization that works with the federal government on refugee resettlement, cut 140 staffers and closed five offices earlier this year when the Trump administration announced a sharp decrease in the number of refugees that will be accepted into the United States.
A lot of religious giving also doesn’t go toward helping the needy. “The vast majority of religious congregation budget [money] is spent on in-house expenses: clergy, building, materials,” said Christian Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Some congregations have more outreach ministry and social services than others. But in almost all cases, it ends up being a small part of the budget, just because it costs so much to run a congregation.”
Using a national survey of religious congregations in the U.S., the Duke Divinity School professor Mark Chaves found that 83 percent of congregations have some sort of program to help needy people in their communities. Most often, these efforts provide clothing, food, and temporary shelter, rather than intensive, long-term programs on substance abuse, post-prison rehabilitation, or immigrant resettlement. The median amount congregations spent on social-service programs was $1,500. “Religious congregations do a lot,” said Mary Jo Bane, a professor at Harvard University. But “the scale of what they do is trivial compared to what the government does. Especially if you think about the big government programs like … food stamps and school lunches, or health services through Medicaid, what religious organizations do is teeny tiny.”
If large-scale cuts to domestic social services do make it through the long budget-negotiation process, “there’s an argument to be made [that] … churches, synagogues, etc., might step up,” said Lisa Keister, a professor of sociology at Duke University. Keister has argued that religious engagement is closely associated with financial generosity—in a recent paper, for example, she found that those who attend religious services every week give nearly three times as much as those who don’t.
“Mainline Protestants wouldn’t know how to ‘share the gospel’ if their life depended on it.”
People of all religious backgrounds are generous, but the style of giving differs by faith and denomination. For example: “Jewish families … tend to be wildly generous,” said Keister. Many conservative Christians tithe 10 percent or more of their income, she said, often giving to their churches, which leaves them with less accumulated wealth. Mormons provide a complex array of social services to people in need, but mostly focus on their own members, said Smith. And Catholics and mainline Protestants are less likely to proselytize while helping others: “Mainline Protestants wouldn’t know how to ‘share the gospel’ if their life depended on it,” he said. “They’re just going to help people, and in their mind, they’re doing it in Jesus’s name.”
For some groups, though, proselytizing may be part and parcel of how they reach out to the needy. Liberals often cite this as a reason why the government should provide social services: In the absence of federal funding, people seeking things like education and housing may be left without a non-sectarian alternative. Tanner waved this concern away, though. “If someone has to listen to preaching to get free food—is it less than optimal? Sure,” he said. “But it’s probably not the thing I’m most worried about.”
Americans’ declining level of religious involvement may also cripple institutions’ ability to provide wide-scale services to vulnerable populations. “While I would be hesitant to say that highly secular people are callous, it is the case that religious people, in general, do give more to charitable causes,” said Campbell, and “they are much more likely to give time than money.”
Campbell divided “secular people” into two categories: Those who are “actively secular,” meaning they’ve embraced a secular worldview that involves high levels of political and civic engagement, and the “quintessential nones,” or people who are detached from a wide range of civic, social, and religious institutions. Across demographic groups, and especially among Millennials, that latter group of Americans has been getting bigger. Right now, the government requires them to contribute tax dollars to education, hunger-prevention programs, homelessness services, and more. But, Campbell hypothesized, it’s unlikely that they’d channel that money through private institutions, religious or otherwise, in a world where Trump’s proposed cuts are in place.
“We do have a responsibility to help the poor and those in need. That means taking care of them yourself.”
At some level, this is what the debate over federal spending is all about: What should American communities look like, and how directly should they be responsible for providing for the poor and needy? “It’s an open question whether the rise of the ‘nones’ … will significantly affect religious institutions’ ability to be that hub for social engagement,” said David King, the director of Indiana’s Lake Institute, suggesting that they may grow more involved over time. “I still hold out hope that that’s actually quite possible.” Especially among Millennials, he said, he has seen evidence that Americans are more willing to get involved in their community through “common work,” or direct action on the issues they care about, rather than volunteering with or donating to institutions. As traditional charitable institutions decline, he said, this kind of communal engagement may expand.
For his part, Tanner imagines a world where government no longer crowds out private giving, as he claims it does now. “What’s translated as ‘charity’ in the Bible is ‘agape,’ which literally means love,” he said. “We do have a responsibility to help the poor and those in need. That means taking care of them yourself—giving money yourself, giving your time, your efforts, not someone else’s.”
There is a long road ahead for Trump’s budget. Dismantling the welfare state as thoroughly as he has proposed would be a radical overhaul of the American system. It would shift not just government, but the way organizations that partner with it—including a lot of religious groups—provide services to the poor and vulnerable.
Updated on March 24 at 6:28 p.m. ET
To a man and woman, nearly every one of the 237 Republicans elected to the House last November made the same promise to voters: Give us control of Congress and the White House, and we will repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
On Friday, those lawmakers abandoned that effort, conceding that the Republican Party’s core campaign pledge of the last seven years will go unfulfilled. “I will not sugarcoat this: This is a disappointing day for us,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a press conference after he informed Republicans that he was ditching the American Health Care Act.
“We did not have quite the votes to replace this law,” Ryan said. “And, so yeah, we’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.”
Earlier in the afternoon, Ryan informed President Trump at the White House that the bill could not pass the House, as blocs of conservatives and moderates resisted a week of frenzied lobbying from the administration and were determined to vote no. The legislation had faced an avalanche of opposition from the outset. Democrats rejected any rollback of the Obama-era law, while conservative activists rebelled against a proposal that fell short of a full repeal. And as opposition mounted, Republicans representing swing districts and Democratic states began to pull their support, worried about cuts to Medicaid, a broader projected loss of insurance coverage, and a potential backlash from voters in the midterm elections next year. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the proposal would increase the number of uninsured Americans by 24 million people over a decade, and a Quinnipiac University poll showed that just 17 percent of potential voters supported the plan, with 56 percent opposed.
Trump had initially insisted that Republicans hold a vote on the bill regardless of the outcome, wanting to see which members would defy him. He dispatched his top lieutenants to Capitol Hill on Thursday night to urge rank-and-file lawmakers to fall in line, ending negotiations with the party’s right and left flank on further changes to the bill. But few members were persuaded, and by Friday, party leaders in the House wanted to spare their members from having to cast a vote in favor of an unpopular bill that would not become law. At a hastily arranged meeting in the Capitol basement, Ryan told Republicans he had called off the vote and said Trump was on board with the decision. Minutes later, stone-faced lawmakers left the meeting and prepared to head back to their districts for the weekend. One Republican staffer was in tears as she exited the room.
While conservative members of the Freedom Caucus withheld their support despite winning a last-minute amendment to broaden the repeal, it was the defection of more moderate and electorally vulnerable members that sealed its fate. Republicans could afford to lose no more than 22 votes to achieve a majority, and in a statement at the White House Friday, Trump estimated that they were 10 to 15 votes short. In perhaps the most ominous sign for the GOP leadership, the chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, announced he would oppose the bill on Friday morning. In previous generations, it would be unheard of for a top committee chairman to oppose party leaders on such a major vote. Representatives Barbara Comstock of Virginia and David Joyce of Ohio followed suit about an hour later, sapping momentum from the effort less than a day after Trump delivered his ultimatum to Republicans to pass his bill or see Obamacare live on.
The White House and GOP leaders searched for votes wherever they could, but there were few lawmakers willing to suddenly support a bill they had already publicly denounced. Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, a frequent dissenter in the party, said he waved off a last-minute call from the office of Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the party whip. “I said, ‘Let me tell you: I don’t want to waste his time,’” Jones told reporters. “I don’t see anybody that was a no yesterday changing their vote.” He then ripped into the proposal and the leadership’s insistence that it pass. “This was absolutely a bad decision to move this type of bill this early,” Jones said.
Defeat on the floor dealt Trump a major blow early in his presidency, but its implications were far more serious for the Republican Party as a whole. Handed unified control of the federal government for only the third time since World War II, the modern GOP was unable to overcome its internecine fights to enact a key part of its policy agenda. The president now wants to move on to a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code, but insiders on Capitol Hill have long believed that project will be an even heavier lift than health care.
As the prospect of a loss became more real on Friday, the frustrations of GOP lawmakers loyal to the leadership began to boil over. “I’ve been in this job eight years, and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s been something positive, that’s been something other than stopping something else from happening,” Representative Tom Rooney of Florida said in an interview. “We need to start having victories as a party. And if we can’t, then it’s hard to justify why we should be back here.”
Nothing has exemplified the party’s governing challenge quite like health care. For years, Republican leaders resisted pressure from Democrats and rank-and-file lawmakers to coalesce around a detailed legislative alternative to Obamacare. That failure didn’t prevent them from attaining power, but it forced them to start nearly from scratch after Trump’s surprising victory in November. At Ryan’s urging, the party had compiled a plan as part of the speaker’s “A Better Way” campaign agenda. Translating that into legislation, however, proved a much stiffer challenge; committee leaders needed to navigate a razor’s edge to satisfy conservatives demanding a full repeal of Obamacare and satisfy moderates who preferred to keep in place its more popular consumer protections and Medicaid expansion. They were further limited by the procedural rules of the Senate, which circumscribed how far Republicans could go while still avoiding a Democratic filibuster.
The legislation Republicans came up with would have eliminated Obamacare’s insurance mandates and most of its tax increases, but it left in place many of the consumer protections that the public broadly supported. Conservatives were unhappy that the proposal did not immediately end the law’s Medicaid expansion or scrap all of its regulations, while moderates worried that the bill ultimately would leave too many of their constituents uninsured or facing higher costs than they do under the current system.
Both Trump and Ryan characterized Obamacare as a law in collapse, even as they acknowledged Republicans now were powerless to repeal it. But despite the challenges it still faces, Democrats rejoiced at an unexpected reprieve for an achievement that appeared to be doomed a few months ago. “Today is a great day for our country. It’s a victory,” declared Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader who steered the Affordable Care Act to passage seven years ago this month. Hillary Clinton cheered the news on Twitter. “Today was a victory for the 24,000,000 people at risk of losing their health insurance, for seniors, for families battling the quiet epidemic of addiction, for new moms and women everywhere,” she said. “Most of all, it’s a victory for anyone who believes affordable health care is a human right.”
With the leadership’s plan dead, Republicans said they would try to move on to other issues. But the party’s failure on health care will sting, and it will linger. On Friday, Ryan was asked what GOP lawmakers should say to their constituents after promising them for so long they would repeal and replace Obamacare. The speaker was stumped. “That’s a good question,” he replied. “I wish I had a better answer for you.”
At least for the moment, the American Health Care Act is dead.
After two weeks of last-minute changes, Congressional Budget Office estimates, and an escalating tripartite skirmish between two wings of the Republican Party and the Trump White House, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced late Friday afternoon that a floor vote on the GOP’s Obamacare replacement would be canceled and the legislation pulled. Facing a 17 percent national approval rating for the bill and loss of support from both the conservative Freedom Caucus and moderate Republicans, Trump and congressional lawmakers appear willing to walk away from health care for the moment. It’s a reprieve, at the very least, for Obamacare.
The Affordable Care Act’s supporters are celebrating, and it’s not hard to see why. The strategy of forcing Republicans to choose between keeping their repeal promises and keeping the most popular parts of the law looks like Sun Tzu wrote it at this point. For now, the projected consequences of the AHCA won’t come to pass: 24 million people won’t lose insurance coverage, premiums won’t quintuple for low-income near-elderly people, and Medicaid funding for states won’t be cut over the next decade. But even if the current congressional battle over repeal-and-replace is over—or temporarily postponed—Republicans still have plenty of tools at their disposal to dismantle key pieces of Obamacare.
The GOP backup plan, according to President Trump, has always been to “let [Obamacare] be a disaster,” and blame Democrats for its failings while moving on to other elements of the Republican policy agenda. Ryan seemed to agree on Friday, although not in as cynical terms, saying during a press conference that “the worst is yet to come with Obamacare.” He warned of its imminent collapse via a “death spiral.” There is, as of yet, no evidence that such a death spiral exists.
But a combination of deliberate legislating and purposeful neglect on the part of Republicans might change that. Even now, several administrative departments and agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, are operating under a day-one executive order from Trump directing them to “minimize the unwarranted economic and regulatory burdens of the [Affordable Care] Act.” That order doesn’t need any congressional action to give officials wide latitude to reduce the number of people covered under the ACA and weaken the web of policies that hold the law together.
While Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and CMS Administrator Seema Verma still can’t step out of their regulatory and administrative roles as defined under the ACA, their roles are very broad. They can make decisions that achieve Trump’s goal of reducing spending and government involvement in health care. HHS and CMS can execute several possible policies that can slough low-income people from insurance coverage and weaken Obamacare overall. For one, the administration is pretty free to exempt large groups of people from the individual mandate via “hardship exemptions.” Or it could allow more insurers to provide coverage plans in the exchanges that don’t meet federal standards—essentially permitting some relaxation of the very “essential health benefits” provisions that tripped up the AHCA. Relaxing the individual mandate and the value of insurance that exchanges offer could result in the very death spirals that Ryan warns about. That’s because insurers will still be forced to cover sicker people with pre-existing conditions, even as healthy people leave markets by exemption or choose less comprehensive plans.
Within Medicaid, Verma has broad power to oversee the shape and form of state Medicaid programs. While she can’t make the kind of sweeping dictates mandating changes to the program that Congress can, via the Medicaid 1115 waivers she can approve state plans that deviate significantly from traditional Medicaid. One provision that seems certain to come up for review by Verma’s agency is a controversial work requirement that several states wish to implement. CMS has so far been unkind to work-requirement requests, which mandate that Medicaid enrollees must have a job to receive government benefits. But Verma’s former consulting firm helped craft some of those very requests, and she already signaled vague support for work requirements in a letter she and Price sent to governors. It noted that the agency intends to “approve meritorious innovations that build on the human dignity that comes with training, employment, and independence.”
The data on other welfare programs’ work requirements, as well as analyses of the Medicaid population, suggest that the only guaranteed outcome of such a provision would be mass disenrollment of people on Medicaid, especially those able-bodied, low-income adults who only became eligible under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. Many of these adults report significant barriers to work—like a disability, caregiver responsibilities, or felonies—that keep them from stable jobs, and they’d lose coverage were Medicaid altered this way. The AHCA would have led to many more people disenrolling from Medicaid, because of its own work requirements and per-capita caps on funding. But an employment provision added to current Medicaid programs would also weaken the safety net, as Medicaid itself is work support. In addition, Verma’s CMS appears to be considering approving other waiver provisions that could reduce Medicaid coverage and benefits, including requiring premiums and health-savings account contributions, moving more people to privately managed plans, and cutting benefits like the provision of medical transportation for enrollees.
The administration is also in charge of many of the annual regulations that have to be pushed to make the ACA work. Obama’s White House constantly made small tweaks to the law in order to avert potential hiccups. Larger crises, like the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.Gov and the associated rejection of state-run exchanges by several states, required more dramatic federal intervention. Even if the Trump administration had the will to put out sporadic fires, those fixes would require not only savvy and a deep knowledge of health policy from top to bottom, but also a full bench of officials to do the work. As it is, the White House hasn’t shown much interest in the intricacies of health policy, and the federal bureaucracy is depleted.
Even under Obama, rising premiums and major exits by insurers from the exchanges seemed to mystify the president and his army of experienced bureaucrats. Health care is hard work, and it’s hard work even when there aren’t legislative fights in the news.
Whether on purpose or not, the Trump administration will probably weaken Obamacare on its own. But a Republican-dominated Congress will still be working, too, and recent history shows that some of their most successful anti-Obamacare moves have been smaller bites, even under the threat of an Obama veto. Enacted legislation has delayed the so-called “Cadillac tax” and other revenue-generating taxes, changed the categorization of small employers, and reduced appropriations to the Prevention and Public Health Fund. Congress could always make more of these smaller cuts to the health law. With legislation as complex and big as the ACA, each quantum of instability those measures create could have much larger downstream effects.
The tools available for Republicans in the executive and legislative branches to make Obamacare weaker are plentiful. Invariably, those moves will probably reduce the number of people covered and could further destabilize delicate and still-reeling exchanges. The degree of damage Republicans can do is as yet unknown. But an Obamacare made weaker by design could prove to be the dynamite they need to finally demolish the whole thing later. And this seems to be at least one place where the White House and the House are in accord. The only problem is Republicans might not want to be holding the dynamite when the fuse runs out.
Speaking in the Oval Office Friday afternoon, President Trump surveyed the wreckage of the Obamacare repeal effort and issued a crisp, definitive verdict: I didn’t do it.
The president said he didn’t blame Speaker Paul Ryan, though he had plenty of implied criticism for the speaker. “I like Speaker Ryan. He worked very hard,” Trump said, but he added: “I'm not going to speak badly about anybody within the Republican Party. Certainly there's a big history. I really think Paul worked hard.” He added ruefully that the GOP could have taken up tax-reform first, instead of Obamacare—the reverse of Ryan’s desired sequence. “Now we’re going to go for tax reform, which I’ve always liked,” he said.
As for the House Freedom Caucus, the bloc of conservatives from which many of the apparent “no” votes on the Republican plan were to come, Trump said, “I'm not betrayed. They're friends of mine. I'm disappointed because we could've had it. So I'm disappointed. I'm a little surprised, I could tell you.”
The greatest blame for the bill’s failure fell on Democrats, Trump said.
“This really would've worked out better if we could've had Democrat support. Remember we had no Democrat support,” Trump said. Later, he added, “But when you get no votes from the other side, meaning the Democrats, it's really a difficult situation.”
He said Democrats should come up with their own bill. “I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, because they own Obamacare,” he said, referring to the House and Senate Democratic leaders. “They 100 percent own it.”
Trump was very clear about who was not to blame: himself. “I worked as a team player,” the president of the United States said, demoting himself to bit-player status. He wanted to do tax reform first, after all, and it was still early. “I’ve been in office, what, 64 days? I've never said repeal and replace Obamacare within 64 days. I have a long time. I want to have a great health-care bill and plan and we will.”
Strictly speaking, it is true that Trump didn’t promise to repeal Obamacare on day 64 of his administration. What he told voters, over and over during the campaign, was that he’d do it immediately. On some occasions he or top allies even promised to do it on day 1. Now he and his allies are planning to drop the bill for the foreseeable future.
It is surely not wrong that there is lots of blame to go around. Congressional Republicans had years to devise a plan, and couldn’t come up with one that would win a majority in the House, despite a 44-seat advantage. The House bill was an unpopular one, disliked by conservatives and moderates in that chamber; almost certainly dead on arrival in the Senate; and deeply unpopular with voters. Even before the vote was canceled, unnamed White House officials were telling reporters that the plan was to pin the blame on Ryan.
But aside from their role in passing the Affordable Care Act seven years ago, Democrats are perhaps the one faction with the least blame for Friday’s fiasco. As much as they might have wished to claim credit, the opposition party was nearly a non-factor in the wrangling. There was never any intention to design a replacement plan that would attract Democratic votes, in part because of the huge Republican margin in the chamber. The Democrats surely owned Obamacare before, but given GOP control of the House, Senate, and White House, Friday seems to mark the day that Republicans came into ownership.
Trump’s quick disavowal of any role in the collapse fits with an emerging pattern: The president never takes the blame for anything that goes wrong. What about his claim that President Obama “wiretapped” him?
“All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn't make an opinion on it,” Trump said during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week. “That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox. And so you shouldn't be talking to me, you should be talking to Fox.”
How about his claim, during the presidential campaign, that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination?
“Well, that was in a newspaper,” he told Time’s Michael Scherer this week. (The National Enquirer, to be specific.) “No, no, I like Ted Cruz, he’s a friend of mine. But that was in the newspaper. I wasn’t, I didn’t say that. I was referring to a newspaper.”
The ruling by a federal court in Washington state against Trump’s Muslim travel ban? The work of a “so-called judge,” Trump tweeted, and even he preemptively dumped the blame for any future terror attack on the courts for a decision that “essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country.”
Trump’s approach to the presidency thus far has rejected the mantra of his predecessor Harry S Truman, who famously placed a sign on his desk indicating that he was the final decisionmaker: “The buck stops here.” Trump, by contrast, is quick to pass the buck.
Assuming the public accepts it, this choice has both upsides and downsides. On the one hand, it means that Trump is never to blame for anything. On the other, if he’s so irrelevant, why should anyone pay attention to him or take his proposals and ideas seriously?
House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the GOP’s new health-care bill, after meeting with President Trump to tell him that Republicans didn’t have the votes to pass it. During a news conference, Ryan said it is a “disappointing day” and that Republicans will now “move on with the rest of our agenda.” In an interview with The New York Times, Trump reportedly blamed Democrats for the bill’s failure, predicting they would want to make a deal after “Obamacare explodes.” Earlier in the day, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes walked back his claim that communications from Trump and his transition team were collected incidentally by U.S. intelligence. TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline project, said the Trump administration granted them permission to begin construction, reversing an Obama administration directive.
Michael Anton’s Influence: Under a pseudonym, Anton wrote a now-infamous essay last year on what he called the “Flight 93 election,” in which he made the case for Donald Trump. Rosie Gray traces his rise from “relative obscurity” to running communications for the new administration’s National Security Council.
The Art of the (Political) Deal: If Trump lost in a business deal when he was operating in the private sector, he could recover from it. He’d lose money, writes David A. Graham, but “his reputation as a business mogul [would remain] unscathed outside of actual business circles.” The president may have a different experience now that Congress failed to pass its health-care bill.
Scared Away: The Trump administration’s harsh stance on immigration has sparked a “climate of fear” among immigrant communities throughout the country, Annie Lowrey writes. Now, a number of social-service organizations have reported a decline in program enrollment among legally eligible families.
Follow stories throughout the day with our Politics & Policy portal.
The Dealmaker Has Doubts: The New York Times reports that Trump regrets prioritizing the health-care overhaul “before unveiling a tax-cut proposal more politically palatable to Republicans.” (Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman)
Trumpism v. Ryanism: Trump won the election with promises to be a president for the people and to “drain the swamp.” Instead, Ezra Klein argues, he became a “pitchman” for Ryan’s widely opposed health-care bill. How did this happen? (Vox)
‘Chasing the Phantom’: Wired takes a look at the hunt to find Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev, a Russian hacker and “maybe the most prolific bank robber in the world.” Did he also play a role in the U.S. presidential election? (Garrett M. Graff)
Under Fire: The Department of Justice is investigating whether California Representative Duncan Hunter improperly used campaign funds “to pay for family travel, flights, utilities, health care, school uniforms and tuition, jewelry, groceries, and other goods.” Read the details of the case here. (Morgan Cook, The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Bibi’s Battle: With Trump in office and pledging to broker a deal between Israelis and Palestinians, 2017 could be a good year for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But there’s one man who could still get in his way: Meet Yair Lapid. (Susan Glasser, Politico)
Unpresidented: In this short video, The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan explains that a better way for people to argue about politics is to reframe their arguments to appeal to opponents’ moral values. (Daniel Lombroso)
Monday marked the beginning of what will probably be Judge Neil Gorsuch’s toughest job interview: his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. This week, we asked what you would ask Gorsuch if you were on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Click here to see all of our favorite responses, but for now, here are two great answers:
Keli Osborn would ask how the judge would have ruled on previous Supreme Court cases:
How would [your] judicial philosophy of originalism have influenced rulings on Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Griswold v. Connecticut, Bigelow v. Virginia, and Obergefell v. Hodges?
And Mitchell Kaplan figured that understanding Gorsuch’s thoughts on science and religion would offer insight into how he might rule on future cases if confirmed:
How old is Earth? How old is the universe? When did homo sapiens first arrive on Earth? Do you believe in adaptation as defined by Darwin? Do you take the Bible literally or metaphorically? Do you believe in creationism?
Thanks for responding, and stay tuned for next week’s Question of the Week contest.
Seven years and three days ago, the House of Representatives grumblingly voted to approve the Senate’s version of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats in the House were displeased by many of the changes introduced by Senate Democrats. But in the interval after Senate passage, the Republicans had gained a 41st seat in the Senate. Any further tinkering with the law could trigger a Republican filibuster. Rather than lose the whole thing, the House swallowed hard and accepted a bill that liberals regarded as a giveaway to insurance companies and other interest groups. The finished law proceeded to President Obama for signature on March 23, 2010.
A few minutes after the House vote, I wrote a short blog post for the website I edited in those days. The site had been founded early in 2009 to argue for a more modern and more moderate form of Republicanism. The timing could not have been worse. At precisely the moment we were urging the GOP to march in one direction, the great mass of conservatives and Republicans had turned on the double in the other, toward an ever more wild and even paranoid extremism. Those were the days of Glenn Beck’s 5 o’clock Fox News conspiracy rants, of Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” of Orly Taitz and her fellow Birthers, of Tea Party rallies at which men openly brandished assault rifles.
The conservative establishment in Washington caught the same fever that then raged among conservatives across the country. At that time, I worked at the American Enterprise Institute, the most high-toned of Washington’s conservative think tanks. In later years, AEI would provide a home for the emerging “reform conservative” tendency. Its president, Arthur Brooks, would speak eloquently of the need for conservatives to show concern for the poor and the hard-pressed working class. But all that lay ahead in 2010. The mood then was that supporters and opponents of the Obama administration were engaged in a furious battle over whether the United States would remain a capitalist economy at all.
“We must choose,” Brooks wrote in his highly influential book titled, precisely, The Battle, whether “America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principle of free enterprise” or whether “America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, increasing income redistribution, and government-controlled corporations. These competing visions are not reconcilable.”
It was no moment for advocates of compromise—indeed, it was precisely because I appreciated its unwelcomeness where I worked that I had launched an independent blog in the first place. There, to the increasing irritation of my colleagues and employers, I fruitlessly argued through 2009 and 2010 that Republicans should do business with President Obama on health-care reform.
It seemed to me that Obama’s adoption of ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s—and then enacted into state law in Massachusetts by Governor Mitt Romney—offered the best near-term hope to control the federal health-care spending that would otherwise devour the defense budget and force taxes upward. I suggested that universal coverage was a worthy goal, and one that would hugely relieve the anxieties of working-class and middle-class Americans who had suffered so much in the Great Recession. And I predicted that the Democrats remembered the catastrophe that befell them in 1994 when they promised health-care reform and failed to deliver. They had the votes this time to pass something. They surely would do so—and so the practical question facing Republicans was whether it would not be better to negotiate to shape that “something” in ways that would be less expensive, less regulatory, and less redistributive.
As I said: fruitless.
From a personal point of view, in fact, my efforts were worse than fruitless. Old friends grew suspicious and drifted away. At second and third hand, I heard echoes of unpleasant explanations for my deviation from the ever-radicalizing main line of Washington conservatism. Increasingly isolated and frustrated, I watched with dismay as people I’d known for years and decades incited each other to jump together over the same cliff.
So, when the Democrats indeed did pass the law without Republican input, just as I’d warned they would, a fury overcame me. Eighteen months of being called a “sellout” will do that to a man, I suppose. I opened my computer and in less than half an hour pounded out the blogpost that would function, more or less, as my suicide note in the organized conservative world.
The post was called “Waterloo.” (The title played off a promise by then-senator and now Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint that the Affordable Care Act would become Obama’s Waterloo, a career-finishing defeat.)
We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.
There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or—more exactly—with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?
I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters—but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say—but what is equally true—is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed—if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office—Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.
So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.
Even more provocatively to Republicans already fixed on a promise to repeal the Obamacare abomination, I urged: "No illusions please: This bill will not be repealed."
To that point, it was a big day on my website if we reached 25,000 unique visitors. The Waterloo post passed a million clicks before our servers crashed. But it had remained available long enough for the editors of The Wall Street Journal to slam me by name in an editorial that same evening. The next morning came a phone call inviting me to talk things over with AEI’s president. By Thursday, I was an ex-think-tank staffer.
In retrospect, I have to confess to considerable sympathy for my employers’ point of view. A think tank is not a university, a haven for disinterested thought. It exists to advocate, and I had contradicted my institution’s advocacy on the most sensitive point at the most sensitive time. Being right was no excuse. If anything, being right aggravated my offense.
The demand for message discipline reached its zenith in the conservative world in the months before and after ACA passage, and I was by no means the only person to fall afoul of it. From the libertarian Cato Institute, from the National Center for Policy Analysis, from Heritage—about half-a-dozen people were and would be forced to leave for expressly ideological reasons before and after me. And why not? If during the Obama presidency we did indeed—to borrow the mighty phrase of Theodore Roosevelt’s— “stand at Armageddon to battle for the Lord!” there could be no room in such a host for warriors who questioned the merits of the cause or the prudence of the generals.
Over the next seven years, Republicans would vote again and again to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Total and permanent opposition to the law would become the absolute touchstone of Republican loyalty. Even Donald Trump, who dissented from so much of the old orthodoxy, retained this piece of the doxology. On the strength of their vow to eliminate the ACA, Republicans would win election after election, culminating in the stunning capture of all the elected branches of government in November 2016. From time to time, some old veteran would recall my 2010 prediction that the law would endure and smilingly wonder if I wished to reconsider.
I never did, for the reasons that the whole world has witnessed in real time over this week of Obamacare’s 7th anniversary.
Some of the conservatives who voted “no” to the House leadership’s version of repeal may yet imagine that they will have some other opportunity to void the law. They are again deluding themselves. If the Republican Party tripped over its own feet walking across this empty ballroom, it will face only more fearsome difficulties in the months ahead, as mid-term elections draw closer. Too many people benefit from the law—and the Republican alternatives thus far offer too little to compensate for the loss of those benefits.
In that third week in March in 2010, America committed itself for the first time to the principle of universal (or near universal) health-care coverage. That principle has had seven years to work its way into American life and into the public sense of right and wrong. It’s not yet unanimously accepted. But it’s accepted by enough voters—and especially by enough Republican voters—to render impossible the seven-year Republican vision of removing that coverage from those who have gained it under the Affordable Care Act. Paul Ryan still upholds the right of Americans to “choose” to go uninsured if they cannot afford to pay the cost of their insurance on their own. His country no longer agrees.
What happens now? What happens now is that—a few bitter-enders aside—Republican politicians, especially in the states, begin the slow and belated process of entering the next era of health-care politics. Contrary to Paul Ryan’s bleak vision of a political “tipping point” after which the nation declines into “dependency and passivity,” Americans will continue to find plenty to argue about—and possibly more than ever.
How generous should health coverage be? What should be done to control costs? Who should pay, and on what terms? To what extent should citizens be free to impose the cost of their unhealthy choices upon others? Conservative-minded people will converge on one set of intuitions; progressives on another. It’s possible to imagine a Republican health-care politics that rejects the ultra-redistributionary approach of the ACA and instead argues that since all benefit from health coverage, all must contribute to its costs via some kind of broad-based tax. It’s possible to imagine a Republican health-care politics that emphasizes cost control over benefit provision. It’s possible to imagine a Republican health-care politics that incentivizes providers and insurers to achieve better outcomes at lower prices. It’s possible to imagine a Republican health-care politics that resists socializing the burden of addiction, obesity, and other unhealthy behaviors. It’s possible to imagine a Republican Party that cares about the details of health policy and is not satisfied with poorly informed hand waves toward outworn party shibboleths. It won’t happen soon, perhaps—but the sooner the better.
Conservatives have a crucial role to play in shaping the future American health-care system to enhance and support enterprise, innovation, individual responsibility—to resist open-ended spending, state planning, and the risk that social insurance will penalize effort and success. It’s past time to accept reality, quit promising the impossible, and do the work that a democracy that seeks both equity and efficiency should expect from its more conservative-minded thinkers and politicians.
Whatever else the 2016 election has done, it has emancipated Republicans from one of their own worst self-inflicted blind spots. Health care may not be a human right, but the lack of universal health coverage in a wealthy democracy is a severe, unjustifiable, and unnecessary human wrong. As Americans lift this worry from their fellow citizens, they’ll discover that they have addressed some other important problems too. They’ll find that they have removed one of the most important barriers to entrepreneurship, because people with bright ideas will fear less to quit the jobs through which they get their health care. They’ll find they have improved the troubled lives of the white working class succumbing at earlier ages from preventable deaths of despair. They’ll find that they have equalized the life chances of Americans of different races. They’ll find that they have discouraged workplace discrimination against women, older Americans, the disabled, and other employees with higher expected health-care costs. They’ll find that their people become less alienated from a country that has overcome at last one of the least attractive manifestations of American exceptionalism—and joined the rest of the civilized world in ameliorating and alleviating our common human vulnerability to illness and pain.
I take no pride or pleasure in saying “I told you so.” We’ve all been wrong about enough things to teach us humility about our rare bursts of foresight. What I would urge is that those conservatives and Republicans who were wrong about the evolution of this debate please consider why they were wrong: Consider the destructive effect of ideological conformity, of ignorance of the experience of comparable countries, and of a conservative political culture that incentivizes intransigence, radicalism, and anger over prudence, moderation, and compassion.
After House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly told President Trump that Republicans lacked enough votes to pass the GOP health care bill, Republicans canceled a vote on the American Health Care Act on Friday, putting the president’s promise to repeal and replace Obamacare in jeopardy.
It’s the first major setback to the president’s agenda in Congress, but Republican voters are likely to hold Republican congressional leaders, rather than the president, responsible.
Ahead of the vote, Trump said Ryan should keep his job as House speaker even if the vote was unsuccessful. The president also told Robert Costa of The Washington Post that he doesn’t “blame Paul,” in the immediate aftermath of the news that the vote had been canceled. But the White House has reportedly been gearing up to point the finger at Ryan if anything went wrong. “Behind the scenes, the president’s aides are planning to blame Ryan if there is an embarrassing defeat on a bill that has been a Republican goal for more than seven years,” Bloomberg reported earlier in the day, citing an unnamed administration official.
And if Trump and Ryan clash as a result of the outcome, Republican voters may side with the president. In February, the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Republican voters were more likely to trust Trump than Republican congressional leaders in the event of a dispute. The survey also reported that Republican voters had a far more favorable view of Trump than they did of Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. An overwhelming majority of Republican voters—at 86 percent—had a favorable view of Trump, compared to just 65 percent who held a favorable view of Ryan and just 57 percent who felt warmly toward McConnell. That suggests that Republican congressional leaders could face retribution from their base if they end up on a collision course with the president.
Ryan himself has suggested there may be retribution from voters if the the GOP cannot pass an Obamacare replacement. “Everybody running for the Congress and the House, everybody running for the Senate, and the president himself, said to the American people ‘You give us this chance, this responsibility, this opportunity with a Republican president, with a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and we will repeal and replace Obamacare,” Ryan said, describing the stakes of the health care vote earlier in the week. “If we don’t keep our promise, it will be very hard to manage this,” he said.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict how Republican voters might react if the GOP health care effort fails, and whether that reaction will meaningfully alter election outcomes. Trump and GOP leadership may not turn on one another. The president may decide to focus his ire at Democrats, despite the fact that Republicans control both houses of Congress.
One factor that might mitigate voter backlash is that Republican efforts to move ahead with a health care overhaul have proven widely unpopular. A recent Quinnipiac Poll found that a majority of American voters disapprove of the GOP plan to replace President Obama’s health-care law, the Affordable Care Act. The plan even failed to win a majority of support among Republican voters, according to the poll, which found that only 41 percent of Republicans approved. Perhaps significantly, though, a majority of Republican voters—at 64 percent—did indicate that they approved of the way Trump had handled the health care push, despite not approving of the bill he endorsed.
At a Friday afternoon press conference, Ryan spoke approvingly of Trump even as he faced reporters after the canceled vote. “The president gave his all in this effort,” the speaker said. “He’s really been fantastic.” But he conceded that they had not followed through with what they had vowed to do. “We were on the cusp of fulfilling a promise that we made … of achieving an ambition that we’ve all had for seven years,” he said.
And despite the health care bill setback, Trump could emerge relatively unscathed in popularity in the wake of a legislative defeat, even if congressional Republicans don’t.
When a reporter asked the Speaker how he, and other Republican lawmakers, would return to their constituents without having advanced their health care agenda, Ryan responded grimly on Friday: “It’s a really good question. I wish I had a better answer for you.”
In 1985, Donald Trump bought West Side Yards*, a huge real-estate parcel on the West Side of Manhattan. (Actually, it was his second try at the property, which he’d failed to develop in the 1970s.) Trump paid $115 million to buy the parcel, with huge plans to create a sparkling center on one of the few remaining undeveloped parts of the island.
It didn’t work. Trump quarreled with Mayor Ed Koch, failed to start the work, and steadily lost tens of millions of dollars. In 1989, he declined an offer to sell the land for a more than $400 million profit. Five years later, he finally threw in the towel, selling it for just $82 million—and on condition that the buyer take on a quarter of a billion in debt. But Trump was right about the commercial potential of West Side Yards. The developers who bought the land from him sold it for $1.8 billion in 2005, the largest residential real-estate deal in New York history. A sparkling new neighborhood is finally rising on the site.
The point of this story is not that Trump blew the deal of a lifetime, though he did. The point is that from Trump’s perspective, who cares? Yes, he could have been richer; but he’s still extremely rich, his reputation as a business mogul remained unscathed outside of actual business circles; and, as he put it to Time this week, “I’m president, and you’re not.” Trump’s bounce back from the West Side Yards fiasco seems to be a useful key for understanding Trump’s approach to negotiations over repealing and replacing Obamacare.
The president’s approach has even experienced Trump watchers nursing a case of whiplash. One week ago Friday, the president was meeting with conservative skeptics of the Republican leadership health-care plan and declaring, “I am 100 percent behind this.” Speaker Paul Ryan’s communications director was lauding Trump as “the ultimate closer.”
Then things fell apart. With resistance to the bill coming from both the moderate and conservative wings of the House Republican caucus, GOP leadership canceled a vote scheduled for Thursday afternoon. Trump was at an event when it happened; he told a reporter he had to go lobby for votes, only to be told that the vote had been canceled, with plans to hold it on Friday instead. The president issued an ultimatum: Negotiations were over, and it was time to get in line behind the bill.
The leaks started to come quickly. The New York Times’ dynamic duo of Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman reported that Trump was privately regretful of the decision to move forward on Obamacare repeal first, and did not like the deal that was emerging. His ultimatum was designed to bring the matter to a quick conclusion—favorable or not. New York reported that though Bannon was publicly supportive, he was eager to kill the bill behind the scenes. Breitbart, the palace organ of the Trump administration, promptly aggregated the New York story.
By Friday morning, it was clear that the White House—or at least some influential members of the White House—wanted the bill to go down:
senior WH aide, asked if decisive health care defeat today is best for Team Trump: "100%"— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) March 24, 2017
Bloomberg reported on the increasingly apparent strategy: Let the bill fail, then blame Speaker Paul Ryan for the scheduling and design. (Trump even magnanimously declared that Ryan should remain speaker if the bill failed—thus opening up for discussion the question of whether Ryan should remain. Bannon and an aide, Julia Hahn, reportedly detest Ryan.) How else to explain Trump threatening the House Freedom Caucus, nexus of the conservative votes he desperately needed, in a Friday morning tweet?
The irony is that the Freedom Caucus, which is very pro-life and against Planned Parenthood, allows P.P. to continue if they stop this plan!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2017
This also explained why the White House was demanding that a vote be held on Friday, whether or not Ryan and his team had the votes to pass it out.
Trump seems to regard a defeat in health-care fight the way he did the West Side Yards fiasco: An unfortunate occurrence on a potential crown jewel, but also a loss to be shrugged off and forgotten in the pursuit of bigger and better things. But this approach would only seem promising to someone who spent his career in the business world and didn’t really have a strong understanding of Republican Party politics around health care.
One problem with letting the bill die—especially if Republicans then simply move on to other matters, rather than trying a new approach—is that it would represent a brazen betrayal of the Republican Party’s biggest single promise to its voters over the last seven years. Republicans took first the House, in 2010, and steadily the Senate and now the White House while telling voters they would repeal Obamacare.
Trump was especially well-suited to make this promise on the campaign trail for a few reasons. First, he had no real ideological attachments to any health policy, so he could rail against the bill without any bounds of nuance or realism. He could blithely promise voters he’d repeal the hated ACA while also keeping everything they liked about it and even expanding coverage. The GOP House voted for repeal dozens of times, secure in the knowledge that the plans they were voting on, which would have been politically toxic, would never pass.
Even if the bill fails on Friday, Trump and Ryan could try a second time. But the White House is indicating the president has no interest in that, and with each day that goes by it’s harder to repeal—both because of timelines specific to the budget, but also because of other looming urgent issues like passing a spending bill. That doesn’t even get to the problem of trying to push whatever the House would pass through the Senate.
Perhaps Trump can survive a defeat of the repeal package politically—after all, he’s not on the ballot again until 2020—but giving up will be catastrophic for some Republicans, who have staked their careers on repeal. This is one reason the House Freedom Caucus has been so adamantly opposed to the current package: They don’t see it as true repeal. So by admitting defeat, Trump is endangering his party’s edge on the Hill.
A second problem is that a defeat now will make it much harder for Trump to pass the rest of his agenda. He wants to move on quickly to other priorities like tax reform, but that could go even worse. Republicans were at least all in agreement about whether or not to repeal Obamacare. Tax reform is perhaps even more complicated. And Trump would head into that debate much weaker. He will no longer have the goodwill and political capital a president receives to begin his term. Ryan would be weakened within Congress by the health-care defeat, especially if Trump moves to pin the whole collapse on him. Ryan’s relationship with the White House will be more strained. And each week seems to produce a worse approval rating and deeper scandals for Trump.
Meanwhile, the House Freedom Caucus, having seen its clout on health care in action, would be emboldened to fight against any proposal it doesn’t find entirely ideal. Other Republicans, having seen the HFC’s success, and the lack of repercussions for other members who bucked Ryan, would see little reason to stay in line. Trump’s aides are speaking darkly about keeping a list of defectors to punish them, but his leverage on them is steadily diminishing.
The least tangible, but perhaps most stinging, damage would be to Trump’s reputation as a dealmaker. No matter how he was regarded in the business world, many Americans viewed his name as synonymous with the word “deal.” But on Obamacare repeal, Trump has tried every tactic: Persuasion, arm-twisting, threats. None of them has gotten the GOP caucus to yes.
With his final moves on Friday, Trump attempted to use one last dealmaker’s tool: walking away. That can work in the business world, where both sides have incentives to reach an agreement, and the only thing to be lost is money. But politics, and especially this bill, are different. There’s little incentive for conservatives to back a bill that doesn’t meet their principles, and little incentive for moderates to back a paring back of benefits their constituents will hate.
And if the repeal plan does fail, Trump is likely to discover that recovering his reputation as the “ultimate closer” is even tougher. It could make recovering from West Side Yards look like a cakewalk.
* This article originally referred to West Side Yards as Hudson Yards. We regret the error.
In the wake of the shocking results of November’s election, readers in Notes had a robust discussion titled, “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?” One of the most revealing and contentious entries came from a Trump supporter who “voted for the middle finger, the wrecking ball.” He began by countering some common stereotypes about Trump voters:
I have a Masters degree. My kids go to public school with kids of all races, colors, and creeds. Our neighborhood has immigrant families, mixed-race families, minorities, and same-sex couples. Our sports teams are multi-cultural, diverse, and play beautifully together, on and off the field. I have neither the time, energy, or room in my heart for hatred, bigotry, or racism.
His was a protest vote:
I am tired of the machine rolling over us—all of us. The Clinton machine, the Republican machine, the big media, investment banking, hedge fund carrying interest, corporatist, lobbying, influence peddling, getting elected and immediately begin fundraising for the next election machine—they can all kiss my ass.
Maybe Trump won’t do a thing to change or fix any of it. Hillary definitely would not have changed any of it.
Many readers disagreed here. Another one, Susan, emailed this week asking, “Could we have an update from the guy who ‘voted for the middle finger, the wrecking ball’? I’d be very interested to know what he thinks of the first two months of President Trump.”
I actually wondered the same thing in early February, when I emailed the wrecking ball reader to see if his views on Trump has shifted during the presidential transition and his first few weeks in office. Here’s the reader’s verdict on February 9 (followed by a reply to Susan’s request):
It’s too early to tell, really—kind of like calling the Falcons to win after their first touchdown, right? I think Trump is still too combative and his messaging is awful at times—a lot of the time—but so far he is the guy (ass?) he’s been through the entire run. Trump thinks of himself as an executive in the most stringent application of the word—the buck stops here, the buck begins here, the buck is always here—but he’ll that learn running a company and the country are not the same thing, not matter how much I sometimes like the idea of someone “running the government like a business.”
I wish Trump had what we call down here—the land of obesity, fireworks, and Flannery O’Connor-inspired realities—a “pull-back guy.”
See, we love our college football down in the buckle of the Bible Belt. We love to watch our Clemson Tiger defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, go crazy on the sidelines. To handle him, they have to get a designated staffer be the “pull-back guy”—grabbing Venables around his britches and pulling him back off of the field so he doesn’t draw a penalty.
If you live in Cleveland County, North Carolina, make less than $40,000, and buy your own health insurance, it might be a good time to start saving.
According to a new interactive from the Kaiser Family Foundation, under the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, the average monthly premium for 40-year-olds making $30,000 in your county will double from $2,480 per year to $5,060 per year by 2020. The change is less dramatic if you happen to be younger, but if you’re closing in on 60 years old, expect an annual increase of about $16,000 dollars total in what you pay for health care.
Instead of raiding your retirement fund, though, you might be able to make out pretty well by just packing up, hopping in the car, and moving a couple miles south to Spartanburg County, South Carolina. There, premiums for 40-year-olds making around $30,000 are expected to diminish from $4,080 to $2,190 under the American Health Care Act. Your premiums will still skyrocket as you approach old age, but not as much as they would have in Cleveland County. If the capriciousness of the health law to which your hypothetical life is now subject hasn’t quite hit you, it might by the time you pay somewhere between a third and half of your overall pre-tax income on health insurance on your 64th birthday—and then almost nothing the next year as you turn 65 and finally reach Medicare.
Hypotheticals can be of limited use in the constantly shifting and often counterintuitive landscape of health policy. But models like Kaiser’s highlight just how dramatically different health-care costs for people could be from one county to the next and one year to the next under the AHCA. The new House bill—which has been derided by the right as a somewhat more conservative version of the Affordable Care Act and by moderates and liberals as an untenable erosion of coverage—takes an axe to Obamacare’s premium tax credits for purchasing insurance on the exchanges. It replaces those credits—adjusted for age, insurance-market prices, and income—with a new tax credit that is only adjusted by age. That adjustment is more than offset by new rules allowing insurers to charge five times as much for elderly people as they do for younger people.
The result is a system that almost invariably inverts the priorities of Obamacare. The main goal of Obamacare’s premium tax credits was to limit the percentage of household income that people spend on insurance, meaning it was more generous to people with less money, more generous to older people with more expensive health care, and more generous to people living in places where health insurance is more expensive. The AHCA, however, provides a credit that is much less responsive to income and is not tied to the actual regional expense of health care. And it allows insurers to charge more for older people, meaning it actually increases the share of household income spent on insurance for the most vulnerable groups of people in private insurance: the poor, the elderly, those living in expensive or underserved health markets, and those who happen to be some combination of the three. See the maps below:
According to Kaiser, many low-income people would see the share of their income spent on health insurance grow from roughly 5 percent to 10 percent under Obamacare to over 20 percent under the AHCA in particularly expensive markets. In places like North Carolina, Tennessee, Nebraska, Arizona, and several other swathes of rural America, those shares are highest. But the real disparities in affordability come into view when people making $100,000 are taken into account:
According to the projections, under the AHCA people making $100,000 or more across the country will almost all spend roughly the same—or less—on health insurance as a share of their household income. Whether by design or the result of unforeseen interactions, it’s clear that the AHCA reckons with the problem of rising premiums on the exchanges—the same problem that most Republicans highlighted in anti-Obamacare campaigns—by lowering them for upper-middle-class and wealthy people at the expense of everyone else.
The funhouse-mirror effect of the policy becomes even more clear when age is taken into account. Consider the premium increases for 60-year-old people making $30,000 a year:
Unless they all move to New York, low-income 60-year-olds would regularly see increases of 75 percent or more in their premiums. That’s an incredible figure, especially given that the age-adjustability of the tax credits in the bill was supposed to help offset higher health costs among the elderly. These increases have been a key point of contention for both Democratic and Republican opponents of the bill. To placate them, House Speaker Paul Ryan promised a “reserve fund” for older, near-Medicare-age enrollees of between $75 billion and $85 billion that would finance additional tax credits for this particular group of Americans. That fund, however, hasn’t actually been created, depends on the Senate creating it from a tax break, and still might not be enough to make health insurance affordable for this group.
The AHCA looks poised to put health insurance out of reach for not only those older Americans, but other vulnerable populations, including people with low incomes and people living in places disconnected from health infrastructure. In turn, those people could simply become more uninsured and sicker, and the places they live more expensive. On the bright side, the law may work pretty well for healthy people, those who can already afford their health insurance, and—in extremes—those who can travel for lower rates.
Monday marked the beginning of what will probably be Judge Neil Gorsuch’s toughest job interview: his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. This week, we asked Politics & Policy Daily readers what they would ask Gorsuch if they were on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Here are some of our favorite questions from readers.
Keli Osborn is curious about how the judge would rule on previous Supreme Court cases:
How would your judicial philosophy of originalism have influenced rulings on Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Griswold v. Connecticut, Bigelow v. Virginia, and Obergefell v. Hodges?
Bill Rogers simply wants to know which Supreme Court justice Gorsuch admires most—and why.
Susan Perkins would ask specifically about the case Shelby County v. Holder: “Do you have any views on the Supreme Court decision that limited the Federal Government’s power to monitor state election laws for their discriminatory impact?”
Catherine Tanaka thinks it’s absolutely crucial to know where Gorsuch stands on climate change:
So many of the problems on Earth stem from the heating up of the world, from lack of water, to the die-offs in the ocean, from which so many people get their food, to coastal flooding, and to famine leading to wars and mass migrations. No other problem needs such a coordinated approach. If we don’t fix the climate, really, what else matters?
Liberals and conservatives have fundamentally different moral codes, which makes arguing about policy complicated. Many people have found themselves locked in debates surrounding the now-suspended travel ban, with little success in convincing the other. “One reason it’s so hard to reach across the ideological divide is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethics of their own side, rather than that of their opponents,” says Atlantic writer Olga Khazan in this video. However, there’s a psychological trick that goes a long way to changing peoples minds. According to the Moral Foundations Theory, liberals are more likely than conservatives to endorse fairness-based arguments and are more concerned with principles like care and equality. So, when discussing a contentious topic, liberals should reframe their arguments to appeal the the moral values of conservatives, and vice versa. “At the very least, you can avoid making things worse,” says Khazan. “If you can’t reframe your argument, just get off Facebook.”
This is the seventh episode of “Unpresidented,” an original series from The Atlantic exploring a new era in American politics