Policy change & the empty Presidency

It’s June 19, 2017, and the Senate is hurtling towards a vote next week on a major healthcare bill written in secret that most Republican Senators haven’t even seen.  In what would normally have thrown a giant wrench in the gears, last week the President castigated the initial House bill (AHCA) as “mean” and “coldhearted” and exhorted the Senate not to sharply cut coverage.  Instead the Senate is ignoring him and moving ahead seemingly careless of the President’s policy preferences. I wrote a few months ago that I found the passage of Trumpcare unlikely – I still do!  I think it’s worth digging into some of the odd behavior of the actors involved and putting down a marker on why I’m skeptical of the AHCA’s chances.

Republicans were apparently stunned when the President dragged the AHCA despite touting it two weeks before, but they shouldn’t have been.  The President has no real ideological orientation or commitment to internal consistency, which he views as a positive.  I viewed this as presenting a major problem for crafting legislation – legislators wouldn’t go out on a limb for someone who would have no compunction sawing it off after him.  I thought Republican Congresspeople would think through the game a few moves ahead, but apparently was too optimistic:

In the House Ways & Means Committee markup today, there was discussion among a couple of Dems and Republican members, with a Democrat saying: “See, we told you your health care bill was mean. Now the president agrees with us.”…A number of members of Congress have told Axios that Trump and Pence lobbied the bill like nothing they’d ever seen, using superlatives such as calling it a “great bill.” Members who Trump urged to take a risk and pass the bill are now seeing him turn his back on them. One member said Trump was on the phone urging people to support it, and “for him to turn around and do this, it’s stunning. I can’t believe it.”

So this incident is both why the Senate is ignoring his policy demands and why legislating will be difficult.  Senator McConnell rightly sees that there’s no reason to make policy concessions to the President’s stated demands, as his statements today don’t necessarily indicate anything about his preferences tomorrow.  At the same time, moderates facing tough re-election campaigns are likely very anxious about the prospect of a President who might easily turn on them.  They can (also correctly!) see that giving him a concession with a vote here will likely earn them nothing.  Now, the Senators may still be muscled into it the way the House was, but there’s an additional risk – Trump might actually veto the bills.

It only seems insane if you think that the President cares about policy!  It would likely result in a burst of positive press if he told them to “come back with a better deal” and means he wouldn’t have to defend an unpopular bill at political cost to himself.  It would be entirely on-brand. Furthermore, he could count on friendly media to defend his decision and the substantive policy would win some support from Democrats.  I don’t think this is likely, but his general disengagement from the process means it’s certainly an imaginable outcome.

Traditionally theories of Congress depend on spatial ideal points or party cartels but if anyone involved in this game thinks that the President’s utility function depends on moving policy closer to his policy ideal point or protecting the GOP majority, they are playing with fire.

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