The relative speed differential between the Trump White House and the Republican Congress is already starting to cause problems, it seems. Because the Trump administration is moving so quickly and Congress historically moves at a pretty glacial pace, the unspoken bargain between congressional Republicans and President Trump is already showing cracks. The basic deal was going to be that GOP leaders in Congress would back Trump up on some of his (shall we say) more esoteric campaign promises, while Trump’s end of the bargain would be to sign pretty much anything Republicans could manage to get past Congress, even if it contradicted some of what Trump promised his supporters (like gutting Medicare and Medicaid, to cite the most obvious candidate). GOP leaders would allow Trump to build his wall in exchange for Trump allowing them to shred the safety net and bestow generous tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy. That was the plan, at any rate.
The problem Republicans in Congress are now facing is twofold. The first complication is a story which hasn’t gotten nearly the media attention it deserves ― Republicans in Congress seem downright incapable of even deciding among themselves how to implement their agenda. The Tea Party hardliners (especially in the House) are, as is their wont, pushing for absolute fealty to their unrealistic ideals. They’re not in the mood to back down one tiny inch from any of their extreme goals ― just like they’ve always been. It has been roughly seven years since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was signed. Seven years! Not once in that entire time have the Republicans in either chamber of Congress even sent a bill to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office, which is the first step any serious legislation has to take. No floor votes have been held on any sort of replacement for Obamacare in the House or in the Senate. Zero votes. In seven years. This is because Republicans cannot agree among themselves what to do if their fantasy of waving a magic wand and making Obamacare disappear ever did come true. And Obamacare is merely the most obvious example to cite ― just wait for the infighting to come when the budget bills are being written.
Congressional Republicans’ own dysfunction slows down a process that was already pretty snail-like to begin with. Even in normal times, when Congress is actually functional, bills take a long time to pass. With GOP infighting at every step of the process, it’s going to take even longer. Which brings up the second problem ― the blinding speed of the Trump White House. It has not even been a full month since Donald Trump was sworn into office. To put this another way, there are a whopping 47 more months to go. Yet in this abbreviated time, we’ve already seen a slew of presidential actions issued at a breathtaking pace. Granted, many (if not most) of these are nowhere near as impactful as Trump likes to think (executive orders can only do certain things, and are meaningless for other subjects). Even so, the speed at which they pour forth has been relentless. This means while Congress is working slower and slower, the Trump White House seems to be flooring the gas pedal, leaping forward at breakneck speed. To state the obvious: these two trends are working against each other, at least when seen through the eyes of Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.
The net result of all this is that the unspoken bargain may at some point become impossible to sustain. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell really wanted to hustle a whole bunch of the standard Republican agenda through Congress and present it to Trump for his signature. This would have the benefit of proving the GOP can indeed govern, and it would provide much red meat to the traditional Republican base. Congressional Republicans could point to all their achievements and talk about them, rather than answer more questions about what Trump just tweeted.
The problem for Ryan and McConnell (and the rest of them) is that absent large legislative packages placed on Trump’s desk, there’s really nothing to talk about (to journalists or to their own constituents), other than what Trump has been doing. With the White House gushing executive actions like a firehose, there simply is no letup. Now that the steady stream of stories out of the Oval Office has turned rather sour, Republicans are having not only to defend Trump’s odd priorities, but also the increasing amount of White House scandals.
In the past day or so alone, a letter from the ethics office strongly recommended that Kellyanne Conway be disciplined for hawking Ivanka’s products in a televised interview, the House oversight chair asked for details on the “room situation” that happened down at Trump’s golf resort (where a national security meeting took place in full view of diners lacking any sort of security clearances, after North Korea timed a missile launch to happen during the dinner), and an increasing number of Republicans (mostly in the Senate) are now calling for a full investigation of the scandal which forced out Michael Flynn ― as well as all the rest of the shady ties to Russia from the Trump campaign and Trump administration. That all happened in one day. And, once again, we’re not even four weeks in yet.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Republicans in Congress were supposed to allow some of Trump’s foibles to go unchallenged (so he could score some political points with the people who elected him), while Trump was supposed to return the favor by not challenging the full rollout of the GOP agenda in all its shining glory. But the relative speed of both efforts is increasingly noticeable, now that the whole grand bargain seems about to fly apart in a paroxysm of chaos. GOP leaders signed up for looking the other way on inane things like a Muslim ban and a border wall, but they hadn’t counted on joining in a coverup on national intelligence scandals involving Russian interference with high-ranking Trump officials. That wasn’t supposed to be part of the bargain, in other words.
A new political bombshell was dropped today which may or may not get the attention it deserves. So far, Trump has gotten all his appointments through the Senate (although Betsy DeVos was as close as it could get), because Republican senators have been voting in lockstep for almost all the Trump nominees. But today the nominee to head the Department of Labor had to withdraw his bid. Reports are that anywhere from seven to twelve Republican senators had indicated they weren’t ready to vote for him, and it only takes three to derail a nomination.
This is an important development, because it is the first time the Republicans in Congress have effectively stood up to Trump. It remains to be seen how he’ll react, but it’s a real possibility that he’ll lash out at Republican senators in response. This may further sour the relations between Trump and the people he needs to get anything of note accomplished during his presidency. Trump wants to show the world how quickly he can institute change in Washington, and so far he’s set a frenetic pace. Even before the scandals started piling up, it was getting hard for congressional Republicans to keep up. Add to this the slowdown caused by their own caucus not being able to agree on much of anything, and you get Trump going full speed ahead while the GOP Congress has thrown on the emergency brakes. The upshot is the media and the political world has nothing to talk about except what spews from the White House on a daily basis. Since that stream has turned polluted ― with multiplying levels of scandal ― this has put congressional Republicans in an ever-deepening defensive crouch.
Progressives have been holding their breath since Trump took office, hoping that the wheels would come off his political bus before too much damage had been done. This was once an almost-dogmatic belief among Democrats ― that Trump would surely fail. However, this belief was shaken to the core when Trump actually got elected (which wasn’t supposed to happen, according to the same belief). Less than a month in, however, it’s looking more and more certain to come true ― and probably sooner than later. With antagonism building between congressional Republicans and Trump, it is now looking like the biggest fights over the next year or so aren’t going to come from Democrats, but rather be an orgy of Republican-on-Republican squabbling. After all, it’s been less than a month and already Donald Trump is racking up not only policy failures (the Muslim ban) and personnel failures, but also national security scandals and Trump nominees getting rejected by the Senate. Things are pretty bad and getting worse for Trump, politically. Who knows how bad things will get in another month’s time?
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