On the last day of 2016, I sent the editing team at The Federalist a draft article that predicted events in the coming Congress. If those events came to pass, then it could publish, along with a notation indicating that I had written it months (or years) previously.
The piece described a scenario in which cross-pressures over repealing-and-replacing Obamacare led Paul Ryan to resign his speakership. Even then, before the 115th Congress officially convened, I envisioned conflicts between the “repeal” wing of the Republican Party and the “replace” wing, making success on health care unlikely and Ryan the likeliest “fall guy” in any such scenario. Even though Wednesday’s retirement announcement by the speaker officially rendered this outcome moot, I can’t help but reflecting on the prediction.
The reality proved far worse than I had envisioned back then. At the end of 2016, I thought Paul Ryan had a plan, and that achieving consensus on a plan would prove the tough part. But Ryan didn’t even have a plan. And while it didn’t cost him the speakership in 2017, it should have.
A Party Proves It Has No Idea How to Lead
A few months after I drafted that prediction, the worst-kept secret among Republican circles became the fact that House leaders didn’t start drafting health-care legislation until late January 2017, around the time of President Trump’s inauguration. On one level, the delay made some sense. After all, no one expected Donald Trump to win the presidency—not even Donald Trump.
But on the other hand, members and staff should have immediately sprung to work the morning after the election, to begin assembling options and drafting legislation. Congressional leaders had 72 days between November 9, 2016 and January 20, 2017 to develop both a coherent strategy and a bill. They certainly didn’t do the latter, and they probably didn’t do enough of the former. Those failures ultimately lie at Ryan’s feet.
Some may argue that congressional leaders’ initial support for a repeal-first approach—also called “repeal-and-delay,” for it would have postponed the repeal’s effective date to allow for enacting a replacement—justified the lack of action on a “repeal-and-replace” measure. After all, “repeal-and-replace” didn’t become the preferred option until the month of Trump’s inauguration. But Republicans were always going to need some type of “replace” legislation eventually, and delaying work on drafting that bill qualifies as legislative malpractice.
Hiding Your Heads In the Sand Isn’t a Plan, Guys
That failure to plan had knock-on effects throughout the process. First, it led Republican leaders to cut procedural corners, in a vain attempt to make up for lost time. The March 2017 copier-based expedition by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) had more than a grain of truth in it. Paul had to search for the legislation because it didn’t exist (or was being quickly re-written), and leadership feared the consequences if more initial rough drafts leaked.
Once they did release their bill publicly, House Republicans didn’t hold hearings on the legislation before marking it up, leaving many members to defend their votes for legislation whose full implications they didn’t necessarily comprehend.
The fast timetable meant House leaders passed the bill in committee, and on the House floor, without final Congressional Budget Office scores. One staffer called this tactic a game of Russian roulette—a hope that final CBO scores would not blow up in members’ faces after they voted for the bill. These procedural shortcuts led to understandable concerns among the public about the rush to pass a bill, not to mention justifiable arguments of hypocrisy over how Republican critics of Obamacare’s lack of transparency used an even more secretive process.
Second, once they did draft a bill, time pressures contributed to Ryan’s initial take-it-or-leave-it strategy with his own conference. In part, House leaders’ talk of “binary choices”—“Either support the Republican plan as-is, or support Obamacare”—stemmed from their desire to pre-empt a rightward drift that might hinder the bill’s chances in the Senate. But it also came from their absurd prediction—which I called absurd at the time—that Congress could introduce, and pass, legislation remaking much of the nation’s health sector within six weeks.
That negotiating strategy of “ram and jam” virtually guaranteed the House would develop a serious case of indigestion from the legislation—which it did—thereby prolonging the debate further. Congress never fully moved off health care until the September 30 “deadline” to pass budget reconciliation came and went, ensuring that not just President Trump’s first 100 days, but his first 250 days, were consumed by “repeal-and-replace.”
The Party’s Mess Isn’t Ryan’s Fault, But Leadership Lack Is
To be clear, the Republican Party faced internal fissures on health care that Ryan could not have resolved by himself. Immediately after the election, I considered stalemate the likeliest option, and so it proved.
But had House leaders crafted a bill sooner, they could have 1) guaranteed a more open process, alleviating some member concerns and preventing bad headlines about the lack of transparency, or 2) discovered the intractable nature of the debate at an earlier stage in 2017, and pivoted away from health care sooner (perhaps to come back to it at some later date). Either option would have proved far preferable than the events of last spring and summer.
To sum up: House leaders’ failure to plan, and draft Obamacare legislation well in advance, led to members taking tough votes—votes that could cost members their seats in November—without either all the information they needed to make an informed choice or a process they could publicly defend. And it squandered the entirety of what little honeymoon President Trump had with voters last year.
The relevant committee chairs and elected leaders share responsibility for these twin debacles. But in the House, the buck stops with the speaker, placing the lion’s share of the blame on Ryan. While no one challenged his speakership on the basis of these catastrophic failures, members would have been well within their rights to do so, for the legislative incompetence of Ryan’s team caused the Republican Party unnecessary grief and stress.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul asked, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” At the time when Republican Washington needed a path toward action on health care, another Paul proved to be a far from certain trumpet, with disastrous consequences for his party. It will stand as part of his legacy.