When Unified Government Just Isn’t Enough
by Rob Oldham
Don’t sound the alarm just yet, but it looks like the Republican Party’s policy agenda might be in trouble. Without a 60-member Senate majority to beat a filibuster, Republicans are limited in what policy areas they can address without bipartisan support. As I explained in this article, Republicans should be able to tackle tax reform and a “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act through a process known as budget reconciliation, which Democrats would not be able to filibuster. However, if all 52 Senate Republicans cannot stick together, the upper chamber disagrees with the House, or President Trump rejects conservative orthodoxy in favor of a more populist approach, then the GOP could see its first chance at unified government in a decade squandered.
Again, the GOP should not panic yet. The Trump administration is less than two months old. It appears that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell largely held his party’s rank and file together on some of the more controversial cabinet nominees, such as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. But in the aftermath of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Valentine’s Day meeting with Senate Republicans, it became apparent that there is not a party consensus on tax reform or an overhaul of the Affordable Care Act.
On tax reform, Ryan has tried to put forward a border adjustment plan that tries to enact both an import tariff (to appease President Trump and the #MAGA crowd) and bring in enough revenue to pay for cuts to corporate and personal income taxes (to appease the limited government conservatives). Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) quickly denounced the Ryan plan, as did Finance Committee Chairman Orin Hatch (R-UT) and Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO). (I will leave it to people much smarter than me to explain the particulars of the plan.)
Ryan’s attempt to address healthcare reform was equally disastrous, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) leaving in a fume before the meeting with his colleagues and the House speaker was even over. Paul has aligned himself with the House Freedom Caucus, which is lining up to oppose any repeal-and-replace plan that does not cut back on Medicaid expansion. Twenty Republican senators come from states that chose to expand Medicaid, and there are many influential voices in the party—including five Republican governors—urging caution when it comes to messing with peoples’ healthcare coverage. Trump has sent mixed signals thus far on how the repeal-and-replace process should be handled, although he might be able to put things together now that Tom Price has been confirmed as Health and Human Service Secretary.
If Republicans continue to have trouble reaching consensus, expect their party base to become a little angry. After all, the GOP has campaigned on ACA repeal and tax reform for the past eight years. What’s more, the party portrayed President Obama and the Democratic administration as the final obstacle to enacting these policies. That was certainly the message the GOP intended to convey when it sent an ACA repeal bill to Obama’s desk in 2015. During the 2016 presidential election, Ryan said he was tired of divided government; the basis of his support for Donald Trump was that he wanted someone in the Oval Office who would sign Republican legislation into law.
The theory behind Ryan’s claim that unified government would help Republican policies become law has been supported by scholars since the beginning of the 20th Century. This includes Woodrow Wilson, who said that “you cannot compound a successful government out of antagonisms.” Wilson was one of the first presidents to view himself as the leader of his party, similar to a prime minister in a parliamentary system, and he used his influence to push his New Freedom domestic agenda through a Democratic Congress. Some scholars have agreed that Wilson’s emphasis on party government is what brings about important policy change, particularly because unified government centralizes the American constitutional system, one of the few in the world that allows the legislature and the executive to be controlled by opposing parties. In theory, unified government should allow for presidential leadership to corral partisans behind a cohesive ideological agenda that can be enacted over the objections of the minority.
However, this paradigm was challenged in the early 1990s with the publication of David Mayhew’s Divided We Govern. Mayhew analyzed major legislation enacted between 1946 and 1990, and found that there wasn’t much of a difference between periods of unified government and periods of divided government. He found the public mood and the timing of the legislation—most importantly if the legislation was proposed during the first two years of a presidential term—more accurate than the presence of unified government in predicting whether Congress was passing major bills.
Mayhew’s findings were surprising. Several explanations were put forward, including one that stated major policies were pursued during eras of divided government because it would lead to both parties being accountable for the effects. (This was particularly important if the policy was unpopular, such as raising taxes.) Another explanation was that divided government fostered the deliberation and compromise necessary for major policy reforms. One could see both explanations being instructive in the Trump era, particularly if conservative Republicans try to rush toward enacting proposals like an ACA repeal that more cautious or centrist Republicans think might be harmful down the road.
Later scholars gathered evidence to support Mayhew’s conclusions, including Keith Krehbiel, who thought that the ideologically ideal points of pivotal legislators, particularly the senator who could cast the 60th vote to defeat a filibuster, would be the most important factor in determining the success or failure of major policy proposals. Because the ideology of the pivotal legislator might diverge from the members of the majority party, Krehbiel thought that only radical shifts in public mood would lead to the supermajoritarian support necessary for policy change, regardless of whether government was unified or divided.
But while the arguments from Mayhew and Krehbiel are persuasive, there are still plenty of scholars who favor the Wilsonian view of unified partisan governments being the most effective vessel for policy change. For example, Sean Kelly took issue with how Mayhew defined “major legislation.” Kelly found that government policies which were salient at the time they were passed and had a substantive policy impact for years afterwards were more likely to have been passed by unified governments. His idea was that unified governments passed stronger and more ideologically cohesive bills than divided governments, suggesting that Mayhew did not properly account for the quality of a major piece of legislation. The timeframe of when Mayhew examined legislation can also be questioned, as the two major parties are now more polarized and ideologically cohesive than they were throughout most of the 20th century. With the loss of conservative Southern Democrats, it is less likely that bipartisan coalitions will form during divided government, leaving most of the work to unified governments.
There will be plenty of time to examine the unified Republican government during the Trump years and see if it improves upon the scant policy accomplishments of Congress during the six years of divided government under Obama. This will be especially interesting if the Senate Republicans do away with the filibuster for legislation and can pass bills with 50 votes (not including Vice President Pence as the 51st). It is likely that because of the ideological fractures between the Trump administration and congressional Republicans, as well as the divisions among congressional Republicans, policy-making will be just as difficult as it was under Obama. Right now, though, Congress is doing as well under Trump as it has done with any new president since Jimmy Carter in terms of early legislative productivity: all of three bills, that is. So perhaps we should not be too quick to judge.
Rob Oldham is a political writer interested in legislative politics at the state and national levels.