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Here are 3 things we learned from Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare

- March 24, 2017

The Republican campaign to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act ended abruptly Friday afternoon. Speaker Paul D. Ryan declared, after aborting a vote on the GOP plan, that “Obamacare is the law of the land.” The failure of the GOP campaign offers several lessons for understanding the first two months — and potentially years to come — of Trump’s Republican Congress.

1) Unified party control is no magic bullet

Single-party control of Congress and the White House has historically made policy change more likely. Shared electoral goals — running under the same party banner — typically eases agreement on policy ends and means.

But unified government is no panacea for gridlock if the governing party is fractured on policy and political grounds. The failure of the House GOP to coordinate on a repeal and replace plan highlights existing fractures in the GOP.

Such differences have been on full display since the November elections. They’ve been visible between moderates and conservatives in the House Republican conference, between House and Senate GOP, between President Trump and House GOP leaders, and even at times amongst the White House staff. Ironically, gaining control of the White House has made repealing Obamacare harder: Republicans were unexpectedly shooting with live bullets, oftentimes at each other.

2) Rules matter

As I wrote earlier in watching the repeal-and-replace effort, the GOP decision to use a special budget procedure known as reconciliation proved to be a double-edged sword. Reconciliation allows a simple majority to move swiftly and to avoid what would have been an inevitable filibuster in the Senate.

When used by a divided Republican majority, however, reconciliation helped to undermine GOP success.

First, reconciliation complicated the legislative process, because it focused attention on GOP divisions. To be sure, legislative action had only occurred in the House. But GOP senators clearly signaled that the path ahead in the Senate would be equally rocky with an even slimmer majority. Moreover, the GOP commitment to reconciliation freed Democrats of the burden to participate in the legislative process and absolved them of blame after the GOP plan failed.

Second, reconciliation bills in the Senate are subject to the “Byrd Rule,” part of the Congressional Budget Act that strictly limits the types of provisions that can be included in a reconciliation bill and thus protected from a filibuster. That meant that conservatives’ goals of ripping up all of Obamacare could not possibly have survived the inevitable “Byrd Bath” that would have purged offending provisions from the GOP plan.

Knowing that many of the provisions in the House bill would probably run afoul of the Byrd Rule meant that House members would be asked to walk the plank for a bill that would be dead on arrival in the Senate. Few GOP moderates probably wanted to cast that vote. And conservatives — who might have relished that vote — were disappointed that House leaders refrained from packing their bill with even more such provisions.

3) Members of Congress are keenly focused on reelection

David Mayhew’s 1974 argument is alive and well in congressional politics: Members of Congress are single-minded seekers of reelection. Lawmakers know that they are rewarded for the positions they take, not for the policies that result. And so legislators do not like to cast votes for unpopular things. That the GOP plan was so toxically unpopular seems to have surprised Republicans. But the banner headlines of the estimated millions of Americans who would lose their health insurance helped to increase public awareness of the plan and to tank its support.

Moreover, any expectation that President Trump could cajole hesitant lawmakers to cast such a tough vote was surely misplaced. As shown in the figure below, roughly 90 percent of lawmakers ran ahead of Trump in their districts in November. That means that they did not get to Congress on Trump’s coattails: They got there either from their incumbency status or more likely the safe red nature of their districts.

Lawmakers’ vote share compared to Trump’s vote in their districts (2016).

The figure also highlights in green those members who had announced their intention to vote against the bill by early afternoon on Friday (updating the Roll Call list from that morning, which appears to have been the most cautious of the whip lists). Electorally, opponents varied widely in their own electoral security. And all of them outperformed Trump in their districts.

These members may have anticipated electoral trouble back home if they voted for the GOP plan. But it seems unlikely that very many of the House GOP feared retaliation from Trump. Opposition from organized groups on the far right also afford them protection from challenges back home.

Granted, Trump remains popular — though showing signs of sliding — amongst Republican voters. But nationally, his public standing is historically abysmal, further diminishing the incentive for wavering the GOP to side with the president.

Looking ahead, these electoral and institutional pressures — compounded by GOP conflict on several other salient policy issues — are unlikely to recede any time soon.  And declining presidential capital won’t make it any easier as the Republican Congress moves on.