House Republicans finally have a seat at the table, a stake in legislative outcomes, and major incentives to turn around the economy and fix the country’s myriad problems. The only thing is, don’t expect them to even attempt anything on a grand scale.
After railing against Democratic legislation as too far-reaching and too all-encompassing, Republicans have signaled they will make a significant break with legislative strategies that have ruled Congress for decades, pursuing piecemeal approaches rather than cobbling together a package that deals with a larger problem. The 112th Congress could signal the death of comprehensive legislation.
Republicans used big packages on health care, financial regulation, and climate change as props to rail against the Democratic agenda.
Candidates and leaders alike hammered the “massive” and “mammoth” “monstrosities” while plopping the printed-out legislation—more than 2,000 pages worth in the case of the health care bill—on every podium near a camera.
“It’s one of the things that was a talking point for many of the incoming freshmen, that we want to get back to smaller bills, hopefully single-topic,” said new Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., who made opposition to the health care law a cornerstone of his campaign.
“It just serves us better, when we campaign on transparency, that we stay single-issue,” said newly elected Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla.
Freshmen have an ally in Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who said in his speech after being elected speaker on Wednesday, “We will dispense with the notion that bigger bills are always better.”
Democrats are not alone in pushing the comprehensive approach. In 2003, when Republicans were in charge, they pushed a rewrite of Medicare that established the expensive prescription drug entitlement. Former President George W. Bush and, before he came out against it, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., both advocated for a comprehensive approach to immigration. And in the last Congress, the trio of Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tried to cobble together legislation regulating carbon emissions.
There’s a strong argument to be made for comprehensive packages. Members come from sufficiently unique districts that toeing the party line isn’t always a positive. Party leaders have to build bills that will attract majorities, which means inserting perks that win skeptical votes.
“It’s important to keep in mind why legislative majorities for years, if not decades, have turned toward these large bills. You have to ask the question, how does one legislate in pretty difficult times? Divided government, polarized parties, this time split-party control of chambers, of deficits as far as the eye can see,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a political scientist at George Washington University. “And party leaders of late have really sort of zeroed in on the strategy of building out from these small kernel, must-pass bills and packaging them in a way to overcome gridlock.”
Binder pointed to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which started as a three-page measure drafted by then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen. Leaders had to include provisions to prevent foreclosures, to increase oversight, and even to increase funding for mental health care to get votes.
But buying votes can doom legislation. Health care reform came with carve-outs to win the votes of Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Mary Landrieu, D-La. The “Cornhusker Kickback” and the “Louisiana Purchase” went on to become rallying cries against the bill. The Medicare drug benefit vote was marred by allegations party leaders attempted to bribe then-Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., by promising campaign money for his son.
“I understand there are times, having been a legislator myself, when you do a comprehensive package. But it is in the best interest, I think, of the citizenry that we look at it incrementally, on a step-by-step basis, as opposed to a comprehensive overhaul,” Ross said.
Still, abandoning the comprehensive approach likely means another Congress will pass without any serious movement toward addressing the deficit. Serious budget-cutting would combine elements both parties hate.
The goal of any comprehensive legislation, and especially something as complicated as the deficit, is to entice members to vote for something they otherwise would never support because it is bundled with more palatable solutions.
Combining entitlement cuts with tax increases might be the only way to advance any legislation that achieves a serious deficit reduction.
Both Heck and Ross said the 112th Congress would be able to take steps toward deficit reduction, and that those steps, too, should be gradual. “You can have a step-wise approach to how you want to accomplish deficit reduction with each bill addressing a specific area,” Heck said.
Taking that step-by-step approach, he said, is “actually going to force us to be more deliberative, more open, have the ability to analyze and make meaningful decisions.”
Those deliberations, and a slowed pace at which the 112th Congress will likely operate, represent a significant departure from years of legislative strategy. At a moment when Americans are largely furious with the way Washington runs and deeply skeptical of anything that comes out of Congress, that alone might be a reason for some optimism.