How Republicans Stopped Pretending and Started Getting Real

“Republicans need to become a governing party.”

It’s a mantra we’ve been hearing for years, usually in response to speed bumps in the legislative process caused by internecine warfare within the House Republican conference, and always carrying the implication that some Republicans’ problem is that they only know how to say “no.”

Earlier this month, Republicans finally got to yes, at long last passing a bill that may offer relief from some of Obamacare’s most destructive insurance mandates. The bill was far from perfect—and it was certainly not full repeal as promised—but its passage has paved the way for insurance market reform nonetheless and given new momentum to a legislative agenda that looked dead in its tracks mere weeks ago.

But the bill’s more lasting impact may be the revolution it represents within the Republican Party. Finally, House Republicans stopped pretending they are united in support of a shared governing vision. They acknowledged at long last that internal constraints imposed by substantive and ideological divisions in their conference, rather than disputes over mere tactics and procedure, are the primary limit on their own ambitions. In doing so, congressional Republicans have enabled the kind of authentic, substantive bargaining between the party’s factions that has long eluded them. And they did it by no longer denying reality.

One could be forgiven for having mistaking the Republican Party as the party of “no” in recent years. The House Freedom Caucus in particular, so often the principled antagonist in tense situations, has found itself saying “no” a lot, especially when issued ultimatums on major legislation.

Why did they say no? For years, conservative members have felt they did not have a real seat at the negotiating table. It was not that their votes were taken for granted, but rather that their party did not really want their support. They believed, many times accurately, that those actually crafting significant legislation tended to pre-negotiate deals that foreclosed from the start the possibility of addressing conservative priorities. Given the party’s ostensible shared commitment to those very same priorities—the discretionary spending caps achieved in the Budget Control Act being the most significant recurring example prior to Obamacare—the Freedom Caucus often found itself asking, “Why are Republicans negotiating with ourselves?”

The real problem, though, was that Republicans actually weren’t negotiating among themselves—instead, they were pre-emptively giving in to liberal policy demands. GOP moderates were granted veto power over priorities party leadership pretended were core to the whole party’s identity. Meanwhile, party leaders frequently lamented the presence of an implacable bloc of conservative hard-liners who, in their telling, do not know how to get to “yes.” The deal reached on the American Health Care Act—a compromise achieved only by the persistence of Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows in pursuing ad hoc negotiations with the very moderates who were his caucus’s bête noir—should explode this lazy assumption.

Why did it take so long? Because the health care bill was the one “must pass” bill that truly could not expect to see any Democratic support. No Republican member could be counted out. So for the first time ever on high-stakes legislation, leadership, the moderates and the conservatives finally had to learn to live with each other by acknowledging their own differences rather than pretending all differences were reducible to disposition and tactical approach. And they did it.

The most salutary development in this saga was the attention paid to the “Tuesday Group,” a little-known faction of moderate House members who were the final holdouts from a deal. Early in the debate, their influence went unacknowledged by leadership, which claimed it had done all that could be done to deregulate insurance markets on a budget reconciliation bill. Only after those arguments were debunked did the truth come out: For every conservative vote won over by deregulatory provisions, leadership feared it might lose several moderates, no matter the party’s consistent public commitment to repeal of Obamacare. The tried and true strategy of giving the moderates what they wanted—a bill preserving Obamacare’s core regulatory architecture— without exposing their demands to scrutiny, and pressuring conservatives to fall in line, came naturally. But then it was exposed for what it was, and a new approach—authentic bargaining between the party’s factions—was finally tested.

So now we know: Some Republican members of Congress did not share the party’s commitment to repeal. That truth likely extends to other priorities on spending, welfare, taxes and social issues. Members who take issue with the GOP’s longstanding platform when it comes time to govern can explain that to their voters, who can make their own judgments in the next election. But in the meantime, the Freedom Caucus and other conservatives have to share government with them. That will be far easier if their role in intra-conference debates is acknowledged as a restraint on the pursuit of conservative priorities than if the conference’s moderates continue to operate in obscurity.

What we see now is that the problem in the Republican Congress is not dispositional but structural and substantive: The conference is divided in ways that previously went unacknowledged, between fresh blood elected in successive Tea Party waves and an older guard less committed to conservative principle. It is a governing coalition, not an ideologically cohesive party. The party must understand itself in such terms if its constituent parts are to govern together, as voters sent them to Washington to do.

Republican leaders have for too long failed to grapple with the heterogeneous nature of this coalition they have assembled. The party’s self-image has long depended on pretending it is one and the same as the conservative movement that is its electoral base. Even moderates now campaign as conservatives of various stripes.

The energy that defines the 2010 Tea Party wave would likely not have existed if the party had presented a fractured, disparate agenda. Many have compared it to Newt Gingrich’s achievement in 1994, when he unified the party behind the Contract With America. The coherence of its shared critique of liberal governance was indeed powerful, and it enabled the party to do great things with a weak political hand. But the difference between that wave and the 2010 one, which ushered in the legislative conflict that has become so familiar, is fundamental. In 1994, Gingrich engineered a shared commitment to reform that did not otherwise exist, and he forced that commitment on a party whose senior leaders were hesitant about balancing the budget and reforming welfare when they assumed the reins of power. The ethos of the party’s insurgents was the ethos of its leadership and therefore became the ethos of its committee-level power centers. That took a particular leadership style from the top to achieve and a particular moment in time to catalyze.

John Boehner never attempted anything similar, and it’s not clear that he could have succeeded. A conference led by chairmen who had lived not just through the ups of the Gingrich revolution but also its downs would not have been eager to repeat the experience. So he presided over a divided conference without ever working seriously to heal its rifts or at least channel its generational divisions. Paul Ryan inherited the fruits of his lack of labor with no plan to build an authentic shared commitment. And now he has also inherited the responsibility of unified government.

But how to govern, then? We hear often of a return to committee-centered legislating—“regular order”—as a potential panacea. This is natural given that so many in the conference chafe at government out of the speaker’s office, including the speaker himself. But in a conference paralyzed by the tension between the diffusion of individual members’ agendas and the power held in concentrated centers, the dispute over where precisely those centers will lie – committee chairmen or the leaders senior to them – is a tangential one. Greg Walden, chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee that co-authored the American Health Care Act, expounded during recent town hall meetings about his fondness for the very Obamacare regulations that were the central point of contention. The notion that simply devolving power from the speaker’s office to such leaders, who tend to be on one side of the party’s ideological divide, would erase that divide’s paralyzing implications is fanciful.

That divide, more than the particular distribution of power in the House, is the central fact that must be grappled with in this coalition government. And it is a coalition. A governing Republican Party cannot paper its divides over. It must instead channel and direct them, promoting wherever possible authentic negotiation between blocs of members no longer willing to defer to committees of jurisdiction or binary choices imposed by leadership and eager instead to work out deals themselves. The direct negotiations between the Tuesday Group and the Freedom Caucus over health care advanced the repeal effort and should serve as a working model for legislating on the most important and contentious matters in the 115th Congress, with other blocs invited to join the debate. No longer can the heavy lifting be done by the few in elected leadership or the committees, which is perhaps as it should be in the people’s House. But making such a system work will require each bloc to figure out what it wants, and then negotiate accordingly.

It is especially important that the independent-minded moderates in the conference, long reluctant to play such a leading role and still nostalgic over the days when the turf of committees of jurisdiction on which they did not serve was considered sacred, confront the need to do this work as a bloc with coherent demands. During the American Health Care Act debate, negotiators were stymied several times by the inchoate nature of the moderates’ health care priorities and their inability to pin down what, exactly, they thought was worth repealing about Obamacare. The moderates, often long-serving members with close ties to party leaders, have relied for too long on those leaders to do their work for them and look out for their interests. If the Freedom Caucus was against what leadership was doing, many often assumed, leadership’s approach was probably something they should like.

This is not sustainable in a House that is changing underneath these members’ feet. If they expect to govern in a coalition whose center of gravity is to their right, they need a better sense themselves of what exactly they stand for and why they believe it, and they need to be willing to defend those views so that coherent negotiations can proceed in the future.

The Freedom Caucus, whose members were accused in the past themselves of being isolated bomb-throwers with scattershot, conflicting demands, has come a long way in solving the very same problems, first by banding together as a cohesive bargaining unit. With the experience of the health care negotiations behind it—the Freedom Caucus’s most visible triumph in its young life—the group will come over time to better understand itself not as a hostile actor within the Republican Party seeking short-term political victories but as a bargaining unit in constructive competition with fellow party members over discrete priorities.

All of this, of course, requires that all sides recognize that such bargaining is legitimate, even necessary, not something to be dreaded or scorned, and that its products need not represent the full vision of each of the conference’s components but must account for and balance those visions where they are in tension. No bloc of members in this coalition can be wished away, at least not before the next election.

For conservatives, none of this is to suggest that the task of reshaping the Republican Party into a truly conservative party—one in which kowtowing to moderates is no longer a constant fact of life—is no longer worth pursuing. Just the opposite; the disappointing experience of governing in a coalition that is not what it claims should underscore the need to continue the long-term debate over what it is the Republican Party stands for, a debate that will play out not just on the House floor but in many primary elections to come. That is a multi-cycle project that is entirely compatible with recognizing the restraints the current coalition imposes and therefore not requiring conservatives to set their policy sights lower in the course of making expedient accommodations to short-term legislative reality.

Conservatives and all other factions of the Republican Party have been fighting for years to make the case for their vision for the country, to convince their fellow citizens to embrace it and empower them to pursue it. That struggle continues on all sides. At long last, though, Republicans are learning now know how to govern together despite it. Acknowledging the real contours of the coalition is the essential first step to navigating them.

Michael A. Needham is chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America, and Jacob Reses is director of strategic initiatives for Heritage Action for America.

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