The debate to repeal and replace Obamacare was always going to be a serious test for congressional leaders. Reorganizing an eighth of the economy has massive ramifications for communities and states of every political stripe. Now, a week into the formal House debate, observers are getting a sense of how leaders are handling the bill. So far, it isn’t good.
With the exception of the hardcore party loyalists, Speaker Ryan is facing opposition from basically every angle. Hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, conservative groups from the mainstream to the far right, the AARP, and all Democratic affiliated groups oppose the bill. At least nine Senate Republicans (Capito (WV), Cassidy (LA), Collins (ME), Cruz (TX), Heller (NV), Lee (UT), Murkowski (AK), Paul (KY), Portman (OH)) have voiced serious concerns about it. And within Ryan’s own caucus, the House Freedom Caucus vocally opposes it. It’s possibly more difficult to find people who like the bill.
Ryan seems to be mostly alone on this bill. Very few members publicly support the plan. The committees of jurisdiction made no changes to the bill after 45-hours of amendment and debate. This is basically unfathomable unless: leadership assured members on the committee they would address their concerns before/during floor debate; leaders pressured members to push the bills through without changes; or, both. All of this indicates a heavy leadership hand. Ryan has decided to steer this ship and he is trying to bring his reluctant members along for the ride.
There’s a perpetual myth that congressional leaders are the thought and opinion leaders of their caucus, that they decide where the party is going and get their members on board. In reality, their ability to lead is grossly overblown. Yes, there are avenues for leaders to choose a path among multiple options. That’s a major power in the Capitol. But trying to lead a caucus where it doesn’t want to go usually go ends badly for the leader.
Successful congressional leadership more often pragmatic. It entails allowing members to shape ideas rather than giving them ideas to follow. Even in ideologically similar caucuses, like the polarized parties we see today, members represent dramatically different constituencies facing very different realities. Rural California is very different from rural Ohio, suburban Florida, Wyoming, or middle Pennsylvania. Congress doesn’t think nationally. This is why Congress will never pass the “best” policies (as prescribed by many think tanks, policy wonks, etc). It is only a national legislative body in the sense that hundreds of local and state representatives gather there. But once in Washington their mentality doesn’t fundamentally shift. They continue to think locally and they should. If they prioritize national policy over their constituents’ interests, that is their prerogative. It’s also their constituents’ prerogative to unelect them.
This presents an enormous challenge for congressional leaders who are as close as it gets to national legislator as members of the legislative branch can get. They do think nationally about policy, politics, elections, etc. But throughout history parties have pushed back on leaders who lead too forcefully. Speaker Reed (R-ME) (1889-1891, 1895-1899), among the most powerful and influential speakers in history, lost his job when he forced votes on his conference and blocked bills they supported. This led to his abrupt retirement in 1899. Speaker Cannon (R-IL), possibly the most influential speaker in history, lost the majority of his power in 1910 by failing to accommodate moderate Republican members, predominantly from the Midwest, on issues like trade and tariffs. Thinking nationally has its drawbacks.
In contrast, instances of successful leadership highlight not policy brilliance but strategic brilliance. This is less about presenting the best ideas, and more about finding the right mix of ideas to get it through the process. For example, Pelosi’s leadership was critical when passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010. But her role was important not because she had the best ideas. It was because she organized the ideas of her caucus in a way that could pass. She was able to get her members to pass the law in two phases. First, they had to swallow hard and pass the Senate version of the ACA, which they hated. She then used the Rules Committee to blend a patchwork of bills put out by the Energy & Commerce, Ways & Means, and Education & Workforce committees, with some language that satisfied moderates in her caucus to amend the first bill. Only then did the ACA truly pass the House. Speaker John Boehner brilliantly navigated a variety of policy problems. For example, in 2013 he faced an unexpected revolt against the must-pass FARRM bill. He regrouped, repackaged the FARRM bill into two separate bills that satisfied his members, passed them separately, and brought them back together in conference with the Senate in an unusual, but remarkably inventive way.
The current House process – where bills are largely conceived, drafted, and pushed out of leadership offices by leadership staff – is unusual in American history. It’s not novel to Ryan’s tenure (you can trace this all the way back to Speaker Gingrich). But it’s clear Ryan is using his position and the AHCA debate to flex his wonk muscles as his party’s leading policy mind. However, this isn’t a speaker’s natural role. It’s trying to president from the speaker’s office. Coupled with the fact that it’s the wrong venue, presidential leadership in Congress is another overblown phenomenon.
Either Ryan is going to force ideas on members who don’t want them, or Republicans will not be able coalesce behind a healthcare replacement bill at all, in which case he’s trying to make something out of nothing. In either case, there’s a lot of leadership where it may not be wanted. And in the words of former Speaker Boehner, a leader without followers is simply a guy taking a walk. It’s still very early, but Speaker Ryan is currently on a walk.