"Trump has spent the fleeting first months in office, when presidents are at the peak of power, consumed in self-inflicted controversies, both large and petty."
March 1, 2017
WASHINGTON — President Trump brought an ambitious agenda to Congress on Tuesday night, but it came without a blueprint and with no sign yet of concrete legislation to carry it out.
Over a month into the new administration, with Republicans in control of the House, Senate and White House, the big items on the Republican agenda, listed by order of priority, are piling up without action: Repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, overhaul the tax code, and invest $1 trillion to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, a plan whose only specific so far is the price tag.
As the weeks tick by, the lack of progress is creating a logjam in Congress that will intensify as deadlines loom on must-pass items such as the debt ceiling and a spending bill to keep the government open. Trump added another item Tuesday by floating the prospect of immigration reform, and he insisted that Congress build a wall on the border with Mexico.
US President Donald Trump is seated for a a lunch with Republican Party House and Senate leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) and House Speaker Paul Ryan, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC on March 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NganMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Congress has limited bandwidth. Members and staff have only so much time in the day and precious political capital. Health care and tax reform alone pose complex and politically explosive policy trade-offs. Conservatives are already balking at the prospect of higher deficits caused by some of the president’s initiatives. And Trump has offered few specifics of his own, often giving conflicting signals to GOP House and Senate leaders.
Trump has spent a chunk of his honeymoon period, the fleeting first months in office when presidents are at the peak of power, consumed in self-inflicted controversies, both large and petty. He has yet to fill thousands of sub-Cabinet positions where the nuts-and-bolts of carrying out policy is done.
The president is “certainly thinking big, given the amount of stuff he’s proposed,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “It might require two terms for him to get a good deal of it done.” Little will happen, O’Connell added, “until Trump is able to get congressional Republicans marching in the same direction.”
Democrats faced similar problems when they controlled Congress and the White House in the first days of the Obama administration. Yet by this point, they had done significantly more. They had enacted a $787 billion fiscal stimulus, a fair pay law and expanded health care benefits to 11 million children. Still, passage of the Affordable Care Act, widely known as Obamacare, took more than a year and proved so difficult that Obama’s hope to pass climate change legislation fell by the wayside for the rest of his presidency.
So far, Republicans have made progress on eliminating environmental rules, including reversing one that prevented coal mining companies from polluting streams. House Republicans have passed a flurry of sweeping environmental rollbacks, many of which await Senate action.
Here’s where Congress and the administration stand on the top three items on the GOP agenda:
Nowhere are GOP divisions more obvious than on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. Despite using repeal as a rallying cry for the past seven years, Republicans have no agreement on a replacement. The repeal deadline slipped from January to now late spring or more likely fall.
Last week, Republican leaders floated a plan grounded on $4,000 tax credits to help people buy insurance, but House conservatives swiftly rebelled at creating what they called a “new entitlement.” That forced leaders to dismiss the leaked plan as “no longer viable.”
Tuesday night, however, Trump endorsed the tax-credit idea, while adding a new requirement: that any plan cover people with pre-existing medical conditions, one of the main planks of Obamacare. It probably cannot be enforced without some kind of mandate that healthy people buy insurance, but that’s a key GOP complaint about the current law.
Republican governors who expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act are furious at a House proposal to rollback the expansion.
Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, predicted last week that Republicans would be unable to do more than “fix the flaws” of the Affordable Care Act “and put a more conservative box around it.”
In 25 years in Congress, “Republicans never, ever one time agreed on what a health care proposal should look like,” Boehner said. “Not once.”
Trump has not offered a specific health plan to guide Congress, leaving it to GOP leaders to work out.
Tax reform is just as complicated as health care. Trump has called for major reforms that would slash taxes on business and the middle class. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has promised to come up with a plan. On Tuesday, Trump skated close to endorsing a proposal by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would raise as much as $1 trillion by replacing current business taxes with a so-called border adjustment tax on imports.
The border tax is one way Trump could claim that Mexico would pay for the border wall.
But the idea is creating an uproar from the retail industry and outside conservative groups. Non-retail businesses that use imported components are also balking, along with several Republican senators. Even in the House, “most of the Republican membership thinks that’s a bad idea,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. Huffman previewed the Democratic attack line against the border tax: “Once people focus on it they will realize it’s simply a tax on consumers to pay for the crazy wall,” he said.
O’Connell said Republicans have another problem in that they must replace Obamacare before they can decide on a tax overhaul. That’s because the health care law relies on taxes to pay for expanded coverage.
Democrats love Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan to repair the nation’s roads, bridges, dams, water systems, airports, pipelines and the like. They could provide critical bipartisan support, except that there is no specific plan on what to build or how to pay for it.
Democrats oppose Trump’s idea of using tax breaks to private companies to fund construction, saying that would cost taxpayers twice — once for the tax break and again for user tolls on bridges and highways. Conservatives don’t like the idea of spending money without cutting something else. Neither party wants to raise taxes.
Kathryn Thomson, a former top Obama administration transportation official, said both parties love infrastructure until it comes time to fund it. She said $1 trillion would barely cover the backlog just in the transportation system.
“They’ve been talking infrastructure as long as I can remember now,” Thomson said. “There is broad bipartisan agreement that something needs to be done, but no leadership in Congress or the White House on exactly what the solution is. I don’t think it’s going anywhere this fiscal year.
“These are complicated issues. From Trump’s perspective, he likes to issue high-level edicts in the form of executive orders, but he has not signaled any inclination to be specific about how to achieve these objectives, and almost all his objectives require congressional support and engagement,” Thomson said.
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead