There are three branches of government, and two of them are in serious distress. What once passed for governing and leadership has become a spectacle of disservice by people who call themselves public servants.
The dramatic collapse of Republican efforts to change the Affordable Care Act provides Congress an opportunity to repair itself by returning to something approaching bipartisan lawmaking. It won’t be easily accomplished.
The executive branch has been a cauldron of turbulence. Just ask Anthony Scaramucci, the swaggering, newly named White House communications director, who predicted fewer than 48 hours ago what unexpectedly transpired late Friday afternoon: Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, was ousted.
The White House today has been a feuding, conniving band of officials vying for the affection of President Trump, who seems to encourage, even revel in, the chaos around him. Trump named John F. Kelly, the Homeland Security secretary, as chief of staff. The president called the retired Marine Corps general “a star.” But can he truly change the culture?
Washington hasn’t been working for some time; the breakdown began years ago. The dysfunction in Washington is one reason Trump was elected. But in the past six months, things have turned even worse, with the breakdown reaching new depths this week. For this, the #Republicans and the president bear the responsibility.
Until Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) cast the decisive vote on the bill for a “skinny repeal” of the ACA, the Senate was operating under procedures never seen before on a piece of major legislation. Legislating is never pretty — certainly passage of the Affordable Care Act was not — but there are norms usually respected by both sides. In recent weeks, those norms went out the window as Republicans struggled to fulfill a seven-year promise that is as internally divisive as it is elusive.
The effort was transparently cynical as Republicans grasped for something, anything, that might collect the 50 votes needed to keep alive what has proved to be their futile hope of getting rid of Obamacare. The measure from the House was dead on arrival in the Senate. Nothing cooked up behind closed doors under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) worked, either.
In desperation, the Republican leaders turned to a vehicle that no serious member of Congress believed could work. Hours before the critical vote, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) correctly branded the skinny repeal for what it was. “The skinny bill as policy is a disaster,” he said. “The skinny bill as a replacement for Obamacare is a fraud.” Nonetheless, Graham voted for it on the pretext that it would keep the effort alive.
McCain had joined Graham in lamenting the skinny bill’s deficiencies, and when the time came, he acted on his words. He had drawn criticism Tuesday when he returned to the Senate for the first time after being diagnosed with brain cancer and cast the deciding vote to begin debate on the bill.
Congressional leaders are now left to pick up the pieces of a shattered and demoralizing process. What’s next no one can say. There will be angry words about the maverick from Arizona from some of his colleagues and from conservatives who have never trusted him. The president, who had disparaged McCain in the early days of his candidacy in 2015, has now felt the sting of payback.
“From the very beginning, it was clear that the fate of the Trump administration lay in the hands of the Senate Republicans,” Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said in an email Friday. “The Republican senators dutifully but often reluctantly did his bidding, but now they must come to the realization that he is not worthy of the loyalty he demanded.”
He went on to say, “With the debris of the Obamacare repeal effort still in view, the survivors need to regroup and rebuild armed with a set of bipartisan blueprints.”
There will be much talk about the need to work toward bipartisanship. There are examples: Congress just sent Trump, with overwhelming support from both parties, a tough sanctions bill aimed at Russia that puts the president on the spot. On health care and perhaps other upcoming issues, Republicans may have to swallow their pride to achieve successes. Democrats, who have had the luxury of claiming they want to work with Republicans without actually having to do so, will have to make good their words.
For seven years, Republicans have lived what turned out to be a fiction. They have many complaints about Obamacare. They have words that work in political ads and in their innumerable appearances before the cameras. But they have no solution. They may keep trying, but if they return to the scheming that got them to the moment of spectacular collapse early Friday, they will expose themselves once again to searing criticism.