Incompetence, with Consequence

Events of the last few days – and really of the last few months – have led me to look back to a pair of posts I wrote months ago, not too long after Trump was inaugurated.  These posts described something that is now coming to define the Trump presidency.*  Back in March, right after the first attempt at a health care bill failed in the House, I wrote a post called “In Praise of Incompetence.”  In that post, which borrowed a phrase that Lawfare blog’s Benjamin Wittes had applied to Trump & his travel ban,take cover I argued that it wasn’t just Trump to whom we could apply the phrase “malevolence tempered by incompetence” but the GOP as a whole.

The idea of the post was that many of their policies are cruel, but their utter ineptitude at getting any legislation passed would protect us from much of what they were trying to do.  I argued back then that the struggles we saw with that first attempt at health care would be replicated in the months ahead – not just with health care legislation, but with legislation in general – because the party was completely unprepared to govern and was being led by a President even less equipped for the job than they were.

Here’s a taste of that post:

And that’s why I think what we saw with the health care bill will not be an isolated incident.  Republicans are going to struggle to get their competing factions to work together, and to re-learn the arduous process of passing bills (because it takes more than just writing a bill to get it passed), and to figure out how to work with a completely inexperiencedundisciplined and often disinterested & policy-ignorant President.

BUT, that post came with a huge caveat.  In the post that followed, “A Caveat on Incompetence,” I warned that Democrats (or anyone who opposes the current Trump/GOP agenda) should not get complacent or be too comforted by this GOP incompetence, because there was still a lot of damage Trump could do on his own, even if the GOP never managed to pass a single significant piece of legislation.

From that post:

My word of warning to Democrats (and other Trump opponents) is the following: don’t rely on this incompetence, do not get complacent.  While I do believe – as I argued yesterday – that Trump/GOP incompetence will hamper them in achieving some of their larger goals, there is still a lot they will be able to accomplish and a lot of damage they can do to progressive priorities in spite of this.  Even if Trump & the GOP never manage to pass a single major piece of legislation, they can still change the country in pronounced ways.

Here are links to both of those posts in their entirety:

  1. In Praise of Incompetence
  2. A Caveat on Incompetence

Now, six months later, we’re seeing that both of these theories are proving to be true.  Republicans have, of course, spent much of the time since then attempting to repeal (and supposedly replace) Obamacare.  While the House did end up passing a health care bill after the time of those March posts, the Republicans were never able to get a bill past the Senate despite numerous, increasingly desperate attempts to pass something, anything.

However, over the course of the past week, Trump has – without any assistance from Congress – taken big steps to dismantle parts of Obamacare and to significantly damage the Obamacare markets:  he signed an executive order that will destabilize the markets when it eventually it takes effect, and he announced that he will immediately stop making payments for Obamacare’s cost sharing reductions.  (His administration has also been taking a number of smaller steps over the past few months to damage Obamacare, but these moves in the past week are by far the most significant of the things he’s done).**

So, on the one hand, the malevolence of Trump and the GOP has certainly been tempered by their inability to get a bill passed that would fully repeal the ACA.  Obamacare still stands, and at least for 2018, it will probably function reasonably well (thanks to a lot of defensive actions by insurers, States and Democratic politicians).  But, on the other hand, as my caveat warned, even without passing any legislation, Trump has been able to cause significant damage and chaos.

And health care is just one example.  This same scenario could – and likely will – play out in numerous ways as we go forward in the Trump administration.  With respect to legislative incompetence, Republicans have not passed any legislation of significance under Trump so far.  And note that at the end of “In Praise of Incompetence,”  – which again, was written in March – there is a link to an article in which the Trump administration brushes off the health care failure by saying they’ll be moving on to tax reform to hopefully have it done by the August recess.  That would be last August, the one that passed a couple months ago.  That obviously didn’t happen, and it’s unclear if they will even get it done by the end of this calendar year.

Now, for a combination of reasons, taxes may be the one area where Republicans eventually will get some sort of legislation passed.  It almost certainly won’t be tax reform – at most it will be simple tax cuts.  But this legislation is THE highest priority for the GOP (yes, higher priority than Obamacare repeal even): tax cuts have for decades taken precedence over all else for the Republican party, but it is now more urgent than ever. Members know that if they go into the 2018 elections without this accomplishment to tout, they’re likely to be punished badly.  And they’ve already been warned that big donors will close their wallets.

So the GOP will be even more highly motivated here than they were with health care. Plus, they have a lot more experience dealing with tax issues than they do with health care. And the downsides of a GOP tax bill aren’t so great or so obvious to the public as they were with health care.  Taxes also aren’t generally so highly emotional as health care is for most people, so even those who oppose a GOP bill won’t be as energized about it. And, like health care, a tax bill can be passed with a simple majority vote using reconciliation. So, this bill could pass.  But Republicans have already gone long past their originally scheduled programming.  So if/when it passes, it will likely be their only significant legislative achievement for Trump’s entire first two years in office.

That’s why we can expect to see a lot more of Trump flexing his muscles with executive actions and other methods he has at his disposal to make things happen without the help of Congress. (We’ve already seen this happening in significant ways, for example with Trump ending DACA, decertifying the Iran agreement, pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, and with his administration overturning boatloads of Obama-era regulations – particularly in the environmental arena).

The ineptitude of the GOP will protect us from a lot, but Trump isn’t going to allow it to entirely prevent him from wreaking his havoc on the country.  In fact, the more frustrated Trump becomes with Congress’ failures, the more likely he is to act out with reckless actions of his own (with healthcare being Exhibit A).  There’s still much more chaos to come – take cover!



*This phenomenon will define at least the first two years of Trump’s presidency.  The results of the mid-term elections have the potential to change this dynamic.

**On Tuesday afternoon, Senators Murray and Alexander reached a bipartisan agreement to mitigate one of these recent moves by Trump: his decision to stop funding Obamacare’s cost sharing reductions (CSRs).  It still remains to be seen if such a bill can pass both chambers of Congress (that is, if GOP leaders even agree to hold a vote on it) and whether Trump will sign it.

Trump seemed to indicate support for the deal during questioning in the Rose Garden on Tuesday afternoon, but by Tuesday evening, at a speech before the conservative Heritage Foundation, he appeared to be singing a different tune (Trump keeps claiming the CSR payments are “bailouts” to insurance companies even though the money goes to reduce costs for low income customers, so that’s what he’s referring to below):

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