How Republicans will run Congress in 2018

Republicans ended the first session of the 115th Congress with an enormous amount of leftover work. And that work might preoccupy them until March if they extend the Jan. 19 deadline for funding the government. But how will they operate when they finally get around to this year’s business? Here are the lessons from 2017 that are most likely to define the new session of Congress.

They’ve divorced reconciliation from budgeting.

Political analyst Yuval Levin says this has been true “for some time,” but that’s not quite right. Republicans didn’t entirely disregard the normal fiscal year budgeting process of passing “budget” resolutions that lead to reconciliation bills — the procedure that allows a bill to avoid filibuster in the Senate — until 2017. Then last year they actually passed two budget resolutions, one to enable reconciliation for the health care bill and one for the tax bill, but didn’t get around to dealing with regular government spending until … well, they haven’t actually done it yet. It turns out that just because something is called a budget resolution, and was invented by legislation called the Budget Act, doesn’t mean that it has to actually contain a budget that Congress then uses to allocate spending.

What this will mean in practical terms is that Republicans will probably hold off on attempting to pass a “budget” resolution until they figure out what their big bill for the year will be, and then quickly pass one to enable a reconciliation bill that would attempt to pass that bill. Republicans who eventually had major problems with one of the reconciliation bills in 2017 didn’t attempt to kill them by killing the budget resolution.

They won’t let the details stop them. Even major details.

Republicans were willing to support health care and tax legislation that was unusually poorly constructed. This isn’t some partisan potshot — virtually all experts, including those who supported the general direction of the bills, agree. Republican-aligned interest groups didn’t appear to care very much either. That likely makes Medicare reform or infrastructure easier to pass, but less likely to actually work as intended.

They don’t really care what Donald Trump says.

While they often say nice things about him, Congressional Republicans spent 2017 ignoring his priorities and focusing instead on what they wanted to do, assuming that he would — at the very least — sign whatever they put on his desk. That doesn’t mean the president’s promises of a border wall, infrastructure, and overhauled trade deals are doomed — after all, some Republicans support those ideas. But Trump is one of the weakest presidents in modern times, and even strong ones have trouble imposing their will on Congress.

They have no interest at all in bipartisanship.

Individual Republican members may be willing to work with Democrats, and when they have no choice Republican leaders will work with the other party. But when they do have a choice, Republicans appear to prefer outright failure to bipartisan success. Nor are they willing to go through the motions of attempted bipartisanship, as Democrats were on health care in 2009, in order to provide cover to moderates who want to be able to say that a partisan bill was the only option.

The GOP’s majority is smaller, and so may be their ambitions.

Fifty-one Republican Senators may simply not have the votes for major legislation. And it’s certainly possible some members will change their behavior in an election year. They also may have changing preferences over the course of the year, depending on when their state’s primary elections are held — with the increasing group of retiring Republican members perhaps freed from electoral constraints at all.

If I had to guess, I’d say that we’re most likely to see a flurry of minor, feel-good measures surviving both houses of Congress. Then again, if they believe this will be the last unified Republican government for a while, some party actors will argue: Why not use it?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. Readers may email him at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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