Bernstein on Politics: Inept Congress needs a stronger president

Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg View on

Published in Op Eds

Republicans may be about to get a good lesson about why having a president who can do more than sign the bills they send him is a lot more important than they seemed to think it was last year.

The Republican tax bill is moving forward, more or less. But it's about to endure a test that may be even tougher than it was going to be, thanks to Tuesday's election results. The problem is that different groups within the House Republican conference are going to interpret the elections in different, self-serving ways. Members in swing districts are going to be even more afraid of passing something their constituents don't like, whether it's something specific such as ending the deduction for state and local taxes or just a general sense of not wanting to vote for an unpopular bill, especially one with a difficult path through the Senate. But members in some other districts may believe that Republicans did poorly on Tuesday because they were already too wishy-washy, and what they need is a strong conservative bill to rally the troops.

Presidents can never dictate to Congress. But they can help solve coordination problems. Not by just bloviating, but by carefully listening to members and listening to what members are hearing, and finding a path that works. Yes, that's the job in the first place of the speaker and other party leaders in the House, and perhaps of committee chairs, but only the president has the visibility and influence to at least potentially lay down the law and make it stick. Especially when both chambers of Congress are involved. Especially when quite a few members are probably eager to follow someone's lead.

Of course, Donald Trump doesn't do any of that. He barely appears to know what's in any bill, let alone understand the options available that might pick up 218 votes in the House and whatever it takes in the Senate (a simple majority for the tax bill through reconciliation, 60 without that procedure if there's a filibuster, and there's always a filibuster).

By all accounts, this group of congressional Republicans just isn't very good at legislating. But a strong president can help. Too bad for them they don't have one.

About The Writer

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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