Oliver Goodman, Managing Editor, JHU:
In the early hours of the Saturday morning, 51 Republican Senators voted in favor of a Senate Tax Bill that cuts rates across the board, the first major legislative accomplishment thus far for this Republican-controlled Congress. The final version of the bill was 479 pages long and contained hand-written changes penciled into the margins. Democratic leaders rebuked the hurried nature of the vote, arguing that there wasn’t sufficient time to inspect the intricacies of the document. Although the bill still needs to pass through committee, it seems all but a foregone conclusion that it will land on Trump’s desk, perhaps even by Christmas.
The vote on the Senate floor closed just before 2 am and had only one Republican defector, Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee. The Republicans were heavily—and unsurprisingly—criticized by Democrats in the Senate for a secretive legislative process, with much of the bill-writing done behind closed doors. Senator Elizabeth Warren voiced her contempt for the process, holding up pages from the bill to show illegible edits scribbled in the margins in a video to her supporters. Warren asserted that none of the 100 Senators voting on the bill had the opportunity to read and internalize the complexities of the document.
The win-at-all costs strategy from Republican leadership shows how hostile the partisanship of Washington has become, and washes away the substance of rhetoric from both sides of the aisle. In January of 2010, Georgia Congressman and former HSS Secretary Tom Price tweeted, “with the Democrats discussing health care in secret, they’re sacrificing the trust of the American people.” In a similar message, Mitch McConnell stated that the American people are “tired of giant bills negotiated in secret, then jammed through on a party line vote in the middle of the night.”
Despite McConnell’s fervent protests to this behavior in 2010, during a process which lasted nearly two years, he spearheaded an effort that broke all three of these objections with almost scripted accuracy. In early stages of negotiation, a list of possible amendments was handed out on Capitol Hill—not to journalists, however. Only lobbyists received these copies. Additionally, the Affordable Care Act vote was preceded with twenty-five consecutive days of Congressional hearings, while the Tax Bill vote was preceded with zero. For a supposed advocate of transparency during the legislative process, McConnell found himself teaching a masterclass in political opacity. Later that night, McConnell and fifty other fellow Republicans voted in favor of a bill that all forty-eight Senate Democrats voted against. In fairness to 2010 McConnell, the bill wasn’t passed at midnight—the majority leader had the courtesy to wait until 2 am.
The problem with this brand of party-line politics is that it sets in motion a cycle of partisan aggression that provides absolutely no incentive for the party in power to reach across the aisle. By no means is this a new problem in Washington but, under McConnell’s leadership, Senate Republicans have pushed through their agenda in large part by exploiting technical loopholes in the legislative process rather than compromising on their ideology. For example, the next time a Supreme Court justice is nominated by a President whose party controls the Senate, we are likely to see an extremely partisan pick. This is McConnell’s doing; his deployment of the nuclear option raises the stakes for liberals and conservatives alike to push through their judicial picks while they still have power.
Although these strategies have short-term payoffs that please donors and constituents, the collateral damage McConnell is inflicting to the system, and potentially his own party, is high. To garner public support for the tax bill, administration leaders like Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin promised internal analyses that would vindicate Republican claims that the bill would pay for itself. The glaring problem is that so far they haven’t presented anything, while the Joint Committee of Taxation released a detailed report predicting a trillion-dollar increase to the deficit over the next decade.
The administration also flaunted a letter signed by 137 economists in praise of the bill. Further investigation has shown that some of these “economists” either did not work as economists, had retired, or in one case didn’t actually exist. With the administration picking and choosing which studies to advertise and undermining the legitimacy of a press corps whose historical job has been to fact-check such claims, an alarmingly propagandist pattern emerges. The Trump administration and Republican leaders are more willing to present false information than they are to acknowledge dissenting viewpoints or a lack of positive evidence.
This political strategy undermines the credibility of reputable nonpartisan institutions, and provides an incentive for the opposing party to employ similar tactics when they reach power. When Steve Mnuchin “disagrees” with the Joint Committee on Taxation without actually presenting information in his own favor, he is actively leveraging his stature as a public official to make an argument, rather than credibility as an intellectual. When an administration disagrees with an institution, like the JCT or the Urban-Brookings TPC, without providing evidence, they are jeopardizing the legitimacy of that institution in the public discourse, which is a very dangerous road to embark on. Marginalizing the opinions of non-partisan experts who are, by nearly every measure, more accurate and methodical than special-interest or internal studies, leads directly to a misinformed electorate.
This is where the media must take a larger role. Now, more than ever, major networks need to abandon the sensationalist breaking-news paradigm that leads to embarrassing and unprofessional mistakes, like the botched ABC Special Report on Michael Flynn. If networks and major newspapers spent more time making analyses like this University of Chicago Booth School of Business survey (whose panel includes the last two winners of the Nobel prize in economics, not made-up respondents) part of the public discourse, maybe we would recognize the public’s demand for accountability.
The American political system is full of safeguards and roadblocks against those who try to consolidate their own power. For these safeguards to work, however, we need an independent and credible press with a backbone and an informed electorate that is skeptical of the half-truths their administration tells them. For a Republican party whose historical platform has professed skepticism about the role of government, this administration is asking for a lot of trust.