Congressman Kevin Brady of Texas emerged from his office in the U.S. Capitol earlier this week to a larger-than-normal horde of reporters for his regular press briefing. They all wanted to ask the chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee the same thing: How could he square the tax-overhaul blueprint President Donald Trump was preparing to lay out on Wednesday with the proposal his committee has been piecing together for months? It was, really, politically impossible for him to answer, but Brady gamely tried to put a positive spin on a White House plan that he had yet to see, playing down the idea of any discord within his party while defending House leaders’ very different visions.
Still, the chairman’s studiously noncommittal replies regarding the central planks of President Trump’s plan, rushed out the door ahead of the president’s 100th day in office on Saturday, were telling. Is lowering the corporate tax rate to 15 percent really possible without exploding the deficit? “I’m convinced that working with the White House we can deliver the most competitive rates…in a permanent way that grows our economy,” Brady said. Can the government really pay for tax cuts via economic growth, as the White House claims? “Tax reform that is bold, balanced and built to last…gives us the greatest growth for the greatest number of years,” he responded.
It wasn’t an explicit rejection of the Trump proposal, but using buzzwords like “permanent” and “balanced” was signal enough that the White House plan is going to be a nonstarter on the Hill. The only way to pass a tax overhaul that is permanent and balanced requires Congress to offset any lost revenue from the proposed tax cuts—and not with theoretical future economic growth, as President Trump is suggesting.
The irony is that Trump’s tax reform rollout, which was meant to be a bullet point in the White House’s list of accomplishments over its first 100 days, only underscores one of the president’s biggest weaknesses in his three-plus months in office: his inability to navigate Congress. Despite grandiose promises, Trump hasn’t passed one major legislative initiative; the sole such effort introduced, health care, had to be yanked for lack of GOP support, and a renewed White House push for a vote this week stalled on Friday. The tax plan rollout, along with the president’s retreat just days ago on border-wall funding, show that, again, the Trump administration and Capitol Hill Republicans are not on the same page. For a party that entered 2017 giddy at its complete control of Washington, and boasting one of the most ambitious policy agendas in decades, it’s been deflating.
In the wake of Trump’s upset election win over Democrat Hillary Clinton in November, the mood in Congress “was euphoric,” said a former Republican congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be fully candid. “Compared to the environment we thought we were going to have [if Clinton had been elected president], instead, the potential seemed endless.” In the past few months, however, lawmakers have come to realize “how hard it is to get some of these things done,” said the former aide, now a political consultant. “Certainly people are disappointed that Trump has largely squandered his first 100 days.”
As the Associated Press highlighted, President Trump made 10 promises in the 100-day “contract” he presented to voters last year that required Congress to act. “None has been achieved and most have not been introduced,” the AP wrote. The White House, for its part, points to the successful Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, though that stems from Republicans’ unprecedented blockade of President Obama’s nominee for the opening and required a Senate rules change. Trump backers also blame Democrats in Congress for the president’s lack of major legislative accomplishments. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer complained in his April 25 press briefing that Democrats’ obstruction, from the moment Trump was sworn in on January 20, had been “historic.”
In public, most Republicans in Congress are also trying to put a positive spin on the president’s initial performance. House Speaker Paul Ryan denied on Wednesday that the White House’s tax proposal would complicate congressional efforts. “We see this as progress being made, showing that we’re moving, getting on the same page,” Ryan said at a press conference. “We see this as a good thing.” And Senator John McCain, not always a Trump booster by any means, said the White House shouldn’t be blamed for dysfunction on Capitol Hill. “I think there’s obviously been difficulties,” he tells Newsweek. “It’s hard for me to blame the president for the Freedom Caucus’s failure to support what we promised the American people we would do, and that is repeal and replace Obamacare.”
That push to unravel Obamacare failed in March after House conservatives in the Freedom Caucus and also more moderate members balked at supporting a plan backed by Ryan and the White House. Trump, who regularly touted his negotiating skills on the campaign trail in 2016, spent several harried days trying to broker a deal between the factions, but was unable to build the necessary consensus. One of the problems, says the former Hill aide, was the president’s shaky grasp of policy. “This is not a real estate deal where you can meet in the middle; these are ideological and policy debates where there is often no common ground,” the aide explains. “If Trump is going to wade into those debates, he needs to have a very firm grasp on the policy.”
The president also needs to have a firm set of goals, says a current Senate Republican aide, who also asked for anonymity in return for speaking openly and honestly. The fundamental problem bedeviling the White House’s legislative efforts? “There is no policy coherence. There is no plan,” the frustrated aide tells Newsweek, via email. President Trump’s constantly changing stipulations and shifting deadlines for major policy initiatives have led to confusion within his own party. “What do they want on health care? On taxes? On immigration? On infrastructure? There is no consistent policy. Only internal fighting,” the aide complains.
Veteran Representative Pete Sessions acknowledged this week that the mixed messages have been a problem when it comes to the debate over a bill to continue funding the government after April 28. But he celebrated the president’s decision to walk back his demand for border-wall funding, which most Republicans in Congress did not support. “I think they have been clearer about the desire that we are not going to have a government shutdown and that we can all say the same thing,” the Texas Republican told reporters. “And that is way different than what we’ve had sometimes in the past.”
One area where lawmakers do give the new president high marks is in his effort to engage with Capitol Hill. That’s a departure from his predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, who lawmakers from both parties grumbled kept them at arm’s length. In just the past few days, Trump has hosted separate dinners with McCain and fellow Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker. On Wednesday, the president convened a briefing for senators on North Korea at the White House. And his vice president, Mike Pence, regularly travels to the Hill to confer with members of Congress, as he did on April 25 for the Republican senators’ weekly lunch. The president is “extremely accessible,” Republican Senator John Barrasso emphasized. “More accessible than President Obama was in eight years.”
However, President Trump has struggled to turn those interactions into support for his policies. That goes back, in part, to his own malleability on the issues. But Republican critics say that it’s also a reflection of his lack of political leverage. He continues to enjoy the fierce devotion of conservative voters, but he hasn’t been able to rally them behind any of his legislative efforts. The president, says the former congressional aide, “needs to…marshal his base to push Republicans to deliver and he didn’t do that on health care at all.”
But doing so would only help win over conservatives. For members of Congress facing re-election in swing districts or states, Trump’s historically low approval ratings, particularly among independents and Democrats, are a major disincentive to cooperate with him. And that leaves the president with an extremely narrow path to a majority in either chamber of Congress. As the former aide noted, “If Obama had been where Trump is in the polls, Obamacare would never have passed.”