How Will Congress Cope With Trump?

Democrat or Republican, no one on Capitol Hill is certain what changes the president will bring.

POOL / Reuters

What can the American people expect from the 115th Congress? Sounds like a trick question, right––or the start of a bad political joke? I mean, what have the American people come to expect from every Congress: dysfunction, partisanship, hypocrisy, opportunism, chaos … Down, down, down the list spirals.

For all his Who’s-your-daddy swagger and drain-the-swamp chatter, Donald Trump is unlikely to make much of a dent in this dynamic. (Some cultures are simply beyond help.) But that doesn’t mean Capitol Hill isn’t braced for upheaval. Every election, particularly one involving a presidential transition, reshuffles legislative priorities and power dynamics. Toss in an erratic, ideologically fuzzy commander-in-chief who stumped hard against both congressional teams, and things could go topsy-turvy pretty quickly.

Democrat or Republican, uncertainty is the name of the game for lawmakers. Yes, the GOP majority has legislative plans that it aims to pursue at top speed. Battle lines are being drawn over issues ranging from tax reform to infrastructure spending to the state of the Supreme Court. The Obamacare cage match is already raging. But where Trump will come down on, and the degree to which he will meddle in, these and other fights remains a sizable X factor. (Even before taking office he was throwing shade at pieces of the GOP tax package, as well as any talk of axing Obamacare before a replacement was ready for prime time.)

Indeed, pretty much everything about Trump’s handling of his new gig has lawmakers speculating, in part because he is the first president with no record of public service. “It’s a totally unique situation in American history,” said senior House Republican Tom Cole. With Obama, “you at least had a clue,” said Cole. But Trump? “We don’t really know how he’s going to react.”

A House Democratic aide (who, like most people I spoke with, wished to remain nameless on the topic of Congress’s navigating the Trump era) put it less charitably: “It’s uncharted territory with a madman at the helm.”

Amidst the ambiguity, however, there are Big-Picture adjustments that Hill folks acknowledge need to be made—by both teams––some of which go to the heart of how Congress has functioned (or not) in recent years.

For triumphant Republicans, the central challenge extends beyond the strategic into the existential: They must learn to function stripped of their unifying identity as anti-Obama warriors. Democrats, meanwhile, will be attempting a precarious balancing act of disagreeing, strongly and often, yet without being so disagreeable that they brass off the white-working-class Trump voters they are so desperate to win back.

This is a tougher transformation than you might think. For the past eight years, whether in the majority or minority, the House or the Senate, GOP lawmakers have rallied their conference, and their voters, around a single, straightforward mission: to make life as difficult as possible for the 44th president.

This was especially true in the House, where the bulk of Republicans were expressly elected to fight Obama. Less than a third of the conference has served under any other president. For the rest, a life of stalwart opposition is all they have ever known. And as frustrating as it may have been at times, the goal of stopping Obama at all costs stood clear and constant––comfortable even.

That all ended Friday.

Back in 2009, then-House minority leader John Boehner shared with me (with excruciating prescience) how much easier it is to be in the minority than to run things. “One of the great shocks of 1994 was--we had won the majority, and no one in our caucus had ever been in the majority--no one realized how much more work it is.” Stopping the other team from scoring is relatively simple, he said. But when you’re in charge? “You hand the football off to a fullback, and he’s gotta run with it.”

With Trump in the White House, Republicans face a similarly seismic shift. Whatever does (or does not) come out of Washington going forward, the GOP owns it.  (As Cole has been joking of late, “You can’t blame it on somebody else now.”)

Most practically, Republican lawmakers must pivot from blocking someone else’s agenda to crafting legislation that can garner at least a smidge of bipartisan support. (The GOP’s Senate majority, you will recall, shrank this election, and Democrats are not in a conciliatory mood.) They can no longer just hate on government. They’ve got to figure out how to make it better.

Along the way, GOP lawmakers will be working to manage expectations and reactions from all sides. Among conservative voters and interest groups, excitement—and impatience—are running high. (On K Street, defense contractors and Wall Street types are among those eyeing the Trump era with great expectations.) Disappointments are bound to occur. “It’s the nature of politics,” said Cole. Managing those will be thornier without the all-purpose Obama card to play.

On the flip side, members and staff are discussing how to mollify constituents who may not like some of what Congress does accomplish. (Already, some lawmakers have encountered pushback from folks at home upset over the prospect of losing their Obamacare.)

Republicans also will need a vastly subtler approach to disagreeing with their new president. They cannot simply vilify Trump as they did Obama without risking his voters turning on them. Trickier still, Trump does not take even gentle criticism well. With apologies to Michelle Obama: When they go low, he does not go high.

This will be a brave new world in particular for the House Freedom Caucus, whose entire two-year existence has revolved around attacking Republicans deemed insufficiently adversarial toward Obama. Trump poses a more fraught target and denies Freedom Caucusers some of their flashier tactics. “Lots of tools they used to use aren’t going to be very helpful,” said Cole. For instance: “Shutting down the government with a Republican administration is pretty much off the table.”

Well aware of this, Freedom Caucusers have been hard at work fashioning a new identity and purpose: less bomb throwing and ideological purity policing; more policy promotion.

Through all the ups, downs, and reinventions, Republicans will need to police themselves against overreach. Fat chance, predicts a Senate GOP staffer. “With all that testosterone flowing, there are going to be some bad decisions made.” Exhibit A: House Republicans’ ill-fated move to neuter the Office of Congressional Ethics, blithely attempted on the first day of the new Congress. The Senate staffer fears a similar PR disaster looming with earmarks, which the House was raring to vote on in November. “The House GOP is itching to bring back earmarks. Ryan will have to grease some wheels somehow,” the staffer observed. “The whole reason Ryan had to stop the vote is because he did not have the votes to stop it!”

So what will Democrats be up to while Republicans are test-driving a new raison d’etre? Working on their role as a strong––but not nihilistically obstructionist!––bulwark against the GOP juggernaut.

Oh, sure, some Democrats, like former Senate leadership aide Jim Manley, would like to see the team stick it to Republicans for their Obama-era policy of total gridlock. (Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s nine months of stonewalling Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is an especially sore spot.) “The only thing to do is steal a play from McConnell’s playbook and try to burn the whole place down,” grumped Manley.

But for now at least, this is not the plan. “That makes it too easy to pin us as obstructionist,” a senior Senate Democratic aide told me. And besides, a former House leadership staffer said of his party, “it’s not in our Democratic DNA.” (The blue team, he said, is too invested in the notion that government should work to play that level of hardball.)

Instead, Democrats are prepping a divide-and-conquer strategy: foot-drag and (yes) gridlock on policies favored by congressional Republicans (like killing Obamacare and unraveling Wall Street reforms) but extend a hand to Trump on campaign promises he made that mesh with their values. (Think: infrastructure investment and trade.)

“We are presenting a choice to the president,” said the senior Senate aide. If he pursues issues that align with Democratic priorities, “he will find Democrats eager to work with him.” This will, however, require Trump to “buck the Republicans in Congress,” stressed the aide. Democrats’ selective cooperation is not aimed at  “finding middle ground” with GOP members, the aide clarified, but about Trump’s “upending decades of Republican orthodoxy” and “going around congressional Republicans” on particular issues. The goal: deny the majority legislative wins while positioning Democrats as the party that can work with Trump to get stuff done.

Not that Democrats really expect Trump to follow through on his progressive promises. They tend to see those as just another piece of the massive con job he perpetrated on the electorate, and exposing the con is central to rallying public sentiment against the president, they say.  “We have to confront him on substantive issues in surgical ways: Show reporters and constituents exactly how he’s not living up to his impossible promises,” said the House Democratic aide.

Operationally, this will mean getting better at the “granular stuff,” like coordinating news releases, said the House aide. “Have every House Dem send something to their local press list and post on social media at the same time. You may have noticed, House Democrats aren’t very good at this currently.” And all seem to agree that it does not pay to go tweet-to-tweet with Trump. That way lies madness.

There will, of course, be issues on which individual Democratic members need to break ranks in order to keep constituents back home happy. This is as it ever was. Thus, especially on environmental and energy issues, look for Senate Democratic chief Chuck Schumer to allow his troops (especially those up for reelection in 2018 in states won by Trump) occasional voting flexibility--so long as the overall count denies Republicans a filibuster-proof supermajority.

(At some point, look for restive House Republicans, and perhaps even Trump, to pressure McConnell to “go nuclear” and do away with the filibuster. But McConnell is an institutionalist, and Senators on both sides of the aisle tend to be wary of tinkering with the chamber’s prerogatives. Certainly, many Democrats now regret the 2013 move by then-Majority Leader Harry Reid to end the filibustering of presidential appointees below the Supreme Court level.)

Then there is the oh-so-delicate crusade upon which both parties will be embarking: wooing--or at least not alienating--the white working-class voters who put Trump in office. This demographic has issues with both congressional teams, and both acknowledge that the cohort must be handled with care.

Democrats say they are upping their game on outreach and messaging. Thus, their willingness to work with Trump on more populist issues favored by this block. The prevailing narrative about the party’s need to choose between the “Obama coalition” and the white working class presents a false choice, said the senior Senate aide. “If we have a sharp, bold economic message backed up by policies that don’t just nibble around the edges,” the aide insisted, “we can keep our base motivated and activated and still reach and empower those voters that we lost.”

For their part, Republicans will be working to embrace their new voters without allowing them to fundamentally alter the party. The white working class tends to be not only less conservative on social issues than the GOP’s evangelical base but also significantly less hostile to Big Government.

“These voters are more accepting of federal government spending and power,” said the Senate Republican aide. “How will the GOP accommodate these new members of their governing coalition? Will the theater of Trump be enough, or will policy concessions need to be made to make them show up in November 2018 as well?” Keeping Trumpkins in the fold without diluting core conservative values will be a juggling act for the entire conference.

So while Congress may not become significantly more functional—or less maddening--in the coming session, it will at least get shaken up a bit as exotic new challenges are layered atop deeply entrenched ones. In the Trump era, the rule of thumb on Capitol Hill is the same as everywhere else: expect the unexpected.