On Wednesday morning, in a surprise Oval Office move, President Donald Trump suddenly defanged the political peril associated with the looming federal debt ceiling. He did this by instinctively siding with Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over his fellow Republicans.
This won’t be the last time Trump woos Democrats and spurns Republicans – and that’s not a bad thing.
In fact – on the same day! – Trump followed Act One by publicly praising Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, at an afternoon rally in her state. Just like Ronald Reagan, he is trying to get Democrats to rally behind his efforts to cut the corporate tax rate.
By courting Democrats and building policy coalitions across party lines, Trump is well on his way to pivoting out of the Republican legislative cycle of self-destructiveness.
And the first step toward that will be to gut the so-called “Hastert rule.” The informal maxim binds Republicans jointly into a suicide pack whereby they only support legislation that is also supported by a majority of their party caucus.
Siding with Democrats in the debt-ceiling debate
The New Yorker captures the scene at Wednesday’s White House:
For weeks, Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, had been plotting a strategy to use the debt-ceiling vote to extract concessions from Donald Trump and his fellow-Republicans. Over the weekend, the White House and Senate Republicans indicated that they wanted a debt-ceiling increase attached to a bill to provide immediate aid for areas of Texas and Louisiana affected by Hurricane Harvey. The plan was perfect for the G.O.P. The House would pass a “clean” debt ceiling that most Republicans would probably support. In the Senate, Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, would add the Harvey money and pass the two bills together with the help of Democrats. The plan was to raise the debt ceiling for eighteen months, which would kick the next difficult vote past the 2018 midterm elections. In the House, such a bill likely would have lost some votes from both parties, but, given the urgency of the hurricane aid, it was a decent bet to pass. Best of all, for G.O.P. leaders, the bill would have taken away the Democrats’ debt-ceiling leverage from the coming debates on immigration, government spending, and health care.
But, when conservative Republicans came out vocally against McConnell and Ryan’s plan, Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, saw an opening. They called for the three-month debt-ceiling deal, which would kick the issue into mid-December, allowing them to maintain their leverage as Congress worked out agreements on other agenda items.
The Republicans were so confident in their approach that, at a Wednesday morning press conference, Ryan sputtered about the Schumer-Pelosi three-month extension a matter of “play[ing] politics with the debt ceiling.”
An hour later, in the Oval Office, Ryan, McConnell, Schumer, and Pelosi sat down with Trump and Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, to negotiate. The Republican leaders—at first—stuck to their demand for an eighteen-month debt-ceiling increase. But the Democrats held fast as the Republicans dropped their request to twelve months and then to six months. Mnuchin argued that the financial markets needed a long-term deal. Trump cut him off and abruptly sided with Schumer and Pelosi on their three-month request.
Sure, Wednesday’s move could be a momentary spit-back against McConnell and Ryan for their failure to deliver the votes on the GOP-led health care reform.
But that’s precisely the point!
GOP leaders can’t deliver on health care, or any other substantive policy agenda, because they only advance bills that already have a majority support within their own caucus.
Doing away with the GOP’s ‘Hastert Rule’
This custom became Congress’ modus operandi during its first modern period of GOP control, from 1995-2007. It came to be known as the “Hastert Rule,” after the now-disgraced former House Speaker. He said he viewed his job as speaker “not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority.”
That the Hastert Rule actively discourages bipartisanship is not its greatest flaw. Nor is the fact that it moves all consequential decision-making to the party caucus, and away from committees and the chamber as a whole.
It’s greatest weakness, as the National Review notes, is that it eviscerates “a sense of shared institutional interest in loyalty to the branch of government as opposed to reflexive obedience to, or opposition to, the president on a partisan basis.”
Wanted: A pragmatic liberty-focused agenda drawing from both parties
Remember the debt ceiling debates of 2011 and 2013? Republicans faltered, both times, because of the Hastert Rule. The rule has forced the party’s center of gravity to the right, to the point that the party routinely appeals only to its most conservative members. Look no further than its own failed efforts at immigration reform, under George W. Bush and again in 2013.
Trump, however, owes nothing to the Republican Party. He’s finally realizing that…
…If he wants to get his agenda moving again after the healthcare diversion, he should throw the obstructionists out of the driver’s seat. If the Hastert Rule ever made any sense to begin with, it certainly makes no sense under a president whose core agenda on central matters like immigration, trade, and infrastructure renewal is such a significant departure from post-Reagan conservative orthodoxy.
The prominence of the Freedom Caucus and its ilk is only guaranteed by adherence to this very rule. Trump doesn’t need to govern as a Republican, or even as a conservative: The flipping of Rust Belt states long regarded as Democratic strongholds demonstrates a coalition extending far beyond the traditional GOP base is ready to support his initiatives.
The foregoing perspective was made The Hill’s Robert Wasinger in the wake of health care’s collapse. He pushes this argument from a pro-populist perspective.
But even conservative and liberty-leaning observers can see now that in the coming debate over immigration, it may be better to be allied with Democrats than with Cro-Magnon anti-immigration Republicans.
(Photo of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, making a point to President Donald Trump in the Oval Office prior to his departure from the White House on September 6, by Alex Wong/Getty Images.)