Here in Pennsylvania, we have been without a state budget since June.
Republicans control both houses of the state legislature. They have done the easy part. Earlier this summer, they passed a $32 billion spending bill early this Summer, which our Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, allowed to become law without his signature.
The difficult part – paying for it – has been more elusive. The Senate backs a revenue measure that (horror of horrors!) raises new revenue by increasing taxes and imposing new extraction taxes on the natural gas industry. House Republicans have spent the past four months pumping smoke and rearranging mirrors to fund the budget without raising taxes.
In the midst of resulting clown show of Republican finger-pointing and bickering, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the state’s credit rating from AA- to A+.
Aside from the politics of this, in which Republicans fight with each other while Governor Wolf remains above the fray, the food fight between the Pennsylvania House and Senate mirrors the problems in our nation’s capital. Like the Washington House and Senate majorities in the Obama years, the Republicans in the Pennsylvania state legislature face a hostile executive who makes it difficult for them to achieve any positive policy goals without significant compromise that sometimes runs counter to their campaign goals.
To make matters worse, Pennsylvania Republicans are riven by the same divisions as their national counterparts: Tea Party conservatives, Trumpian populists, libertarians, evangelicals, and establishment Republicans. Many of these jostling coalition groups have conflicting policy goals, and they don’t always play well with others. Some dislike each other more than Democrats.
With these political dynamics at work, is it any wonder Harrisburg seems as dysfunctional as Washington under Trump?
Then, as now, what is needed to break the gridlock is a strong leader, a capable chief executive who can knit the warring factions of his own party, persuade and cajole, and perhaps even bring along a few members of the opposition to fulfill a mandate and achieve positive policy goals. Governors and presidents are judged, to a large extent, by their ability to successfully imprint their policy agenda on the nation.
Republicans in Washington no longer face a Democratic president like their Pennsylvania counterparts, but instead of a partner who can help them advance a policy agenda, voters saddled the governing coalition in Washington with Donald Trump, a second-rate reality show star lacking the basic intellect, temperament, knowledge, and skills for the job.
Trump demands, but he doesn’t lead. He tells Congress to pass things like tax reform and an Obamacare repeal, but he provides no specifics, not even bullet points. When Congress gets down the brass tacks of writing legislation, it has only a vague notion of what the president wants, so details are left to the mercy of competing agendas. If McConnell and Ryan find it difficult to stitch together enough votes to pass legislation, they find no help from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, because Trump doesn’t have the policy chops to make useful contributions to the kind of give-and-take negotiations necessary to gather support around a bill that can pass both houses of Congress.
To make matters worse, Trump has routinely undercut House and Senate leadership by making contradictory statements about his policy positions and expectations, and then he cuts them off at the knees for being “too mean” even when they do manage to pass something he ostensibly wants. Rather than building relationships with Congressional leaders that might advance legislation, Trump mocks them behind closed doors, hurls childish insults at them in public, and threatens them on Twitter.
Congress under Trump remains as ineffective as it was under Obama. Its disparate factions continue to fight, and the Republican coalition remains disjointed. Trump loyalists attack leadership, the Freedom Caucus and moderates hold legislation hostage, and nothing gets done.
Polls show Republican voters blame Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, but they would do better to point the finger at themselves. If they had insisted on a better nominee than Trump, the Republican brand wouldn’t be synonymous with incompetence and corruption. We might have reformed health care and the tax code, agenda items Republican voters supposedly care about.
Instead, Republicans seemed destined for a shellacking in 2018. The door is closing fast.
If there is still any hope of ousting Governor Wolf next year in the midst of a Democratic wave, I hope Pennsylvania Republicans learn from the clown show in the White House when selecting a gubernatorial nominee. For that matter, I hope 2020 Republicans don’t waste 2020 on Trump.