Editor’s Note: Republican Charlie Dent is a former US congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chairman of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2016 and chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Here we go again.
Washington, DC, is living on a knife’s edge in anticipation of yet another Covid-19 relief package. While the $600 federal enhancement to weekly unemployment benefits and a federal eviction moratorium may lapse on July 31, leaving millions of Americans in the lurch, it’s increasingly unlikely that an agreement will be reached before then.
Now, with Senate Republicans releasing their proposal – the HEALS Act – on Monday afternoon, it’s clear that President Donald Trump, who has long touted his own negotiation skills, has already made major concessions, including sacrificing his payroll tax cut and agreeing to additional billions for coronavirus testing.
As these negotiations continue, millions of Americans are suffering from both the economic and health toll of the pandemic. And despite splits within the party, Republicans are keenly aware that their prospects for holding onto power are diminishing each day.
This bill may be their last opportunity to turn things around ahead of the fall elections and offer some sense of normalcy. As such, they seem to be prioritizing what they think voters will care most about, which Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander recently framed as getting kids back to school and parents back to work.
It’s hardly a surprise Senate Republicans are taking such a firm approach. They, like me, have experienced Trump’s inability to constructively negotiate on behalf of the American people – and they know they cannot afford another misfire from the White House so close to November.
As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and chairman of the Military Construction/Veterans Subcommittee from 2015 to 2018, I had an inside look at government dysfunction, which was especially pronounced after the tea party made sweeping gains in the 2010 midterm elections and a number of deficit hawks entered Congress with little to no desire to compromise.
Given this experience, it is hard for me to imagine how things could have gotten much worse. But they have. Sure, democracy can be messy and inefficient. Trump, however, has taken dysfunction to new heights with his disruptive, erratic behavior and chaotic approach to governing. While Trump can bluster his way through press briefings and make sweeping pronouncements on Twitter, he has repeatedly failed to negotiate and cobble together enough votes when it comes to legislating.
If you need proof, consider his failures on three high-profile occasions: his 2017 attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare; Trump’s U-turn on spending in the 2018 Omnibus Appropriations Bill; and the 35-day government shutdown over border wall funding in late 2018 and early 2019.
First, while reforming the nation’s health care system requires shrewd negotiating skills, presidential leadership matters more. Trump repeatedly slammed Obamacare on the campaign trail in 2016, but after an election victory that also ushered in GOP majorities in both the House and Senate, Trump failed to offer up a comprehensive plan on health care. Yes, we heard lots of big talk – everyone will be covered, it will cost less and it will be “beautiful.”
But the President never laid down a serious substantive marker and ended up supporting a woefully deficient health care bill in the House, The American Health Care Act of 2017, that would have left millions of Americans without coverage. The AHCA was dead on arrival in the Senate, and a skinny repeal bill was rejected when then Arizona Sen. John McCain famously gave the measure a thumbs down.
Bottom line: Trump’s failed leadership, his woeful disinterest and deficient knowledge in the basics of health care policy, along with his inability to unify Republicans around one coherent bill, meant the negotiations never had a chance.
Second, in 2017, former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who operated honorably on behalf of Trump, built a strong case to increase defense spending and sold it to Congress. Congress subsequently enacted a bipartisan budget agreement increasing Defense spending to $700 billion, an extraordinary level of support.
In exchange for the increase, the Democrats demanded a similar spending rise in domestic discretionary spending. After the budget agreement was reached on a bipartisan basis reflecting this deal, Trump signed the bill into law.
But a few months later, Trump attempted to renege on this very agreement he was a party to when he threatened to veto the 2018 Omnibus Appropriations that contained the defense spending increase he so desperately wanted. Two reasons for the change of heart – he said it did not contain a solution for the DACA recipients or provide enough funding for his border wall.
I watched as House Speaker Paul Ryan and other legislative leaders made a Herculean and ultimately successful effort to persuade Trump to sign the bill he had originally agreed to. But how does one work with a man so fickle and so willing to undermine the subordinates he empowered to negotiate on his behalf?
Third, Trump blindsided Senate Republicans who attempted to fund the government after the 2018 November midterm. On national television, Trump declared he would own a partial government shutdown if the Republican-led Congress failed to pass his $5 billion border funding demand. But he hurt his own cause, because Nancy Pelosi was the incoming House speaker, and neither she nor Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer would yield to his funding demand.
And, as expected, Pelosi conceded nothing on border funding during the longest government shutdown in American history. In the end, Trump relented on border funding, getting none of the additional funding he had asked for.
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All of this does not bode well for the upcoming Covid aid package. To be fair, Congress and the President have responded in a timely and bipartisan way to the previous Covid-19 relief bills. But the latest package will present more of challenge since House Democrats have already united behind their wish list legislation, a $3 trillion stimulus bill dubbed the Heroes Act, which was passed in May.
What’s more, a few GOP senators have publicly indicated that they are disinclined to support the latest bill because the price tag is too big, weakening an already tenuous Republican negotiating position. No doubt, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin will continue engaging in shuttle diplomacy on Trump’s behalf between the House and Senate. It’s likely he’ll split the difference between the $3 trillion House proposal and $1 trillion Senate outline, giving Democrats much of what they want in the process.
Either way, don’t hold your breath waiting for the author of “The Art of the Deal” to swoop in and save everyone from these swamp-infested negotiations.