Republicans should apply lessons of healthcare debacle to tax reform
© Greg Nash

To enact sweeping tax reform Republicans are currently pushing for, they’ll have to employ a drastically different tactic than the one they're using for ObamaCare repeal, all the while using the exact same parliamentary process.

Republicans began this Congress with a stacked deck and a sound strategy. With majorities in both chambers and control of the White House, they had an opportunity to push through a comprehensive reform agenda.

The campaign, and the previous year’s work on House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanTrump faces test of power with early endorsements Lobbying world Boehner throws support behind Republican who backed Trump impeachment MORE’s “A Better Way” plan, had identified the topics they would tackle first: ObamaCare repeal and tax reform. Shortly after the election, a good strategy to achieve both of those results emerged: use the reconciliation opportunity that remained in fiscal year 2017 to repeal ObamaCare and use reconciliation next year to pass tax reform.


Reconciliation allows a majority party to pass legislation on a majority basis in the Senate, far easier than the 60-vote threshold most legislation requires. However, reconciliation only comes once a year and is directly pursuant to concrete instructions within a budget resolution that must pass both chambers of Congress. Additionally, the contents of any reconciliation package are severely limited by the Byrd rule and constrained to only those policies which are strictly budgetary in nature.


While reconciliation comes with some significant hurdles that complicate the drafting of legislation, it also has the major advantage of letting a majority party pass their agenda without support from any members of the minority party. With Democrats entirely entrenched within the “resist” movement and unwilling to work with Republicans, the reconciliation process in FY 2017 and FY 2018 represented a fleeting and rare opportunity for Republicans.

Republicans had choreographed and practiced this maneuver in 2015 with the passage of an ObamaCare repeal bill through both chambers. Therefore, it was widely assumed that ObamaCare repeal would be quite easy and should go first. Some even mused that President Trump could sign the bill on his very first day in office. Indeed, he probably could have, had Republicans pursued hasty passage of the same bill they had passed in 2015.

As it turns out, however, Republicans of all types wanted something different than they had voted on two years earlier. Some wanted to include a replace plan, while others wanted to keep all or part of the Medicaid expansion. Each faction undermined the potential passage of any proposal that didn’t include its wish list, beginning with that very same 2015 bill they had all supported.

As this process played out in both chambers, Republican leadership filled the resulting void with a completely new compromise. These bills, the American Health Care Act (AHCA) in the House and the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) in the Senate, were hatched in secret and then unveiled as a take-it-or-leave-it package. In both cases, the leaders were hoping for unanimous embrace of their work.

However, neither body’s factions were on board with the legislation drafted without their input behind closed doors. The result in the House was months of high-profile back and forth. Ultimately, the House passed an amended version of their bill, but only after a bloody battle that engulfed all of the positive momentum from the election.

The same process is now playing out in the Senate. Republican senators have rejected the BCRA proposal drafted in secret and are negotiating several changes to the bill. Hopefully, the process continues to mirror the House and they pass an amended version.

Either way, what began as a relative legislative lay-up has proven to be a challenge akin to a half-court shot: after several attempts, Republicans might get lucky and sink one.

Given the challenges of tax reform, if Republicans leaders try to draft a bill in secret and force it through the process, their chances of success are more closely compared to a full court throw.

Instead, a proposal should work its way through a thoughtful and comprehensive committee review and mark-up. Next the bill should be brought to the floor where the amendments of all members can be debated and voted on. Not everyone’s ideas can be included, but everyone is more likely to support the measure if their ideas are considered.

If Republican leaders follow this path, a consensus is more likely to emerge by an order of magnitude.

Thomas Binion is the director of congressional and executive branch relations at The Heritage Foundation.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.