Free Kevin Hassett! Trump pick a victim of Senate partisanship
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Economists rarely agree. As George Bernard Shaw once quipped, “If all the economists were laid end to end, they'd never reach a conclusion.”

It was therefore all the more surprising when, five weeks ago, 44 prominent economists signed a letter urging the Senate Banking Committee to “move as expeditiously as possible” on Kevin Hassett’s nomination to head President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE’s Council of Economic Advisers.

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Facing only token opposition, the Senate Banking Committee approved Hassett’s nomination nine days later, sending it to the Senate floor for final consideration. That’s when Kevin Hassett became a hostage. Hassett, like so many of President Trump’s nominees, faces what could be a lengthy delay before the Senate confirms his nomination. 

 

The problem? Politics. Senate Democrats have found an effective strategy for blunting President Trump and the Republican majorities in Congress. That strategy?  Stall. Delay. Filibuster. 

According to a report from the Washington Examiner, “So far, 27 of the 41 nominees needing Senate confirmation have required Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump allies throw jabs at Bolton over book's claims GOP confident of win on witnesses Collins Senate bid threatens to spark GOP rift in Georgia MORE (R-Ky.) to invoke cloture, the process for ending filibusters. Cloture forces a Senate vote but also obligates the leadership to allow 30 hours of debate on the filibustered matter, effectively throwing sand in the gears of the already slow-moving legislative process.” 

It would be naïve to expect Senate Democrats to forgo unilaterally one of the few legislative tools they have to block and/or shape public policy in the Trump era.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans must accept that they, without 60 votes in the Senate and a reliable 218 votes in the House, have the appearance of control without actual control. This is perhaps, at least from the Republican perspective, the worst of all scenarios — all the blame and little ability to govern with Republican votes alone.

The solution? 

Republicans should understand reconciliation isn’t a panacea. Pursuing health and tax reforms via reconciliation ensures that Democrats, understandably fearful of being sidelined, will attempt to block Republicans at every turn. (Can you blame them?)

The reconciliation path also places undue pressure on moderate Senate Republicans in politically competitive states. Senators Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP confident of win on witnesses Republicans signal renewed confidence they'll avoid witness fight Trump's team rests, calls for quick end to trial MORE (R-Maine) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerLobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play This week: Barr back in hot seat over Mueller report MORE (R-Nev.), for example, understand they risk being defeated for reelection if they back overly-partisan reconciliation bills. As we have learned in recent weeks, no senators’ votes can be taken for granted.

By contrast, a 60-vote legislative strategy would, on a bill-by-bill basis, require Republicans to entice support from at least eight Senate Democrats. Securing those votes — the political equivalent of reaching escape velocity — would prompt more Democrats to follow suit. Political scientists call that the “bandwagon effect.”

Once a given piece of legislation attracts bipartisan support, moderate Senate Republicans, who may otherwise waver in their support, will find they can support the measure without the electoral risk that accompanies a strictly partisan measure. Political scientists call that “protecting one’s backside.”

Indeed, in a Senate with only 52 Republican members, 60 votes may be easier to achieve than 51.

Democrats have a stake in bipartisanship as well. Bipartisanship gives both Republicans and Democrats the opportunity to brag to their constituents about all the good things they have accomplished (and why they should be reelected). 

That opportunity should be especially appealing to the ten Senate Democrats who are up for reelection next year in states that Donald Trump won last November.  Five of those senators are in states Trump won by double digits.

But bipartisanship won’t be possible until Democrats scrap their strategy of oppose-and-delay for a strategy of compromise-and-legislate. They should start by releasing Kevin Hassett and the other hostages. 

Jim Carter served as the head of tax policy implementation on President Trump’s transition team. Previously, he was a deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury and deputy undersecretary of labor under President George W. Bush.


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