Republicans Ready to Play Hardball

GOP plans fast-paced agenda, dusts-off little-used legal tools to bypass Democrat obstruction

by Jim Stinson | Updated 09 Jan 2017 at 11:11 AM

The Republican Party is in control of Congress, and soon it will be in control of the White House. President-Elect Donald Trump has chartered an ambitious agenda and the public is anxious to see results after years of partisan gridlock.

Republicans are sure to recall the battles they had to fight under President George W. Bush, when Democratic legislators often fought Bush tooth-and-nail. Democrats are sure to recall more recent battles, when the Republicans were in the minority from 2009 to 2011 and then won the House in the 2010 elections.

“The most important thing for the GOP is to understand the federal civil service has become an extension of the Democratic National Committee and is entirely unmoored from control by the political branches.”

Democrats still bitterly complain the GOP “obstructed” much of the agenda of President Obama.

The election of 2016 is a clear signal that to the victor goes the agenda-setting. And voters of all parties seem very, very tired of  gridlock.

Trump and the Republican Congress should be able to deliver substantive results and reform — but they will have to move swiftly to avoid succumbing to partisan bickering.

GOP priorities among the most likely to be moved on quickly are increasing defense spending, cutting the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, and repealing Obamacare.

It’s the repeal of the Affordable Care Act that could bring the most Democratic obstruction.

Nominations are another issue. The Democrats have vowed to fight at least eight of Trump’s choices for various federal positions. But because of past fights, the Democrats will not be able to use the dreaded Senate filibuster on most nominees.

The Democrats themselves got rid of the filibuster for presidential nominees, with the exception of Supreme Court nominees.

But to get all this passed, and to reform the federal government, how hard should the Republicans and Trump fight? Two experts said the GOP should get ready for hardball.

Filibuster Reform
Not every Republican or conservative likes the idea of getting rid of the Senate filibuster, which allows just one senator to keep a bill or Supreme Court nominee from getting a vote on the Senate floor.

The filibuster prevented an unbridled Obama agenda when Democrats had control of the White House and Congress from 2009 to 2011, some say.

"Republicans should beware," said Bradley A. Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics. "Imagine Obama unchecked by filibuster. Republicans did a lot to stop his agenda, even if many don't realize that."

Smith thinks much can be done without nuking the filibuster completely.

Smith expects Republicans will push Democrats' anti-filibuster rule to include Supreme Court nominees. And for Obamacare, they'll take care of repeal through "budget reconciliation." That prevents a filibuster.

"Much of what Obama did was done through executive orders and regulatory 'policy statements,' precisely because GOP blocked it in Congress," said Smith. "So that stuff can be easily undone without Congress."

The Holman Rule
But not everything is about legislation or rules.

A key problem is that "personnel is policy," and Democrats know this. In eight years, some on the Right say, the Democrats have crammed federal offices full of liberals — many with key decision-making abilities. These employees have a degree of protection from being replaced or fired.

J. Christian Adams, the president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation and a former Justice Department official, says the GOP should look beyond conventional ways to cut the budget, and should target unneeded positions.

"The most important thing for the GOP is to understand the federal civil service has become an extension of the Democratic National Committee and is entirely unmoored from control by the political branches," said Adams. "The old ways to enact their agenda won't work. Congress needs to be prepared to defund positions and salaries, and it seems U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) has figured that out."

Adams was referring to Griffith's successful effort to reimpose the Holman Rule, first devised in 1876. According to The Washington Post, the House Republicans reinstated the rule that allows lawmakers to cut the pay of an individual federal worker — down to $1 — a move that threatens to upend the 130-year-old civil service.

It's a an extra tool in the belt of Republicans looking to cut the ballooning federal bureaucracy. Federal salaries are a major budgetary problem.

According to a February 2016 report by ABC7 of Washington, D.C., more than 500,000 federal employees make $100,000 or more. That means taxpayers spend, at the very least, $50 billion a year just to pay 500,000 employees, a quarter of the workforce.

Paying federal employees more was allowed by a rule passed by Bush, not Obama. The rule allowed gargantuan growth in 15 years, with the number of federal employees making more than $100,000 annually increasing by 800 percent, according to ABC7.

Midterms in 2018
2017 and beyond will thus require a lot of hardball politics.

Republicans will also have to endure the hue and cry of Democratic protests when Obamacare and the budget start getting cut.

Liberal opposition won't be pretty.

But if the GOP fails at some basic reforms, they will face angry Republican voters in the 2018 midterm elections.

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