The Republicans Face Big Obstacles to Enacting Big Changes

With a new Congress in place, talk of serious change abounds. “I earned capital on the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” President Bush said after his re-election — and a strengthened majority on Capitol Hill plans to help him.

At the same time, a demoralized Democratic Party finds itself largely bereft of tools to stop him. Democrats have no real investigative powers in either chamber, they endure a legislative “slave status” in the House, and their numbers in the Senate have shrunk to the point where just a few defections will put their filibuster power at risk.

But Republicans are too giddy and Democrats are too dour. At home and abroad, a host of constraints will dim prospects for significant change. They come in four varieties — political, institutional, economic and international — and they already provide a window into the future. Here they are one by one.

Political: Then-President Bill Clinton, with a Democratic-controlled Congress, sought to completely revamp the nation’s health care system in 1993 and 1994 but saw the effort collapse in the face of public opposition. In the following congress, when Newt Gingrich and his newly empowered band of GOP revolutionaries closed the government in their budget battle with Clinton, the public turned away.

In other words, majority status does not automatically produce a mandate for radical change. Quite the contrary: Today’s America is a nation of raging incrementalists. The vast majority of Americans want progress, but one step at a time in clear, easily digestible pieces.

So, further down the road, Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress worked together on gradual improvements in health care and limits on the growth in discretionary spending that made both sides relatively happy. For 2005 and beyond, expect gradual change of the same variety.

Institutional: The post-election victory parties had barely ended before the Republicans saw the reality of executive-legislative maneuvering for control rearing its ugly head. Even with a president of their own party, Members of Congress (and especially committee chairmen) don’t like taking orders from the White House. They’ll run the government, thank you very much.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) may have been first from the gate with his warnings about judicial appointments, but he was overshadowed by more robust Republican muscle-flexing. In the House, Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) openly tangled with Bush over the intelligence reform bill. (Hunter forced changes while Sensenbrenner, who did not, promises to confront Bush again over a reauthorized Patriot Act and other priorities.) In the Senate, Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) suggested he opposes a key piece of Bush’s
emerging Social Security proposal — to use borrowing to cover the entire $1 trillion or so in transition costs — and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) even wants to raise taxes to cover those costs.

GOP independence on Capitol Hill is likely to grow, not diminish. With Vice President Cheney almost certain not to run for president, the 2008 race on the Republican side is wide open. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and maybe others will spend as much time defining themselves as securing GOP unity on Bush-backed proposals.

Economic: Domestically, the one place where Bush has successfully pushed a radical agenda is fiscal policy, centered on tax cuts. But here, too, forces are aligning to rein in the GOP.

Facing record deficits, the United States has turned increasingly to foreigners to buy Treasury securities. Now, the dollar is sliding on world markets. The Federal Reserve may have to raise interest rates more to ensure that U.S. debt remains attractive to foreigners. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan is urging deficit cutting in more vociferous terms, and even an all-GOP government may be constrained from revamping Social Security (given its substantial transition costs) or making all the Bush tax cuts permanent (which adds comparable costs).

International: Bush’s push for freedom across the globe as a long-term antidote to terrorism is running head first into the short-term challenge of fighting terrorism in a complex world. So, too, is his vow to act unilaterally in the face of mounting danger. Look no further than the former Soviet Union. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is a good ally on terrorism, so the White House was largely mute in the face of Putin’s effort in Ukraine to help the pro-Russian candidate steal the election (thus undercutting freedom and democracy).

Or look at Iran, where the White House is skeptical of European efforts to convince the Iranians to abandon nuclear weaponry. With our troops bogged down in Iraq, we’d be hard-pressed to find the resources to mount a military effort. Besides, such an effort would feed the anger of a world to which, because of our huge deficits, we are increasingly indebted.

Thus, notwithstanding GOP boasts to the contrary, the realities of public opinion, executive-Congressional maneuvering, economic indebtedness and international complexity will largely constrain the majority from more than modest change.