WASHINGTON – Doesn’t anybody here know how to work this thing?
For 10 years, Republicans have waited for their chance to govern, and finally the voters handed them the car keys: unified GOP control of Congress and the White House.
But the moment the starter’s flag dropped Tuesday, the opening day of the 115th Congress, the eager majority seized the wheel of power, hit the gas – and immediately lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a guardrail.
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It was the simplest of tasks for the new Congress: The House was to approve a new rules package for the 2017-18 term, normally a routine matter. But a group of House GOP lawmakers, ambushing their leaders, persuaded the Republican caucus to tack on a plan that would gut ethics enforcement.
Thus did Republicans, after the “drain the swamp” campaign of 2016, propose in their first act of 2017 to overflow the swamp with a new pipeline of sleaze. The headlines were murderous, and Donald Trump tweeted criticism of his fellow Republicans on Tuesday morning: “Do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog … their number one act and priority?”
By midday, Republicans called an emergency caucus meeting to undo the proposed changes, but not before House leaders were emasculated. House Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), though he opposed the rules change, had just issued a statement defending it. And House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), in a painful welcome-back Q&A with reporters Tuesday morning, explained how he had been thwarted by his own backbenchers.
“Why were you not able to stop it?” asked Erica Werner of the Associated Press. “Doesn’t that suggest that you’re very weak leaders of the conference?”
McCarthy, at the end of a long conference table, looked stunned. “Man! Welcome back!” he replied.
He likened managing the House GOP to his domestic life in California. “At my house, I got my wife and my two kids, and I usually don’t win what we watch on TV,” he reasoned.
The difference is that here in Washington, McCarthy and Ryan have 239 children.
And if this fractious bunch can’t agree without a brouhaha on the routine matter of a rules package, wait until they get to tough stuff, such as replacing Obamacare and funding the government.
Those worried that President Trump and congressional Republicans are about to enact a sweeping agenda may have an unexpected ally: legislative incompetence. As Carl Hulse points out in the New York Times, nearly two-thirds of House Republicans have never served with a GOP president. McCarthy, elected in 2006, has never experienced unified Republican control. Now Republicans have to switch from reflexive opposition to passing their own laws and being held responsible for the consequences. Turns out they haven’t developed those muscles.
Take Obamacare. For six years, Republicans have talked of replacing it, and dozens of times they voted to repeal it. But now they’re in no hurry. At Tuesday’s session, McCarthy said repeatedly that Republicans hadn’t yet decided what to do about Obamacare. “We’re being sworn in today,” he pleaded.
What are some possible alternatives?
“No decision has been made yet. There’s nothing right out there.”
Would the GOP alternative cover as many as Obamacare?
“There’s a lot of areas that you want to look at.”
When will repeal happen?
“I only do week by week.”
How would they avoid upsetting insurance markets?
“Nothing has been decided yet.”
McCarthy was equally unprepared to talk about another longtime GOP priority: the repeal of regulations. “We’re just being sworn in,” he demurred, again, when asked.
First they had to solve a problem of their own creation: the plan to defang the independent Office of Congressional Ethics and put it underneath the deadlocked House Ethics Committee.
McCarthy offered a halfhearted defense of the proposed changes, even while making clear that he opposed them. He kept misstating the proposal and, when corrected by reporters, said he would need to “sit down after and walk through it” or get “a legal opinion on how the wording goes.” Excuses accumulated: “That’s part of the whip’s job … wasn’t here … I was in the district … I’m late for a meeting.”
“You can’t even explain it clearly and you’re expecting the House to vote on it?” a reporter asked.
McCarthy was philosophical. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said.
And sometimes you spin out on the first lap.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.