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How Bad Political Manners Fomented the Health Care Mess

Lawmakers feel free to misbehave when their leaders drop ‘regular order’

Republicans in Congress may be emulating President Donald Trump’s political manners. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Republicans in Congress may be emulating President Donald Trump’s political manners. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A president whose brand is all about flouting basic political manners is getting matched in misbehavior more and more by fellow Republicans in Congress.

The first six months under President Donald Trump have been marked not only by a further coarsening of GOP rhetoric, stoked mainly by incessant infighting in backrooms, but also by increasing defiance of decades of behavioral norms — from Trump’s nominal friends and skeptics alike, when they’ve been trying to work with him and when they’ve been scrambling to maneuver despite him.

The declining standards of congressional comportment are remarkable, but, in a sense, have been easy to anticipate:

When the formalities of procedural and political regular order get abandoned at the Capitol, a world of informal and sometimes even infantile irregularity will quickly start shaping how lawmakers approach the legislative process, their political calculations, and their dealings with one another.

A return to normal for the Hill’s Republicans is essentially impossible so long as their party’s leader is someone who unabashedly, even boastfully, violates Washington’s already lowered expectations for minimally collegial conduct — and whose win-at-all-costs, never-admit-mistakes code is fundamentally at odds with proper political manners.

But it’s also true that even before Trump, the party’s high command, first and foremost in the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had started whacking away at procedural regular order and thereby helping to define decorum down.

His stature as the longest-tenured top GOP official in Washington, and someone who used to wear the “institutionalist” label with pride, makes all the more striking McConnell’s behavioral shift toward embracing indecorous conduct on the Hill he could once be counted on to deride as deviant.

This is not about the party’s inability to live up to one of the most fundamental requirements of having good manners: Keeping the promises you make — in this case, the vow, incessantly repeated for seven years, that putting Republicans in charge would make repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law the first order of business.

Instead, this is about the breakdowns in interparty comity and institutional standards for fair play that helped push that promise near to oblivion.

Where it began

The start can fairly be traced back to the night of Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. That was when McConnell waited less than 90 minutes after learning that Justice Antonin Scalia had died before transforming the period of mourning into the setting for a bold partisan power play.

In turning a moment for unexpected grieving into an opportunity for Machiavellian maneuvering, he tossed aside two centuries of precedent saying that every president — no matter that his party was different than the Senate majority, and especially one with a quarter of his term remaining — deserved the senatorial courtesy of a hearing and at least a committee vote for any high court nominee.

McConnell won his discourteous and bold bet: Holding the seat open and making the future of the judiciary a prime campaign issue helped Trump score the biggest upset in presidential election history and create the first all-GOP power structure in Washington in a decade.

And since rewarding ungentlemanly behavior will inevitably produce more of such conduct, it’s not surprising that a secretive, churlish and entirely-outside-the-normal-channels approach has, from the start, distinguished his balky and now repudiated tackling of the defining legislative battle of Trump’s first year.

Straightforward legislative etiquette would have required at least a few hearings and legislative markups on health care where Democrats could have gone on record in opposition and Republican skeptics, on the hard right and in the center, could have vented concerns and offered mollifying language — long before spreading anxieties at both ends of the GOP ideological spectrum crippled the bill.

And proper political politesse would have also had the top party bosses providing supportive cover to rank-and-file members before they got called on to cast votes destined to make their public lives more difficult.

But McConnell and, to a lesser extent Speaker Paul D. Ryan, did not succeed at the Hill leadership’s customary work of enlisting important trade associations, think tanks and other big-money advocates to get behind the GOP health care bill.

(Of course the president, for his part, hasn’t made any real effort to help Congress get to “yes” by taking the bully pulpit. There has been no Oval Office speech to the nation on behalf of the legislation, no town hall meeting and no rally in any on-the-fence senator’s home state devoted to the cause.)

Propriety in Congress has historically meant the leadership does not make members cast “tough” votes for no lasting reason — especially when defeat seems guaranteed, so going on the record can do harm back home without any chance of making progress toward new policy. But, at Trump’s insistence, the Senate is on course to vote this week on whether to open debate on the health care bill  — a motion that will force more than half a dozen wavering but keeping-their-powder dry Republicans to take a stand with only the slimmest hope of producing anything meaningful in return.

Maybe this is an antiquated Republicans-at-their-country-club notion of manners, but it might have been courteous as well as savvy to invite at least one female senator in the initial GOP “working group” in search of a passable bill. Is it just coincidence that the three senators who came out quickest against McConnell most recent fallback — repeal now, replace later — were Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, each of whom has health care policy chops meriting a spot in those talks?

Acting out

A consequence of all this discourteousness from the top is that Republicans one step down the food chain have felt free to act increasingly impertinent.

Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson has accused his own majority leader of “a pretty significant breach of trust” in the negotiations — fighting words in a business that’s still supposed to be regulated by handshakes and verbal assurances.

Mike Lee of Utah turned on his best friend and closest ideological soul mate at the Capitol, Ted Cruz of Texas, by voting to kill a bill reliant on Cruz’s unusual efforts at deal-making instead of conservative combat.

Lee and Jerry Moran of Kansas then decided to announce their opposition in the middle of a Trump’s steak and cobbler dinner with about half a dozen other senators — ignoring customary courtesies about informing your leader or the president of your own party before dropping a bad news bomb on them.

Trump had all GOP senators to lunch two days later, Lee and Moran included, a gesture toward comity quickly nullified by his awkwardly uncouth approach — “He wants to remain a senator, doesn’t he?” — to the pivotal GOP senator seated next to him, Dean Heller of Nevada.

To top that off, the president kept the Republicans so long they all had to cancel their next collective meeting, a rude affront to none other than Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Changing times

Just a dozen years ago, Howard Dean’s screaming exhortations after losing the Iowa caucuses were so collectively derided by the nation as ill-mannered that his presidential campaign crashed that night. This spring, Greg Gianforte’s patently offensive body-slamming of a reporter was so readily shrugged off by the voters in Montana that he won a seat in the House the next night.

Starting his State of the Union speech a decade ago, President George W. Bush bathed in warm bipartisan applause after striking the simplest of grace notes — declaring it a “distinct honor” to be the first president who got to address “Madam speaker” from the rostrum. Arriving for her husband’s first speech to Congress this winter, Melania Trump had to endure the sight of many Democrats declining to clap and slumping back into their seats at her introduction.

“In spite of the glamorization of outlaws and gangsters, people do not naturally think that their leaders should violate the standards to which they subscribe,” Judith Martin, the syndicated columnist Miss Manners, wrote in a February essay for The Atlantic on declining political etiquette. “We still pay obeisance to virtue. What has happened is that the virtues have been redefined.”

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