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House Republicans’ August Messaging Plan: Deflect and Pivot

Recess resource kits highlight bills House GOP passed, tax overhaul plans

Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Republicans plan to spend August touting bills they’ve passed and their plans to overhaul the tax code. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Republicans plan to spend August touting bills they’ve passed and their plans to overhaul the tax code. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans left Washington largely stumped about how to go home for a monthlong recess and defend to their constituents Congress’ failure to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. 

The concerns were so great that many members during a GOP conference meeting Friday — just hours after a Senate vote on a scaled-back repeal bill failed — pleaded with leadership to keep the House in session in August.

“A bunch of new people up at the mic going, ‘I can’t go home. I cannot go,’” Virginia Rep. Dave Brat recalled. 

But members needn’t worry about facing their constituents. Leadership has a plan: Deflect and pivot. 

When constituents ask why Republicans haven’t finished their long promised health care overhaul, passed a budget or crossed any big-ticket campaign promises off their to-do list, GOP leaders want members to point instead to the bills they have passed.

To help with that deflection, the House Republican Conference last week hand-delivered member offices a 28-page August resource kit full of talking points on legislation the House has passed in the first six months of unified Republican government under President Donald Trump. 

Another way leadership hopes to help its members avoid talking about the GOP’s health care failure is providing them with the tools needed to pivot the conversation to rewriting the tax code

The House Ways and Means Committee put together a nine-page resource kit on “delivering pro-growth tax reform to the American people,” which is emerging as the Republicans’ top fall agenda item. Members’ offices also received August calendars citing 31 reasons for rewriting the tax code — one for each day of the month as well as each year since the last tax overhaul passed in 1986.

Roll Call obtained copies of the messaging documents — tools leadership provides members when they head home for a lengthy recess. 

Ryan demonstrates

Speaker Paul D. Ryan demonstrated the deflect-and-pivot strategy during his weekly news conference Thursday.

First, the Wisconsin Republican rattled off a list of bills the House GOP has passed this year such as Veterans Affairs overhaul, a defense bill authorizing more funding for rebuilding the military, legislation repealing the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul and several Congressional Review Act measures rolling back regulations.

The speaker added that committee work was underway on “transformational tax reform, the biggest thing that we can do for our workers and for our economy.”

The GOP messaging strategy also involves attacking the media for focusing on their failures rather than their accomplishments.

“People may turn on their TVs, and they think that all that we do here in this bubble is spend our time focusing on one thing at one time, or you know, bickering with each other about one thing,” Ryan said. “The reality is that there is some very important work getting done here to improve people’s lives.”

The messaging documents provided to members cite several examples of that “important work.”

The GOP conference resource kit breaks down bills passed under subsections such as “Landmark VA Reform,” “Pay Raise for Our Troops,” “Historic Regulatory Relief to Rein in Washington, D.C.,” “Sanctions on Hostile Regimes,” “Tough Enforcement of Immigration Laws,” and “Permanent Pro-Life Protections.”

It also includes a section entitled “Repeal and Replace of Obamacare” in which they tout the House GOP repeal-and-replace bill, the American Health Care Act. But it doesn’t spend a lot of time talking up the merits of the moribund proposal, despite the majority of the conference continuing to push the repeal-and-replace strategy after the Senate failed to pass its own bill.

“The American Health Care Act was only one part of our ongoing work to offer commonsense reforms to lower costs and increase access to health care,” the document reads.

It then goes on to highlight several smaller health care bills the House has passed this year, most of which are also stalled in the Senate. 

Taxes, taxes, taxes

The tax overhaul resource kit the Ways and Means Committee put together includes bullet-point lists of why a tax overhaul is needed — broken down into arguments for individual workers and families, small businesses and the larger economy — and the GOP’s “bold ideas for pro-growth tax reform.”

The document is peppered with quotes from Ways and Means members illustrating how lawmakers can personalize the tax talking points. It also includes a chart outlining state-by-state estimates of how many full-time jobs a tax overhaul would create and how much more income median households would have after taxes. 

The messaging documents follow the joint statement GOP congressional leaders and administration officials released Thursday outlining their shared principles for a tax overhaul.

“Overall, the thought process of trying to get momentum, trying to get more information out there so people can have an honest debate across the country, especially during recess, I think is a very wise course,” Ways and Means member Tom Reed said. 

Some GOP members, however, aren’t shying away from talking about the party’s shortcomings, knowing that those issues will be brought up regardless of how much they seek to deflect or pivot. 

Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, said he doesn’t sugarcoat things for his constituents. 

“I keep telling everybody at home we got to get back to basic business of governance: passing appropriations bills, getting budget agreements, not defaulting on our obligations,” he said. “We get that stuff done right, then we can move onto the big-ticket issues like tax reform and infrastructure. But we got to get the basics down.”

Asked if Republicans are currently failing at governing, Dent said, “There’s always a certain amount of dysfunction around here, but we are quickly taking the fun out of dysfunction.”

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