Political Fragmentation and the Demise of the Health Care Act

Over at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, I have a piece today that puts into a larger context the remarkable inability of the Republican Party to get the AHCA through the House.  Here is the opening:

The failure of the American Health Care Act is a stunning moment. Its failure was not just a one-off event that can be blamed on Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, or any specific politician. It is the culminating event in a broader process of “political fragmentation” that I have been writing about for  the last several years.

By political fragmentation, I mean two things. One is how power within Congress has shifted from the party leaders to individual members of Congress, who are now far more capable of acting independently than in the past. The second is the shift in power from the political parties themselves to outside groups and actors.

The piece then highlights three structural changes that contribute to the inability of party leaders to bring along rank-and-file members for the party’s signature legislative effort:

First, many members of Congress now depend less on the party’s financial and other support. This was manifest in the highly public pledge of the Koch Brothers network to support Republicans who bucked the party leadership. But it is not just these big funders that have changed the landscape. The communications revolution has enabled individual members of Congress to connect effectively with small donors throughout the country. Small donors (like other individual donors) tend to be the most ideologically polarized source of money in politics, and they further empower the extreme wings of the parties to stand up against more centrist leadership.

Second, committee assignments seem to matter less than at some points in the past, which also diminishes the leverage of party leaders. Committee assignments are less necessary for name recognition and fundraising. Committees are less important as centers of policymaking, as was obviously the case with the AHCA. Because committees were not particularly important designers of that bill, individual members had no significant role in shaping it.

Third, the end of earmarks has taken away a tool that party leaders can use to entice members to support legislation that party leaders view as a priority. Mark Schmitt has argued that the loss of earmarks doesn’t matter because many members are so philosophically opposed to earmarks they wouldn’t accept them even if offered. That might be true of some, or even all, members of the House Freedom Caucus. But if this story is accurate, only 15 of the 33 Republican AHCA opponents were part of the Freedom Caucus. Other Republican dissenters may have been more persuadable. 

Because the forces driving the fragmentation of the parties are not confined only to the Republican Party, I think these phenomena will be reflected in the Democratic Party as well:

The Democratic Party is not immune to the forces driving political fragmentation. While tensions between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the party can be suppressed in the service of forging a united opposition, those tensions will surface when the party returns to a governing role.

On top of the political polarization between the parties, political fragmentation makes the political process even more unwieldy, even during unified government, and even less able to address many of the major issues of the day.

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