Wall Street Journal: A Better Congress

As the 114 Congress takes the reins today, the Wall Street Journal’s Review & Outlook examines how far the new center-right legislature should attempt to reach:

The 114th Congress is seated on Tuesday, amid a refreshed sense of possibility in Washington. The leaders of the new center-right majority are signaling that they’d like to try to solve a problem or three, and their success will depend on what the party has learned from the last four years.

The GOP House and the Senate minority checked liberal ambitions and made occasional minor policy gains, but all too often they marched into political box canyons. If the new GOP Congress hopes to improve, it needs a better strategy, political patience and realistic expectations. The challenge will be to avoid the twin mirages of trying to govern from Capitol Hill, which it can’t do as long as President Obama has the veto pen, or using that as an excuse to do nothing.

The worst outcome would be to attempt to do too much, then break down in disunity, and thus set up Mr. Obama to hand off the Presidency to Hillary Clinton. The Presidency is a powerful institution even under divided government, as Speaker Newt Gingrich learned in 1995. John Boehner and the current generation of Republicans received the same tutorial in the shutdown of 2013.

The problem with grandiose ultimatums—such as defunding ObamaCare or else—is not merely their predictable result of accomplishing zero. They also undermine the intelligent if undramatic tactics that, at the margins over time, can change how government works.

Conservatives in the House are naturally frustrated by the lack of progress on larger tax and entitlement reform, but they’ve been too quick to elevate tactical disagreements into psychodramas. Balancing free-market principle and political pragmatism doesn’t mean surrendering. They revere the Constitution that is designed to make political change slow and difficult but are then angered when the document works as intended.

This legacy of mistrust explains the backbench challenge to Mr. Boehner’s third term. But Louie Gohmert of Texas standing for Speaker is a case of gesture politics. A serious challenge would have to come from a grown-up like Paul Ryan or Jeb Hensarling, but they have policy goals they want to pursue leading committees.

Meantime, Mr. Obama has so far made no concession to political defeat after the election. His talents for compromise are minimal, and he’ll crank the dials of executive power up to 11 and try to taunt Republicans into doing something stupid. Mr. Obama wants his opponents to revert to 2013 dysfunction, which would allow him to continue rejecting all GOP ideas.

So the overall GOP goal should be to craft an agenda centered on faster economic growth, job creation and raising middle-class incomes. Theme by theme, Republicans can show the country how they would govern if they take the White House in 2016 while accepting as many incremental policy gains as they can get.

The leadership can start with policies most likely to get through the Senate and onto Mr. Obama’s desk. Two good candidates are bipartisan bills to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and restore the normal 40-hour workweek under ObamaCare. If the President vetoes, he’ll be the obstructionist.

Republicans can then suss out what else is possible with Democrats, with or without Mr. Obama. The most cited areas of potential agreement are trade promotion authority, regulatory restraint and perhaps corporate tax reform. This White House has a talent for inflaming debates when the real policy differences are few and small, but Republicans might as well try to do business, and the sooner the better.

The main stage will be the budget, and Republicans are right to insist on regular order for the first time in eight years. The dozen individual appropriations bills that fund the government are an opportunity to notch more policy wins with smart amendments and shrewd priority-setting.

The crucial debate within the GOP will be how far to reach. Going too far means gifting Mr. Obama an easy veto and another political triumph. The smarter Republicans understand that the purpose should be to make his vetoes politically hard on issues that resonate and are popular with voters. If Mr. Obama won’t give on entitlements or tax reform, then they probably can’t be done during this Congress. In that case, showcase GOP principles as a down payment on future reform.

Republicans can use control of the committees in both chambers to educate the public about the problems confronting the country and to advertise failed programs and special-interest abuses. An especially useful early statement would be to oppose corporate welfare to show how powerful government helps the powerful. The last thing the GOP needs is to be the party of the Chamber of Commerce when the Chamber is lobbying for the Ex-Im Bank.

Health care may become a particular flash point. Symbolic votes to repeal ObamaCare are fine, but the real work will be to develop and build a consensus around the so-far elusive alternative to the law that Republicans have been promising. This task can’t be deferred any longer, given that the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the King case in March and could strike down the insurance subsidies in 36 states in June.

If nothing else, ObamaCare exposes the limits of kamikaze runs as a political tool. Republicans may be called on to repair the liberal damage to the individual insurance market and protect the millions of Americans conscripted into an illegal system. The public will care less about this or that Beltway dispute than their personal disruption.

Optimism about Washington is usually misplaced, and maybe it is again. But if they’re smart and even-keeled, Republicans can build on the fillip of public goodwill they’ve gained since the election and show they deserve to be a governing majority.

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