A long-overlooked Senate committee could save the Republican agenda

(Editor's Note: This piece first appeared in the Washington Examiner on December 5, 2017.)

Even with last week’s progress on tax reform, 2017 has not been a great year for Republicans in Congress.

Back in January, they had reason to expect things to turn out differently. After all, the GOP controlled Congress and the presidency for the first time in more than a decade. It was Republicans’ best opportunity to enact their legislative agenda since 2005.

But despite the 11 months that have transpired between then and now, they have yet to capitalize on that opportunity. Republicans’ failure to deliver on longstanding commitments, like repealing Obamacare and reducing government spending, has exposed deep divisions within the party over important policy areas. Even the Republicans’ effort to reform the tax code has proven to be harder than many initially expected.

When coupled with President Trump’s historic unpopularity, such a dismal record has many Republicans looking forward with trepidation to next year’s midterm elections. The results in Virginia’s off-year election last month were not a good sign. Preventing a similar rout at the federal level next November requires, at a minimum, that Republicans not squander 2018 as they did 2017.

This is especially pertinent in the Senate, where GOP efforts to pass its agenda this year have repeatedly faltered. Making the most of 2018 requires Republicans in that chamber to adopt a different approach to legislating in the months ahead.

Though that process necessarily begins with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fixing the GOP’s problems in the Senate will take more than a new approach from him alone. If Republicans are to overcome the challenges in the current environment, other senators in leadership positions must also adjust how they do their jobs. There is simply too much to be done for one senator to do it on his own.

Take Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo. Barrasso’s role is vital in forging consensus on controversial issues such as healthcare, spending, and tax reform. As majority leader, McConnell does not have the time or resources needed to run the Policy Committee. His focus is rightly on managing the Senate floor at the end of the legislative process, whereas the Policy Committee’s role is well upstream of that point.

The Policy Committee was first organized in 1947 under the leadership of Sen. Robert Taft, R-Ohio, for the explicit purpose of helping to facilitate internal debate on controversial issues and to coordinate policy development. According to its official history, the committee “helped determine consensus within the party on issues and considered how Republican senators might overcome disagreements.” At the time, Taft hoped that with the Policy Committee’s help, Senate Republicans would be able to develop legislative alternatives to Truman administration proposals.

Yet, GOP missteps on healthcare and last week’s frantic rush to identify and resolve disagreement between Republicans over tax policy highlight the fact that the party’s in-house think tank has been noticeably absent from these important debates. Instead of being surprised by the Republicans’ divisions on these issues, Barrasso could have employed the Policy Committee infrastructure earlier in the process to identify potential stumbling blocks and forge compromises.

Under Barrasso’s leadership, the Policy Committee provides a variety of services for members and staff. For members, the committee hosts a luncheon every Tuesday. For staff, the Policy Committee provides televised coverage of the Senate floor, along with information on upcoming votes, via its closed-circuit television channel. Committee staff also distribute legislative alerts on pending bills, amendments, and nominations. On occasion, the Committee circulates more-detailed research memos analyzing salient issues not currently pending before the Senate.

While visible, such services have not facilitated the kind of contentious discussions needed to identify areas of disagreement between members and to forge consensus on specific policy compromises before the last-minute push of necessity makes doing so imperative. For example, the weekly member lunch is not structured to encourage open and honest debate. Like the meetings hosted at the staff level, they are geared towards transmitting information one-way (from leadership to the rank-and-file) instead of towards promoting an exchange of ideas.

While the Policy Committee’s services are certainly helpful, they have generally focused on areas where Republicans are less divided. When there has been division, the way in which the Policy Committee performs its role serves to reinforce the leader’s position rather than provide the rank-and-file with the analytical resources needed to dispassionately evaluate a variety of different approaches to an issue. In doing so, the Policy Committee serves the leadership rather than the conference as a whole and no longer helps to overcome disagreement within the conference.

The consequence of this is to dampen the kind of internal debates necessary to forge genuine and sustainable policy compromise. Consequently, the debate is narrowed and creativity stifled. The resulting intellectual conformity, built largely on top-down edicts that gloss over potential disagreements, discourages the kind of innovation needed to identify policy solutions for today’s problems.

To reverse course, rank-and-file Republicans should instruct the chairman of the Policy Committee to adopt a service-oriented approach focused on their needs, not those of the leaders. A good start would be for Barrasso to decentralize policy development by sharing information on problems and potential legislative solutions with all members before the leader has decided on his preferred approach. Barrasso should also use his resources to create an open-source policy development process within the conference. Doing so would enable Republicans to take advantage of the unique knowledge, experiences, and perspectives that its members bring to the Senate and to make its member lunches and other gatherings much more productive.

Overall, the Policy Committee should strive to provide members and staff with the analytical tools and conceptual framework with which to make sense of complicated public policy problems, especially regarding those issues on which Republicans are divided. When armed with good information, members and their staff will be able to more easily compare the merits of different legislative solutions.

The result of all this may make the leader’s job harder. But that is ok. After all, the Policy Committee was created to benefit the rank-and-file, not party leadership.