Congressional Cliff Jumping: Conservatism, Republicans, and the Healthcare Bill

During his 1980 presidential campaign, President Reagan articulated a strong vision for economic reform. Later when he ultimately accepted a Congressional economic package that some perceived to fall short of that vision, the media asked him whether he compromised his principles to accept it. He responded:

“I know that it can look that way. I’m not retreating an inch from where I was. But I also recognize this: There are some people who would have you so stand on principle that if you don’t get all that you’ve asked for from the legislature, why, you jump off the cliff with the flag flying. I have always figured that a half a loaf is better than none, and I know that in the democratic process you’re not going to always get everything you want. (Youtube Link)

It’s hard to imagine today’s conservatives seeing Reagan as anything less than a bedrock of conservative principles and resolve. And yet, Reagan’s contemporary critics expressed that very concern. As highlighted above, Reagan responded by distinguishing between principles and strategy. His response also highlighted the reality that the overall composition of the legislature determines what type of legislation can pass.

Over a month ago, we watched the Republicans walk away from their healthcare reform bill. Speaker Paul Ryan declared, “We’re going to be living with ObamaCare for the foreseeable future.” The Hill, a congressional newspaper, summarized the issue well by stating that, “Conservatives argued the bill didn’t go far enough to repeal ObamaCare, while moderate lawmakers worried about backlash in their districts from those who came to rely on ObamaCare.” As I considered this situation, I wondered whether some conservatives had jumped off the cliff with the flag flying.

Because the Democrats controlled Congress during Reagan’s administration, we can rationalize Reagan’s willingness to compromise more easily. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Republican control of Congress negates the need for compromise. Political reality has shown us that Republicans do not universally support a full repeal. While the proposed bill certainly fell short of conservative expectations, it contained some provisions that would have limited the growth of the current government run system. Despite the positive elements of the bill, many conservative Republicans effectively killed the bill by refusing to support it.

To reference Reagan’s analogy, these conservative Republicans walked away from the half loaf because they wanted more. While in all likelihood these Republicans would return to their districts and characterize their refusal as a principled stand, their actions appear more like strategy than principle. Instead of securing some conservatives changes to the federal government’s role in healthcare, they gambled they could get more conservative provisions in a later bill if they showed their willingness to walk away completely.

Finding himself in a similar situation, Reagan acknowledged the political makeup of Congress and took what he could. But he did not stop there, stating, “I’m just going to have to try and communicate better, and make people realize that, you know, I come back and I ask for more the next time around.” The conservative Republicans could have followed Reagan’s lead by taking the half loaf and then redoubling their efforts to promote the virtues of conservative policies.

If this bill proposal revealed that Congress is not conservative enough to pass a better bill, then its time for each of us to begin persuading our fellow voters of the value of conservative principles. As our elected representatives ultimately reflect the opinion of the voters, the surest way to get more conservative bills passed is have more voters supporting conservative positions.

We must also realize that meaningful change often takes time. The welfare state we have today was not built in one session of Congress, but in a century of congressional sessions. If we act like we will never get another go at reform and always hold out for our ideal policies without regard to the political makeup of Congress, we may forfeit the opportunity to slowly move the nation towards more conservative policies. We should trust that the more people taste the benefits of limited government, the more they will see how it benefits their lives.

At the end of the day, wagers sometimes pay out. Contrary to many political pundits, the Republican House leadership has revived the healthcare effort and it appears that conservatives now support the revised bill. As someone who believes that the Constitution does not provide a role for the federal government in managing healthcare, I will be extremely grateful to the conservative Republicans if this bill passes while still moving the needle further towards conservative principles. However, if this bill does not move forward, their prior move may begin to look more like a cliff jump.

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