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The Hill to Die On: Book Review

The Hill to Die on: The Battle for Congress and the Future of Trump's America (2019), Sherman & Palmer, Congress in the age of Trump by two Politico journalists. They paint the people on Capital Hill as more or less normal and then tell stories, flipping from Democrat to Republican operatives and back. I suppose that's what it takes for these folk to talk to them, only modestly snarky. The most interesting thing was how many politicians had knives out to stab others, both friend and foe, in the back. This was especially true for Paul Ryan's job as Speaker of the House and later Nancy Pelosi for the same position. Apparently, a serious lack of ethics was expected. "Congress ... is one of the pettiest collections of adults the planet has ever seen" (p. 1). "Money, for the most part, is a secondary currency in DC. Power--gaining it, maintaining it, and being in proximity to it--is what matters" (p. 4). "Money is the lubricant that keeps the town running" (p. 6). "K Street power brokers capitalized on the uncertainty and charged a killing to steer corporate America through Trump's unchartered waters" (p. 7). They referred to Trump's ideological flexibility resulting in a quick tax reform bill and Senate confirmation of conservative judges. The House "chamber fosters regional and tribal politics" (p. 54). Mainly the book was get-in-the-weeds story telling about this presently corrupt institution and less-than-remarkable players. The stories go back and forth across parties and time, making it sometimes confusing.

House Republicans leaders Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise were soon in the Trump Camp and less bound by Republican conventions (while Ryan was bound). While Republican were in power they shut down the governments and almost defaulted on Treasury debt, but the Democrats were unable to capitalize. "Trump's confidants were a Washington cast of misfits many of whom had little qualification and no experience on Capitol Hill to prepare them for the jobs they were given" (p. 44). Trump: "his prescription for relief was all stick and no carrot ... His governing philosophy was simple: muscle and mouth" (p. 45). "Dealing with Trump meant listening to what he said, guessing what he meant, and proceeding with caution toward an uncertain end" (p. 45).

The DCCC and NRCC exist to elect House members. The members are expected to contribute ($125,000 for rank and file, way more for committee chairs and leaders). The DCCC did not innovate, apparently because Obama brought out the vote, a problem in the Trump years. McConnell power was Chapter 5, described by Democrats as "a power hungry monster who would do anything to advance the cause of rabid conservatism ... focused on power and how to exercise it with maximum impact" (p. 69). With the legislature deadlocked, greater power went to the courts. Trump was running a scandal-plagued presidency with a good economy.

Republican line on healthcare: "Democrats enacted a government takeover of health care ... they rammed it down the throats of the American people" (p. 78); then Republicans had 60 votes to repeal the law. With Trump, repealing Obamacare was priority one (then tax cuts and infrastructure), but no unified plan (but apparently, the attempt was from universal coverage to universal access--it would be called Trumpcare, p. 80). Super conservatives demanded a complete repeal of Obamacare; the CBO said their plan would result in 24 million Americans losing health insurance. McConnell to Trump: "It's not easy making America great again, is it?" (p. 89).

Chapter 6 on McCarthy and Scalise. Both came to Congress in the 2010 Tea Party revolution. Scalise: "light on policy and heavy on playing the game of internal politics. McCarthy could barely stick to talking points" (p. 99). Chapter 7 on the fiscal cliff and setting itself up for a crisis: "lunging from one legislative crisis to the next, plunging congressional approval ratings to new lows" (112). 2017 national debt limit and government needed to be funded. Trump flipped from one side to another for compromise, then demanded $5 billion for a wall, which could be negotiated in exchange for a DACA legal-status bill. Taking flak from conservatives the president backed off. The result was the longest government shutdown in history. Schumer and Pelosi wouldn't cave; Trump with no leverage, did.

Mark Meadows, tea party leader: "loved inserting himself in the middle of an issue, first causing problems and then later trying to patch them up. He frequently did this with the president's consent" (p. 158). This gave him power although the group only had about 15 members (just enough to torpedo legislation). Ryan wanted to focus on policy, including an overhaul of the entitlement programs. "Cottage industry of protecting the president, including David Nunes (chair of house intelligence committee), shielding Trump from congressional oversight. He claimed the president's campaign had been surveilled (p. 181); also viewing Mueller as a "hit job" working with Democrats and FBI to bring Trump down.

Chapter 11, Jim Jordan ("The man on Fox News telling it like it should be," plus one of the least popular men on Capitol Hill) and Mark Meadows plus a couple dozen members of the freedom caucus. "Immigration was conservative Republicans' hill to die on. Key was to vote against the speaker if the group took a position they could stop any bill; no need to compromise (Meadows was more flexible). Jordan "wanted and expected purity," made easier with Trump. Ryan favored pathway to citizenship for DACA.

Chapter 12, Trump "taking the heat," talking with Pelosi and Schumer on immigration, his love of deals. Democrats wanted DACA first, then border security. Republican plans reduced immigration on all fronts plus cracking down on sanctuary cities. Then the government shutdown: "will the freedom caucus shut down the government. Ryan wanted increased spending, FC did not (except military); Democrats wanted DACA. Schumer would trade wall for DACA. When rejected, wall became a red line for Democrats. Trump flipped often. Result: shutdown. Chapter 13: Ryan announced end to political career. He wanted to do big things, but it was game playing and hostage taking and backstabbing. McCarthy versus Scalise for speaker (McCarthy would have to settle for minority leader).

Chapter 14 mainly on money raising, like go-local tactics. Republicans focused on immigrants, voters on healthcare, education and job training. Democrats were moving left, agreeing with Bernie Sanders with Medicate for all, free college tuition and $15 minimum wage. Joe Crawley was a long-time party leader. Too bad he faced Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and a massive number of first-time voters: "I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny" (p. 246). AOC beat Crawley by 15 points. Other newly elected Democrats for 2018 also described. Discussion of immigration: "majority of the House wanted and was willing to pass progressive-looking immigration reform. The votes were there for Hurd-Aguilar, a bipartisan bill approved by Democrats and pushed by a moderate Republican. But its very bipartisanship was what doomed it" (p. 255). Freedom Caucus withheld its votes from the farm bill (which includes social welfare programs). Ryan wanted something Congress could pass and the president sign, most likely the wall for DACA. Immigration bill failed by a couple of votes (215 versus 218 needed on a discharge petition).

Chapter 16: Left and Center; Bernie and candidates pushing his ideas including AOC. But Sander's record for influencing races not great. Schumer's career, with a reputation for self-interest. Democrats wanted lower drug prices, but took money from Big Pharma. Bank legislation exempted small banks from Dodd-Frank and reduced number of "systemically important" banks. Chapter 17: Going Negative. Assumption that independents were right-leaning Republicans. Rep. Chris Collins indicted on insider trading. Republicans: "It was now all fear all the time" (p. 298). Rep. Duncan Hunter indicted for using campaign funds for personal expenses. Chapter 18: The Second Seat about Brett Kavanaugh; a massive fight from the beginning, with Grassley and Republicans in general playing dirty: limiting documents, scope of investigations, then Christine Blasey Ford [noted for raw emotions versus Cavanaugh's anger]. McConnell ["in the results business"] and Grassley pushed him through anyway (and blamed Democrats for problems).

November 2018 election, more or less on Trump's agenda. Texas as Republican ATM (p. 331). Pelosi as leader said she "would be transitional [apparently, it would be when someone successfully stabbed her from behind]. "Her strategy: weaponize the lionized Reagan as the antithesis of Trump" (p. 340). Electoral route in the House. McCarthy became minority leader. Republican side almost all-white male; Democrats diverse, with lots of women. Chapter 22: Shutdown. Seemingly, Trump and the Republicans hold all the cards, except for the House (but with Pelosi unpopular with many House members). McConnell wanted a clean kick-the-can-down-the-road budget bill and Democrats wanted to trade the wall for DACA. A radical right plus erratic Trump resulted in the longest shutdown in history. Then Trump caved. Pelosi and Schumer seemed brilliant. The wall was a campaign rally cry and binary: yes for pro-Trump, no for anti-Trump. (Meadows believed this was the hill for Trump to die on.) Lots of options for compromise long before Pelosi became speaker (including some border wall funding), but Trump lambasted by Fox News for compromising. Part of the idea was the Democrats were incompetent and would cave quickly. "In 2015, John Boehner had 'cleaned the brn,' working with Democrats to pass thorny byt necessary legislation that his own party wouldn't back" (p. 387). Even Kushner got involved: "I'm on it. I can quickly fix it" (p. 389). The shutdown meant about a million people wouldn't get paid. Pelosi position: no money for the wall. "Watching the president during the shutdown was a bit like watching someone at a control panel who had no idea what any of the buttons did. He had lots of tools at his disposal, but couldn't seem to use any of them effectively" (p. 395). After 35 days, Trump caved and Republicans got nothing. It was dawning on people that Pelosi knew what she was doing.

The authors went out of their way not to seem hyper-partisan and often held their punches. Various people and their actions seemed contemptible to me, but usually got a pass.

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