Mr. Renacci Goes to Washington

“I became increasingly frustrated by the pervasive dysfunction” and did not want to “continue in a city of farces,” reflects Jim Renacci in his recent book on eight years (2011-2019) in Washington, D.C., as an Ohio Republican congressman.  This political memoir, The GOP’s Lost Decade:  An Inside View of Why Washington Doesn’t Work, offers an intriguing look into the real, problematic workings of modern American governance and its growing fiscal dangers.

Renacci recalls how entering Congress as a conservative “riding the wave of the Tea Party” in the 2010 elections.  Of 94 freshman representatives, 85 were Republican, while Republicans were twelve of thirteen new senators, and these Republicans “charged in, full of enthusiasm” to change government.  The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Renacci, who in his successful career over 30 years had “turned around everything from nursing homes to car dealerships,” eagerly anticipated applying his business experience on Capitol Hill.

A decade later, Renacci’s freshman congressional class “limped out with just forty-two of us left.  Nothing had changed.”  He somberly summarizes:

Our deficits have grown, spending continues to rise, executive power has expanded, and the government’s gotten bigger…no border wall, no immigration reform, no repeal of Obamacare, no progress on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage.

General Motors’ (GM) government bailout saga bookends and exemplifies Renacci’s odyssey.  He decided to run for Congress after being among over a thousand GM dealership owners who lost their businesses in President Barack Obama’s 2009 GM handout.  Simultaneously he preserved pension and healthcare benefits for GM’s politically powerful union workers, and thus left untouched the ruinous “legacy costs” that added some $2,000 to uncompetitive GM car prices.

According to Renacci, with almost $81 billion between 2008 and 2014 the federal “government essentially bought a controlling stake in both GM and Chrysler,” and became “one of the world’s biggest carmakers.”  Although “companies typically emerge from bankruptcy stronger,” Obama’s “bypassing that bankruptcy process” entailed “pain that only got worse with time,” and GM announced in 2018 plant closures in Ohio and beyond.  “It still irks me that Obama is credited with ‘saving’ the U.S. auto industry,” Renacci writes after Obama lost more than $11 billion on GM and $1.3 billion on Chrysler. 

Rust Belt politics have marked Renacci’s life, as he grew up in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town near Pittsburgh, the grandson of Italian immigrants who became one of the ten wealthiest representatives in 2011.  “That entire part of western Pennsylvania was all Democratic back then” and his “grandparents had a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on their walls,” he recalls.  Yet after initial involvement with local Democrats after moving to Ohio following college, Renacci voted for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980.  Typical for such “Reagan Democrats,” the Democratic Party “wasn’t the party that my grandparents or even my parents grew up with,” Renacci notes.

This political crossover in the 1980s appears to have marked Renacci with desires for bipartisanship; he notes that President “Reagan had genuine affection” for the long-serving Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill.  “Our government was founded on the notion of compromise,” and the “opposing party isn’t the enemy.  We are all on the same side -- the side of America and democracy,” writes Renacci, who helped establish a “regular bipartisan breakfast” of lawmakers.  Accordingly, most “bills I sponsored or co-sponsored had bipartisan support, and the reason was simple:  I had made friends on the other side and we learned to trust each other.” 

Yet Renacci recounts how atypical he had become in an America in the midst of what others have described as a “cold civil war.”  “The public sees all the displays of divisiveness, but behind the scenes, it’s worse,” something he found “stifling and counterproductive.”  

“Talking to Democrats,” fellow Republican representatives said to him, not without justification, “was a waste of time.  The Democrats might say they want to help get things done, but… would just vote the party line.”  

The deficit hawk Renacci certainly has not found broad, bipartisan support for spending reductions, for this is “about the loneliest fight in Washington.”  “Every government program has a constituency,” something every “half-decent political operative” can exploit, while “in Washington, not having the money for something isn’t really a problem.  It’s more like an afterthought.”  Laws like the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) usually assume a ten-year budget, while conniving “lawmakers have become adept at throwing the garbage eleven or twelve years down the road.” 

Considering the federal government’s $22 trillion of debt, Renacci explains how the entitlements “Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are the greatest threat to the long-term financial well-being of the country… Cutting these programs -- even appearing to rein them in -- can be political suicide,” yet they and debt interest mandate 70 percent of the budget.  Another 15 percent is defense spending, “which is technically discretionary, but as a practical matter, no one wants to cut it for fear of being branded un-American.”  Thus a congressional budget “represents only about 15% of all federal spending.  You could pass a budget that had no discretionary spending at all and it wouldn’t make a significant impact on the deficit.”

In the face of such grave problems, Renacci decries that America’s modern political class often prioritizes means to power, like fundraising, over legislative substance.  “Ironically, joining the political elite doesn’t require any real skills or accomplishments,” he notes.  He compares Sherrod Brown, the Democrat incumbent who beat Renacci in the Ohio 2018 Senate race, with Brown’s fellow Democrat, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke.  “I’m no fan of Brown, but when it comes to political accomplishment, he was far more impressive than O’Rourke,” a rising Democratic star, but political elites “support sizzle.  Brown doesn’t have it, and O’Rourke does.” 

In a phone interview with this author, Renacci bewailed that the recent $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus is not so unusual, as legislators “just live crisis to crisis in Washington.”  “Nobody in the real world would sign a 1,000-page contract” like the stimulus bill, but such laws have proliferated in a Congress that regularly resorts to Continuing Resolutions (CR) to finance the government.  In the stimulus, “there are probably things in there that nobody is going to know about” until much later, just as CRs are always “full of garbage,” specific measures that could not pass on their own. 

Somewhat contradictorily, Renacci effectively calls for a restorative revolution to overthrow a corrupt status quo and return to more deliberative governance, like the orderly budget process Congress attempted to institute in the 1970s.  American legislators “need to return to the ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ version of government,” he writes with reference to the 1970s Public Service Announcement cartoons.  Yet the early Donald Trump supporter Renacci also praises President Trump for being a “disruptor, and Washington needs more like him.”

Ultimately, Renacci recognizes that putting America’s fiscal house in order along his businesslike lines requires public attitude sea changes.  “I tried fixing the system from the inside, and I didn’t succeed.  No one can.  Now, I hope you’ll join me in trying to fix it from the outside.”  All the more reason to learn from Renacci’s book.

“I became increasingly frustrated by the pervasive dysfunction” and did not want to “continue in a city of farces,” reflects Jim Renacci in his recent book on eight years (2011-2019) in Washington, D.C., as an Ohio Republican congressman.  This political memoir, The GOP’s Lost Decade:  An Inside View of Why Washington Doesn’t Work, offers an intriguing look into the real, problematic workings of modern American governance and its growing fiscal dangers.

Renacci recalls how entering Congress as a conservative “riding the wave of the Tea Party” in the 2010 elections.  Of 94 freshman representatives, 85 were Republican, while Republicans were twelve of thirteen new senators, and these Republicans “charged in, full of enthusiasm” to change government.  The Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Renacci, who in his successful career over 30 years had “turned around everything from nursing homes to car dealerships,” eagerly anticipated applying his business experience on Capitol Hill.

A decade later, Renacci’s freshman congressional class “limped out with just forty-two of us left.  Nothing had changed.”  He somberly summarizes:

Our deficits have grown, spending continues to rise, executive power has expanded, and the government’s gotten bigger…no border wall, no immigration reform, no repeal of Obamacare, no progress on social issues such as abortion or gay marriage.

General Motors’ (GM) government bailout saga bookends and exemplifies Renacci’s odyssey.  He decided to run for Congress after being among over a thousand GM dealership owners who lost their businesses in President Barack Obama’s 2009 GM handout.  Simultaneously he preserved pension and healthcare benefits for GM’s politically powerful union workers, and thus left untouched the ruinous “legacy costs” that added some $2,000 to uncompetitive GM car prices.

According to Renacci, with almost $81 billion between 2008 and 2014 the federal “government essentially bought a controlling stake in both GM and Chrysler,” and became “one of the world’s biggest carmakers.”  Although “companies typically emerge from bankruptcy stronger,” Obama’s “bypassing that bankruptcy process” entailed “pain that only got worse with time,” and GM announced in 2018 plant closures in Ohio and beyond.  “It still irks me that Obama is credited with ‘saving’ the U.S. auto industry,” Renacci writes after Obama lost more than $11 billion on GM and $1.3 billion on Chrysler. 

Rust Belt politics have marked Renacci’s life, as he grew up in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town near Pittsburgh, the grandson of Italian immigrants who became one of the ten wealthiest representatives in 2011.  “That entire part of western Pennsylvania was all Democratic back then” and his “grandparents had a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on their walls,” he recalls.  Yet after initial involvement with local Democrats after moving to Ohio following college, Renacci voted for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980.  Typical for such “Reagan Democrats,” the Democratic Party “wasn’t the party that my grandparents or even my parents grew up with,” Renacci notes.

This political crossover in the 1980s appears to have marked Renacci with desires for bipartisanship; he notes that President “Reagan had genuine affection” for the long-serving Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill.  “Our government was founded on the notion of compromise,” and the “opposing party isn’t the enemy.  We are all on the same side -- the side of America and democracy,” writes Renacci, who helped establish a “regular bipartisan breakfast” of lawmakers.  Accordingly, most “bills I sponsored or co-sponsored had bipartisan support, and the reason was simple:  I had made friends on the other side and we learned to trust each other.” 

Yet Renacci recounts how atypical he had become in an America in the midst of what others have described as a “cold civil war.”  “The public sees all the displays of divisiveness, but behind the scenes, it’s worse,” something he found “stifling and counterproductive.”  

“Talking to Democrats,” fellow Republican representatives said to him, not without justification, “was a waste of time.  The Democrats might say they want to help get things done, but… would just vote the party line.”  

The deficit hawk Renacci certainly has not found broad, bipartisan support for spending reductions, for this is “about the loneliest fight in Washington.”  “Every government program has a constituency,” something every “half-decent political operative” can exploit, while “in Washington, not having the money for something isn’t really a problem.  It’s more like an afterthought.”  Laws like the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) usually assume a ten-year budget, while conniving “lawmakers have become adept at throwing the garbage eleven or twelve years down the road.” 

Considering the federal government’s $22 trillion of debt, Renacci explains how the entitlements “Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are the greatest threat to the long-term financial well-being of the country… Cutting these programs -- even appearing to rein them in -- can be political suicide,” yet they and debt interest mandate 70 percent of the budget.  Another 15 percent is defense spending, “which is technically discretionary, but as a practical matter, no one wants to cut it for fear of being branded un-American.”  Thus a congressional budget “represents only about 15% of all federal spending.  You could pass a budget that had no discretionary spending at all and it wouldn’t make a significant impact on the deficit.”

In the face of such grave problems, Renacci decries that America’s modern political class often prioritizes means to power, like fundraising, over legislative substance.  “Ironically, joining the political elite doesn’t require any real skills or accomplishments,” he notes.  He compares Sherrod Brown, the Democrat incumbent who beat Renacci in the Ohio 2018 Senate race, with Brown’s fellow Democrat, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke.  “I’m no fan of Brown, but when it comes to political accomplishment, he was far more impressive than O’Rourke,” a rising Democratic star, but political elites “support sizzle.  Brown doesn’t have it, and O’Rourke does.” 

In a phone interview with this author, Renacci bewailed that the recent $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus is not so unusual, as legislators “just live crisis to crisis in Washington.”  “Nobody in the real world would sign a 1,000-page contract” like the stimulus bill, but such laws have proliferated in a Congress that regularly resorts to Continuing Resolutions (CR) to finance the government.  In the stimulus, “there are probably things in there that nobody is going to know about” until much later, just as CRs are always “full of garbage,” specific measures that could not pass on their own. 

Somewhat contradictorily, Renacci effectively calls for a restorative revolution to overthrow a corrupt status quo and return to more deliberative governance, like the orderly budget process Congress attempted to institute in the 1970s.  American legislators “need to return to the ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’ version of government,” he writes with reference to the 1970s Public Service Announcement cartoons.  Yet the early Donald Trump supporter Renacci also praises President Trump for being a “disruptor, and Washington needs more like him.”

Ultimately, Renacci recognizes that putting America’s fiscal house in order along his businesslike lines requires public attitude sea changes.  “I tried fixing the system from the inside, and I didn’t succeed.  No one can.  Now, I hope you’ll join me in trying to fix it from the outside.”  All the more reason to learn from Renacci’s book.