The Missing Republican Agenda

Column: President Trump takes center stage as Congress moves to the background

Sen. Dianne Feinstein / Getty Images
March 2, 2018

When Paul Ryan launched his "Better Way" agenda in 2016, the idea was to provide a blueprint for the next Republican administration. The man who would lead that administration was skeptical, to say the least. The Ryan agenda, focusing on health care, taxes, military spending, and welfare reform, was resisted and belittled by Donald Trump's populist-nationalist supporters. But a funny thing happened when Trump won the presidency. It was Ryan's priorities that shaped Trump's first year in office.

That's no longer the case. After the failed attempt to replace Obamacare, the passage of the Trump tax cut, and the agreement over a two-year spending deal that ended the defense sequester, congressional Republicans do not expect to accomplish much during the remainder of 2018. They blame the filibuster, which allows Senate Democrats to block any legislation that doesn't have 60 votes. Fiscal measures could pass by a simple majority, but only through the process called budget reconciliation. And that process is unlikely to happen, since there are only 51 Senate Republicans and two of them are often absent due to illness.

When you talk to people on Capitol Hill, many say they wouldn't be surprised if the agriculture bill turns out to be the sole piece of legislation that reaches the president's desk this year. Shepherded by Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, the bill is expected to be the vehicle for welfare reform—excuse me, "workforce development." But any workforce development measure that could pass Congress likely would fall short of conservative expectations. We are in a legislative Catch-22: The Senate is too divided to take up the bills the House passes, and the House is too conservative for the sort of mushy-middle legislation that could overcome the filibuster. (A possible exception: Changes to Dodd-Frank enjoy the backing of red-state Democrats up for reelection.)

The lack of a 2018 agenda has had several consequences. It's meant that Republicans are gambling their majority on the tax cut, which will be close to a year old when polls open in November. Republican leaders return to the tax cut whenever they are asked what their message will be this fall. It's their safe space. Now, it's true that support for the tax cut is increasing as the economy reaches full employment. But just as attitudes toward the plan changed once, they may change again. And surely it would help Republican candidates if they had more than one accomplishment.

Without Ryan and McConnell pressing a legislative program, the White House and President Trump have the initiative. The classic Trump issues of immigration and trade are in the foreground, along with the traveling circus of palace intrigue, presidential Tweets, and the ongoing Mueller investigation. The unpredictability and volatility of Trump was on display at Wednesday's meeting on guns with congressmen and senators. The president seemed unaware of the details of various pieces of legislation, chided Republican lawmakers, including Pat Toomey (!) for being "afraid of the NRA," and said of gun violence restraining orders, "Take the guns first, go through due process second." One can only imagine what was going on at NRA headquarters as the president triangulated live on cable TV. But I can guess what Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, was thinking: She looked like she was about to burst into laughter as the president disagreed with Republicans such as House majority whip Steve Scalise—a victim of gun violence—and Vice President Pence.

A third consequence of the missing Republican agenda is that it reveals the underlying divisions and stasis of conservative thought. Marco Rubio has embraced a novel proposal to allow families to draw early from Social Security for parental leave, but has encountered resistance from the same conservative institutions that fought his increase in the child tax credit. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, has a tough and effective immigration bill that can't reach 218 votes in the House because of opposition from business, especially agriculture. Even John Cornyn's bipartisan improvement of the background check system, a bill the NRA supports, faces Republican opposition, as Chuck Schumer rubs his hands together over GOP infighting.

If I had any say in the matter, Republicans would spend the rest of 2018 on health care. It was the top priority of voters in last year's Virginia gubernatorial election. Key voting blocs, such as married women and independents, are telling focus group conveners that health care is an important factor in their votes. Republicans have had some successes on health care. The Department of Health and Human Services loosened the rules on association health plans. Congress repealed the individual mandate and the much-maligned IPAB regulatory body. But these actions, while laudable, are not the same as addressing the cost drivers that inflate health insurance premiums.

There's more work to be done. Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine are negotiating over a bill to improve reinsurance programs. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia has another bill that increases price transparency. What remains is for Congress to pass this legislation, publicize its efforts to reduce health care costs and increase portability, and explain to the public the necessity of repealing and replacing Obamacare in the next Congress.

Sounds fantastic, I know. But Republicans need to give their people a reason to vote for them in the coming months, and the historical record shows that a growing economy is not enough. Then again, if the tax cut won't do the trick on its own, maybe a Supreme Court vacancy will.