White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders deflated what otherwise promised to be a thrilling Infrastructure Week by declaring, on May 9, “in terms of a specific piece of legislation, I’m not aware that that will happen by the end of the year.” That prosaic announcement attracted little notice amid the maelstrom of scandals that routinely consume Trump-era Washington. Yet with that statement the Republican Party essentially renounced a legislative agenda for 2018, on infrastructure or any other topic. Since the passage of the rapacious GOP tax cuts on December 19, the party with unified control of the House, Senate, and White House hasn’t even feigned an interest in legislation.
There’s nothing on the table; there aren’t plans to put anything on the table. It turns out that passing legislation to achieve unpopular goals like stripping workers of their rights or outlawing abortion has political costs. It’s much easier to let judges do that heavy lifting. Conservatives have decided that, after 20 years of invoking the phrase as a warning, “activist judges” aren’t so bad as long as they’re President Donald Trump’s appointees to the Supreme Court.
The Republican Party has chosen, in lieu of any policy agenda or legislative proposal, to sit back and wait for their ideological goals to be achieved by the courts, through unitary presidential action (recall that during the Obama presidency, conservatives decried executive orders as unconstitutional harbingers of tyranny), and by Trump appointees tasked with running the administrative state into the ground.
There are some extenuating factors. Legislative activity now competes with campaigning during an election in which many Republican incumbents in the House are in survival mode. Paul Ryan’s impending retirement leaves the powerful speaker position filled by a lame duck with, presumably, zero interest in fighting any additional battles. The narrow Republican majority in the Senate, where announced retirements have made the likes of Jeff Flake and Bob Corker more difficult for party leaders to control, means only bills on which Republican agreement is unanimous (e.g., tax cuts) are viable. And, of course, the president is a nightmare to work with on anything more detailed than a lunch menu.
Even with these limitations, the fact that the GOP has put nothing on the legislative agenda since passing tax cuts—the rollback of Dodd-Frank lending regulations on May 22 was a bipartisan embarrassment—and has no intention to do so anytime soon indicates more than just a confluence of short-term circumstances. It shows a party that has undergone two major changes from the one that as recently as the 1990s touted itself as “The Party of Ideas.”
First, anti-government sentiment is now so thoroughly embedded in Republican DNA that the party is effectively paralyzed when put in the position of governing. Since the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 a steady ratcheting-up of anti-governing and anti-Washington rhetoric, with conservative discipline enforced by primary challengers from the Tea Party wing, has reached its logical conclusion under Trump. Republicans painted themselves into an ideological corner from which they can never do, only undo; never create, only tear down. They can obstruct, waylay, undermine, and stonewall. What they can’t do is legislate.
Second, the party relies almost entirely on unelected actors—appointed bureaucrats and federal judges—to legislate. As recently as the George W. Bush era, Republican majorities in Congress could push legislation that appealed to conservative priorities. The current majorities seem uninterested. Why risk voting on a bill to gut environmental protections that will anger constituents? It’s far easier to install some industry stooges at the EPA and let them do the dirty work. Why legislate abortion—remember, only 28 percent of Americans support overturning Roe v Wade—when the Supreme Court can do it for you?
Accordingly we have a party that, tax cuts and one last failed attempt to undercut “Obamacare” aside, is uninterested in and incapable of legislating. The example of the 2017 Affordable Care Act reform is revealing. When Barack Obama occupied the White House and the GOP had zero chance of eliminating the ACA, Republicans couldn’t introduce repeal bills often enough; they voted to do so in the House a staggering 54 times in four years. But given control of the presidency in addition to Congress, the party was suddenly unable even to come up with a repeal bill. It revealed itself to be the heckler who, when finally handed the microphone by the frustrated performer on stage, has absolutely nothing to say.
It is almost inconceivable that in the seven-plus years since the ACA was passed, nobody in the universe of American conservatism—the GOP, interest groups, allied think tanks, the right-wing media—thought to write an actual ACA alternative bill a future GOP president could sign into law. Other than the vague but loudly repeated assertion that the ACA needed to be repealed, they had nothing.
When the time came, Republicans ended up with a “bill” slapped together in hours, complete with scrawled hand-written notes in the margins. Even when attempting to advance right-wing goals like privatization or government restructuring, they appear unable to produce the legislation to accomplish it.
We may be looking at a new normal for Republican governing in which congressional majorities demonstrate little interest in voting on anything beyond (Republican) presidential appointees. Other than cutting taxes as much and as often as humanly possible or the occasional, bipartisan gutting of financial regulations, there is nothing the GOP actually wants to do with a legislative majority. Much of what conservatives crave is so despised by the public that the political costs of passing legislation look prohibitive to Republicans in Congress. So, the party that now relies on the crudest form of populism has fully embraced letting unelected political actors enact it for them.