The Republican Party has complete control over the federal government, and yet with six months to go before the November elections, they don’t have any ambitious plans to exercise that power other than to confirm a stable of conservative judges.
Republican congressional leaders are no longer pushing any more signature reforms; no infrastructure, or entitlement reform, or welfare revamp, or an overhaul of the immigration system. “There ain’t nothing going to happen here the rest of the year,” as Drew Hammill, the deputy chief of staff for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, put it.
Some conservatives on the other side of the aisle agree: They see a party leadership more worried about taking controversial positions before the 2018 elections than focused on taking advantage of this rare moment of unified control of government.
“It's all about political cover for perhaps those who are in more difficult districts,” Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina told VICE News. “What the American people expect is that when given the opportunity that you actually run toward the finish line and you run through the tape, and what it seems like we're doing is coasting to a November election.”
When a party has control of the Senate, the House, and the White House, it usually hustles to try to do as much as possible. The most recent period of unified government was the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, during which the Democratic Congress passed or tried to pass a flurry of ambitious overhauls all the way through late September 2010, just weeks before the election.
Obama didn’t sign the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill until July 22 of 2010. The Democratic-led Congress worked furiously on a cap-and-trade system to address global warming through late July until they concluded they didn’t have the votes. And Democrats only gave up on a reform of the campaign finance system in late September of 2010 after a 59-41 vote failed to break a Republican filibuster.
Meadows and other conservatives are frustrated that Republican leaders will not adopt a similarly aggressive approach and, at the very least, push forward on reforms on subjects like welfare, transportation, and the civil service, as well as making the middle-class tax cuts from the recent tax bill permanent.
“We are in the midst of divided government, and it’s called the Republican Party.”
“When I go back home, I don't know that I find anybody who is sympathetic that members of Congress are working too hard,” Meadows said. “I can tell you that the Republican political capital is perishing each day that we don't get something done.”
Punching out early
But there's a distinct lack of urgency on the Hill. Last week, the House ended its workweek Wednesday night because there were no other votes to cast or agenda items. Dozens of Republicans have announced they are not running for re-election, and some have decided to retire even before November. There are only 62 working days left in the House before the election and 83 for the Senate.
There are no large pieces of legislation currently moving through committee. Young congressional staffers on both sides of the aisle speak openly (and excitedly) of a lackadaisical summer. And the Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has already announced his retirement, decreasing his leverage over members to take hard votes.
“I can’t think of too many other big things that are going to get done,” said Karlyn Bown, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The progress on infrastructure has stopped.”
The do-nothing view is not universally shared by Republicans, in particular one Republican would would like to succeed Ryan.
“There is still a lot we have and will do,” said Matt Sparks, a spokesman for Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Sparks and David Popp, a spokesman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both cited the upcoming Farm Bill, a package to address the opioid crisis, reforms at the Federal Aviation Administration, and more.
But some conservatives argue that those are mostly pieces of legislation that Congress would need to do anyway, or they're just small potatoes. Republicans’ “initial ecstasy over Trump ‘signing their stuff’ has given way to the reality that they don’t have stuff to send him,” Rich Lowry, the editor of the conservative National Review, wrote last week. “They are acting like they are lost in the wilderness, when they still occupy the commanding heights of American politics.”
Republicans appear stuck, unable to agree on anything much except confirming a stable of conservative federal judges.
Fear in districts
Some, like Meadows, argue that it’s largely a matter of political courage losing out to political expediency among party leaders. Others say it’s different than 2010 because Republicans only have 51 votes (after the Roy Moore debacle) and Democrats had 59.
But some conservatives and congressional experts think that Republicans in Congress can’t get anything bigger done because the GOP is divided against itself.
“We have a divided government today because we have at least two Republican parties,” David King, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of "Turf Wars: How Congressional Committees Claim Jurisdiction," told VICE News. “From now until November, expect very little consequential lawmaking. We are in the midst of divided government, and it’s called the Republican Party.”
Many of those divisions were on full display during the 2016 presidential primary when the GOP’s base revolted against the establishment and much of its orthodoxy in its embrace of Donald Trump. Paul Ryan and other Republicans had made reforming Medicare and Social Security, free trade agreements, and deficit reduction into core tenets of the Republican Party only to see the party’s voters elect a president who either disagreed or didn’t care about any of them.
As one former White House official told VICE News, there's an enormous gap between what the Republican establishment and their donors want and what the voters want.
“It’s a crisis of leadership, crisis of confusion, and intraparty rifts,” said Sheldon Goldman, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “By all rights, they should have been able to accomplish a lot more.”