Republicans have all the power and no idea what to do with it

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly been pushing a modest approach: confirming judges, passing focused legislation, but no major legislative initiatives.

By Evan Horowitz Globe Staff 

Republicans still control the presidency and both houses of Congress, yet increasingly they seem to be playing defense, with little or no legislative agenda to call their own.

Whereas Democrats quickly coalesced behind a set of relatively concrete gun control demands after the Parkland tragedy — including tighter background checks and restoring the ban on assault weapons — there’s been no such unity among Republicans. And while there is still time to find common ground, right now House and Senate Republicans seem to be moving in different directions, and the NRA is aggressively fighting any restrictions.


Something similar happened during the effort to fix DACA. Yes, Democrats fought over tactics, but leaders in both houses initially embraced a common compromise where increased border security made way for new rules protecting unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children. Republicans, by contrast, never reached internal agreement on what they would support.

More generally, Republicans seem to have fallen into a kind of legislative malaise, uncertain what to do next, now that tax reform is finished and health reform seems hopeless.

But there’s no necessary reason this should be the limit of Republican plans. For every major problem in America, there’s a potential solution with a conservative stamp. To fight global warming, a revenue-neutral tax on carbon. To tackle poverty, while encouraging work, expand the earned income tax credit. To drive down health costs, improve price transparency so users can shop and compare. But none of these are being seriously considered.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly been pushing a modest approach: confirming judges, passing focused legislation, but no major legislative initiatives — certainly not the frontal assault on welfare and entitlements that House Speaker Paul Ryan has advocated.

Some rank-and-file Republicans are bristling at this restraint, wary that a midterm wave could sweep them out of office. Democrats need not stand in their way, either, because Republicans still have the option to pursue a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill — the same approach that made tax reform possible on a party-line vote.


At this moment, though, Republicans aren’t just struggling to unite behind a bold agenda; they’re divided on the question of whether they should even try.

It’s an unusual situation, even for onlookers accustomed to congressional gridlock. For comparison, think back to 2010 — the most recent period like our own, when Democrats controlled the levers of power in the second year of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Then, too, there was a sense of exhaustion after a punishing push for an unpopular bill (tax reform under Trump, health reform under Obama). And House and Senate Democrats were squabbling — notably on climate change — just as their Republicans counterparts are today.

Nonetheless, Democrats still had big plans, including for student aid and long-term deficit reduction. They even managed to pass a major piece of legislation: the controversial Dodd-Frank rules for Wall Street reform.

Meanwhile, Republicans were pursuing a strategy of unified opposition, trying to block Obama’s agenda by playing what McConnell called “team ball,” sticking together to deprive Democratic initiatives any patina of bipartisanship.

If 2018 were more like 2010, Congress would be acting quite differently, with Republicans battling obstinate Democrats to advance every possible piece of their agenda.


Instead, it’s the minority party forcing the issues.

McConnell himself might be part of the reason, having found so much success with tactical reticence. But he’s hardly the only factor. Trump is a lot less focused on legislative maneuvering than he might be, and his top priority — infrastructure — was never really a comfortable fit for a party often opposed to government spending.

But there’s also an argument that the real issue is the waning force of conservatism writ large. Political theorist Cory Robin has been making this argument for some time, likening Trump to Jimmy Carter as the caretaker-president of a movement that has lost its animating force. Congressional Republicans lack a policy agenda, in other words, because the Republican party lacks a unifying policy vision — beyond undoing the work of Obama and other Democrats.

If this charge seems unfair, the clear answer would be for Republicans to disprove it with a clear, workable set of plans to improve people’s lives. They hold the levers of power, and they still have the ability to work around the filibuster. So the only thing stopping them is, well, themselves.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the US He can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.