In a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, George H.W. Bush moves to Springfield and completes his memoir. "And since I'd achieved all my goals as president in one term," Bush writes, "there was no need for a second. The end." A similar sentiment appears to be gripping the Republican Congress. Now that they've achieved all their goals, what's the point in bothering with legislating?
As The Hill recently reported, with the November elections weighing increasingly on Congress' mind, "Republicans in the House are pivoting to messaging bills and away from the hot-button issues that have dominated the first two months of the year." In case you're wondering, a "messaging bill" is one that is intended less to solve a problem than to provide a talking point. Far better to do that than to grapple with a volatile issue like immigration or gun violence. On all those things, the GOP has essentially given up, like seniors in their last semester of high school.
Although the last 14 months has felt more like 14 years, the record of policy accomplishments from this Republican Congress has been remarkably thin. That wasn't what they had in mind when they took complete control of Washington for the first time in a decade, nor what many of us expected. It was supposed to be a smoothly running assembly line, with the House and Senate stamping out bills on conservative priorities as fast as President Trump could sign them. But once they failed at their first big priority, repealing the Affordable Care Act, the wind seemed to go out of their sails. They'd succeed at the one goal more important than all others — a big tax cut for corporations and the wealthy — but once that was done they seemed to collapse, breathless and sated, all their legislative energy exhausted upon the completion of that most glorious task.
And now, huge numbers of Republicans in the House — at least three dozen so far — are choosing to retire, heading off for lucrative lobbying careers or some other greener pasture. The most important reason is that it looks increasingly likely that Democrats will control the chamber after November, and being in the minority, to put it simply, just sucks. Your legislation never sees the light of day, the other party controls all the committees, and you begin to feel powerless and irrelevant (it's not nearly as bad in the Senate, where each individual senator has all kinds of privileges that give power and influence even to those in the minority).
But they've also found out that being in the majority has its problems, too, especially when your party controls the White House. When you have a majority but you're in the opposition, you can mount investigations and rail at the president's perfidy. But no Republican wants to conduct oversight of the Trump administration, which leaves them with little to do but defend the frequently indefensible Donald Trump.
And what about all that legislating they were going to undertake? Well it turns out that once you remove the stuff that's too politically dangerous to touch, there isn't much left to do. Sure, Republicans would like to dismantle Medicaid, privatize Medicare, slash the safety net, and outlaw abortion. But when the Democratic base is already energized and angry, all that doesn't seem like such a good idea if you want to hold on to your seat.
And the truth is that Republicans just aren't ideologically inclined to pass a lot of laws. They believe that government should do as little as possible, particularly when it comes to addressing social ills. They don't want to start new programs, and on many issues like guns, the status quo is fine with them. They're happy to see the Trump administration sabotaging the Affordable Care Act and undermining Medicaid, but they'd just as soon not go to the trouble of working on some complicated piece of legislation with political risk to accomplish the same thing.
There are a few things left on the Republican to-do list, including some bank deregulation (and on that one they're getting help from some Democrats). But in general, once they've cut taxes and eliminated some regulations on things like environmental protections and workers' rights, there just isn't all that much they want to do.
That doesn't mean they'll be happy to hand power over to Democrats, of course. If you're an anti-government conservative, holding power is important if for no other reason than stopping the pro-government party from passing a bunch of laws you won't like — and, of course, preventing them from engaging in any pesky oversight of the Trump administration.
When he ran for re-election in 1948, Harry Truman railed at the "do-nothing Congress" he said was stymieing his efforts to make the country run smoothly. This year, President Trump will tell voters to keep our contemporary do-nothing Congress around so it can continue doing nothing. And more than a few of those Republicans may be looking back wistfully at the good old days of 2015 or so, when they could spend their days investigating Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, shaking their fists at the administration, and generally having a grand old time.