Opinion

The secret plan to get things done in Congress: Have no plan at all

Why Republicans' lack of an agenda may be a good thing after the midterms

If you're a betting type, you probably know that oddsmakers have been predicting a Republican takeover of Congress for quite some time. At PredicIt, for example, you can currently bet on a Republican takeover of the House for 85 cents on the dollar, on a Republican takeover of the Senate for 77 cents on the dollar, and on a Republican takeover of both for 73 cents on the dollar.

It's easy to list the reasons for Democratic doldrums. The Biden Administration's approval ratings are well under water, and have been for months. The Democratic base is irritated at the failure to pass a series of initiatives, from voting rights to Build Back Better, that have overwhelming Democratic support, while moderates are unhappy with a Democratic Party perceived as out of touch and tilting well to the country's left. Nobody is happy about high and rising inflation, not only the extraordinary gas prices that make headlines, but also soaring housing costs. Finally, midterm elections almost always go against the incumbent party, and the current Democratic margin of five seats in the House and one seat in the Senate leaves them no margin for error.

So, if on the morning of Nov. 9, we wake up to a divided government in Washington, nobody should be surprised. The surprise will be: What happens then? The truth is we have no idea because the Republican Party has largely eschewed an explicit agenda.

This is not typical. In 1994, when the Republicans aimed to take Congress for the first time in over 40 years, they provided voters with a detailed platform that they called their Contract With America, a mix of procedural and substantive proposals. Most of the proposals were not implemented, but some were — notably welfare reform — and the mere fact that Congress had run on an agenda meant that Republicans set the terms of policymaking for the next two years.

The Republican agenda in 2010 was far more reactive, with few substantive proposals to address the most important issue of the time, boosting the recovery from the Great Recession. But it was clear what Republicans were against. Powered by the Tea Party, Republicans ran explicitly on repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and more generally on an agenda of fiscal austerity.

Going into this year's elections, though, Republicans have largely refused to articulate an agenda of any kind. The one major attempt to do so, by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, has been widely derided with terms like "bat-s--t crazy" for proposing massive tax hikes on working Americans and the automatic sunsetting of the entire Federal government every five years. Neither the Republican base nor likely Scott himself actually supports anything remotely like that agenda, which suggests that its purpose always had more to do with emotional affect than political effect.

Nor is it clear what a purely negative Republican agenda might be. Most of the Biden administration's major accomplishments were either bipartisan legislative initiatives like the infrastructure bill, of which there have been more than people likely realize, or are faits accompli like the Covid relief bill, withdrawal from Afghanistan and his judicial appointments. There's no equivalent to Obamacare for Republicans to promise to repeal, and the most prominent foreign policy challenge — Russia's war on Ukraine — is one on which there is broad bipartisan unity.

Republicans, then, will likely win a majority without any positive agenda to accomplish, and without even having a clear unpopular Biden initiative to overturn. All they'll have promised is to stop the Democrats from continuing to destroy America. How will that fact shape the behavior of the GOP in power?

A happy possibility is the continuation of the surprising below-the-radar bipartisanship of the Biden era, but with a more conservative tilt. On confronting Russia and China and rebuilding American industrial capacity, there's already been a lot of cooperation with Republicans in Congress, but there's a lot more that could be done. From alternative energy to housing, there's a readily-articulable and substantively important deregulatory agenda that is not unfriendly to Republican interest groups and is responsive to the most important issues in voters' minds. Biden already announced in his State of the Union address that the right response to rising crime is to fund the police. Throw in some business-friendly tax cuts, and it's not hard to imagine a fairly successful legislative session that at least modestly builds back better.

This is, broadly speaking, what I imagined might happen if the Democrats failed to win the two Georgia Senate seats in January of 2021. In some ways, the prospects for such cooperation are even better now.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can read a map as well as anyone, and he knows that 2024 is very favorable to Republicans. That should liberate him to do what he actually wants do — which, in the 117th congress, included spending on infrastructure, science and technology. So long as the Republican brand is reasonably popular, he has every reason to hope to spend his twilight years as majority leader. The 2012 map, though, was if anything more favorable, and yet Republicans lost seats that year. Their failure wasn't only due to President Barack Obama's coattails; extremist candidates and an obstructionist reputation dragged down Republicans across the board. Indeed, were it not for the efficacy of the 2010 gerrymander, Republicans might have lost the House as well.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) can read a map as well — and so he knows that his own caucus won't have a comparable cushion in 2024. Democrats have been modest winners from the 2020 redistricting so far, thanks to a combination of their own aggressive gerrymandering and a Republican focus on defending rather than expanding their majority, and in the largest remaining states, like Ohio, the prospects remain surprisingly good for a relatively even-handed outcome. If the GOP wins a significant majority in 2022, then, it could be a fragile one. The best way to protect it would be to have something to run on — and full-spectrum obstructionism isn't something.

The leaders of both houses of Congress, then, have incentives to keep their members in line and deliver legislative wins. Without an agenda of their own, those wins will likely be compromises with the president's agenda. And there's the rub. While congressional Republicans could run on being a check on Biden, prospective presidents need to be more apocalyptic. Donald Trump, in particular, needs to demonstrate that he alone can keep America from falling into the abyss, and he has a powerful megaphone to denounce anyone who demonstrates too much cooperative spirit. Any would-be rival or successor — many of them sitting senators — would need to generate a similar sense of crisis to have a chance of prevailing in a Republican primary.

If Congress is pulled between the need for substantive accomplishment and the need for partisan warfare, the obvious solution is: Why not both? And that's precisely what we might get: apocalyptic rhetoric, kamikaze extremist legislation, perhaps even an impeachment or two, combined with substantial but largely unheralded cooperation on a wide array of substantive issues with a relatively centrist tilt.

Which, come to think of it, is a lot like what we have now.

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