In the Trump administration, it's always infrastructure week. But it's less of a legislative rollout and more of a state of mind. Despite promises dating back to the 2016 presidential campaign, the White House admitted yesterday that there won't be any infrastructure bill this year.
Whether you view Trump's infrastructure plan as a smart way to leverage federal spending, another federal boondoggle, an on-brand political move with cross-partisan potential, or, like me, some mix of the above, the elimination of the bill from this year's agenda is yet another reminder of how little Republicans have to offer in terms of substantive policy.
With roughly six months to go until the midterm elections, Republicans in Washington are choosing to sit on their hands. Following the recent budget deal, which raised spending on both military and domestic programs, and the passage of the tax law last December, the GOP appears content to coast into the election without further pursuing any major legislative initiatives.
If anything, the party appears to be giving up on its long-held priorities, and replacing them with vacuous Trumpism. Loyalty to the president has become a substitute for a governing vision.
Repealing Obamacare, for example, was once among the party's loudest promises, but after the failure of repeal legislation last year, GOP lawmakers have begun to admit that repeal is no longer a priority, leaving Republicans adrift on one of their biggest policy commitments.
The spending deal, which added hundreds of billions to the deficit, makes even modest budget reforms essentially impossible, and while some Republicans have raised the possibility of clawing back some of the domestic funding, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who controls what comes to the floor in the Senate, has made it clear he disapproves of the idea.
At this point, it's unlikely that Congress will pass a budget resolution this year. Not only is that a failure to carry out one of the legislature's most basic responsibilities; it leaves congressional Republicans with no vehicle for reconciliation, the legislative maneuver that allows the Senate to circumvent the filibuster and pass laws with a simple majority, meaning that entitlement reforms won't be attempted.
Yes, McConnell has said the Senate is likely to take up anti-opioid legislation, and the farm bill may end up authorized by the end of the year, although it will have to overcome conservative opposition. But even if Republicans have not entirely given up on legislating, they have given up on the sort of ambitious reforms that forward-looking parties often pursue during moments of unified government. Indeed, it's worth contrasting the GOP's current approach with the last time a single party controlled both Congress and the presidency.
When Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in March of 2010, it was the capstone to a remarkable legislative run. By the time the health law passed, the party had already passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the stimulus, and a reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Nor did Democrats stop with Obamacare. Heading into the midterm elections, they also passed legislation reducing disparities in criminal sentencing for certain drug convictions, a $30 billion lending program for small businesses, and a major overhaul of the nation's financial regulation.
Democrats had congressional majorities—and used them. Republicans, in contrast, appear content to let their majorities idle. They have given up on creating a legislative record that they can run on.
Some of this difference is inherent in the ideological distinctions between Republicans and Democrats; a party that favors more activist government is more likely to pursue a vigorous legislative agenda. It is also true that with a slim majority in the Senate, today's Republicans face greater procedural challenges than Democrats did in 2009. And it's better, of course, to pass nothing than to pass terrible legislation; volume of legislative activity alone is not a measure of a political party's success.
But Republicans are not merely struggling with difficult vote math, or with converting broad ideas into legislative form. They are abandoning the notion of a policy agenda entirely.
That abandonment can be seen in the slew of GOP retirements—more than two dozen so far, including a large number of committee heads, who have historically taken charge of writing legislation and moving it through the congressional process. In a very real sense, the Republican Party, or at least the party as we have known it, is calling it quits.
The most notable of the retirees is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a veteran lawmaker who built his career as a legislative entrepreneur, the closest thing the GOP had to an idea man, pitching a broad policy agenda he at one point dubbed "A Better Way."
Even among Republicans, Ryan's ideas, especially on entitlements, were always more popular in theory than in practice, and Ryan's status as a deficit hawk was often overrated. But at the very least his ideas served as a sort of ideological placeholder, a sense of what the party should, or could, aim for in the absence of a more promising program.
Under Trump, however, Republicans have dispensed with the pretense of substantive long-term policy goals entirely. Rather, they have chosen to locate their agenda entirely in the persona of Trump himself. Republicans have decided that the future of politics—or at least the immediate future of their party—lies in Trump and all that he represents, in inane culture war squabbles and ephemeral outrages, in chaos and shock value as an end unto themselves.
Although the president is unpopular with the general public, he has become even more beloved among the GOP base, and Republicans have increasingly campaigned on raw fealty to the president, which tends to take the form of obsequiously praising the president while trashing his perceived enemies, from the media to Robert Mueller to Hillary Clinton.
Grandstanding, superficial Trumpism has overwhelmed the Republican Party. Trump is the black hole at the center of the GOP, the center of gravity that pulls everything into its void. Republicans have become the party of no ideas.
Even if this somehow turns out to be an effective political strategy in the short run, it is a sign of a profound emptiness within the modern GOP, a crude policy nihilism that existed prior to Trump but which has, under his administration, overtaken all else. The effect has been not only to transform the GOP into an enfeebled and ridiculous cult of presidential personality but to embolden Democrats to move rapidly toward an expansive agenda—think single-payer health care and a jobs guarantee—that is now unconstrained by a competing narrative.
Political parties can always reinvent themselves, and the Trump tides may eventually recede, especially if Republicans take a beating in November. But for now, the GOP has effectively admitted it has no vision of the future, no ideas for solving the problems that Americans face. It's a party with no better way.