White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders deflated what otherwise promised to be a thrilling Infrastructure Week by declaring, on May 9, “in terms of a specific piece of legislation, I’m not aware that that will happen by the end of the year.” That prosaic announcement attracted little notice amid the maelstrom of scandals that routinely consume Trump-era Washington. Yet with that statement the Republican Party essentially renounced a legislative agenda for 2018, on infrastructure or any other topic. Since the passage of the rapacious GOP tax cuts on December 19, the party with unified control of the House, Senate, and White House hasn’t even feigned an interest in legislation.
There’s nothing on the table; there aren’t plans to put anything on the table. It turns out that passing legislation to achieve unpopular goals like stripping workers of their rights or outlawing abortion has political costs. It’s much easier to let judges do that heavy lifting. Conservatives have decided that, after 20 years of invoking the phrase as a warning, “activist judges” aren’t so bad as long as they’re President Donald Trump’s appointees to the Supreme Court.
The Republican Party has chosen, in lieu of any policy agenda or legislative proposal, to sit back and wait for their ideological goals to be achieved by the courts, through unitary presidential action (recall that during the Obama presidency, conservatives decried executive orders as unconstitutional harbingers of tyranny), and by Trump appointees tasked with running the administrative state into the ground.
There are some extenuating factors. Legislative activity now competes with campaigning during an election in which many Republican incumbents in the House are in survival mode. Paul Ryan’s impending retirement leaves the powerful speaker position filled by a lame duck with, presumably, zero interest in fighting any additional battles. The narrow Republican majority in the Senate, where announced retirements have made the likes of Jeff Flake and Bob Corker more difficult for party leaders to control, means only bills on which Republican agreement is unanimous (e.g., tax cuts) are viable. And, of course, the president is a nightmare to work with on anything more detailed than a lunch menu.
Even with these limitations, the fact that the GOP has put nothing on the legislative agenda since passing tax cuts—the rollback of Dodd-Frank lending regulations on May 22 was a bipartisan embarrassment—and has no intention to do so anytime soon indicates more than just a confluence of short-term circumstances. It shows a party that has undergone two major changes from the one that as recently as the 1990s touted itself as “The Party of Ideas.”
First, anti-government sentiment is now so thoroughly embedded in Republican DNA that the party is effectively paralyzed when put in the position of governing. Since the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 a steady ratcheting-up of anti-governing and anti-Washington rhetoric, with conservative discipline enforced by primary challengers from the Tea Party wing, has reached its logical conclusion under Trump. Republicans painted themselves into an ideological corner from which they can never do, only undo; never create, only tear down. They can obstruct, waylay, undermine, and stonewall. What they can’t do is legislate.