Congress has been busier than usual over the past few weeks as members rush to pass their spending bills before heading home for the August break. But this year’s appropriations process has been about as inspiring as the previous year of this Republican Congress. Which is to say, it’s been a big dud.
Instead of using the appropriations process to enact long-held Republican priorities, push parts of President Trump’s agenda, or, you know, show any sign of fiscal sanity, the bills coming out of the House and Senate are billions of dollars above what the Trump Administration requested.
In most cases, Congress chose to ignore specific requests for funding by the White House, deciding instead to lavish funding on programs that the president’s budget sought to eliminate. In addition to blowout spending, the House and Senate (particularly the latter) go out of their way to avoid fights on border policies, abortion, environmental policies, and so forth.
The House, to its credit, has given it the old college try, including in their funding bills strong policy riders that defund Obama-era regulations, reverse D.C.’s assisted suicide law and its mandate to purchase health insurance, provide additional money for President Trump’s border wall, cut down on boondoggle infrastructure projects in California and the Northwest, and support strong Second Amendment policies.
McConnell Loses His Nerve
Naturally, Senate Republicans have not even tried. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hastold his conference that Republican policy riders, even those traditionally included in appropriations bills every year, including those supported by President Trump, are “poison pills” that cannot be considered for fear they will blow up the spending process by diminishing support from Democrats.
(You know what’s really inspiring? Republicans who write bills solely for the purpose of having Democrats support them . . . said no self-respecting Republican or conservative voter ever.)
McConnell has gone out of his way to block his members from even offering these riders as amendments, denying them the opportunity even to have a vote on whether or not the policy should be included.
This year’s appropriations process is the story of this Republican Congress, writ small: A Congress that won’t actually fight for Republican policy priorities because a) they don’t seem to actually agree with them and b) they don’t want to upset or have a public fight with Democrats.
A Big Uh-Oh for the GOP
The lackluster performance from Congress is beginning to have an impact.
Recent research provided to me by pollster John McLaughlin shows evidence that the “Trump voters” – so defined as those who supported Trump but do not identify as Republicans—are missing in action. It was this coalition of non-traditional voters that handed Trump the election. But according to McLaughlin’s research, in special elections in various states, turnout among this critical constituency is down sharply—in some races by more than 500,000 voters. This is particularly troubling considering turnout of these voters was down in states Trump won, including Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
It isn’t hard to conjure plausible reasons why. For one thing, turnout in midterm elections is generally low. But the severe downturn among this Trump constituency is stark and suggests that there is something deeper at work.
Surely, this lack of energy among the Trump base is due, at least partially, to the anemic performance of congressional Republicans. This is especially true considering that the Trump coalition was motivated in part by a feeling that Trump actually cared about the people and policies both Democrats and Republicans seemed to have forgotten about.
As Salena Zito and Brad Todd outline in their excellent book, The Great Revolt, the Trump constituency is, to a great extent, made up of people who felt forgotten; who felt ignored or condescended to by politicians; who voted people into office based on promises that were quickly discarded. The authors describe the phenomenon in part by explaining it through one Trump voter, Ed Harry of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania: “But when establishment Democrats stopped caring about his people, he stopped caring about them.”
Congressional Republicans run a real risk of alienating this coalition the very same way. They were given a chance to win them over in 2016. The more excuses they make for inaction, and the more policy battles they choose to avoid rather than to engage, the fewer reasons anyone, much less other Republicans, will have to show up and pull the lever.
The Simple Way to Turn it Around
Another public opinion poll, however, suggests there may just be room to begin turning this around. A recent Gallup poll found that immigration has risen to the top of the list when Americans are asked to name the most important problem facing the nation—the highest percentage of those identifying the issue in Gallup’s history. (In yet another sign that voters are generally smarter than politicians give them credit for being, the previously identified top problem for those polled was “government.”)
Yet, for the most part, the immigration issue in Congress largely has faded into obscurity. Republican efforts to revise policy toward handling families at the border remains blocked by Democrats. There is little traction or enthusiasm for addressing any of these issues in the annual spending bills. While the House has funded Trump’s border wall to the tune of $5 billion, the Senate has already said that’s a nonstarter.
Congressional Republicans appear keen to avoid strenuously any mention of the topic rather than plunge into the issue that is on the minds of most Americans.
They should think again. Not just because it’s their job, though that’s as a good and underutilized reason as any. But because voters desperately want to see their party stand up and fight for the things they elected them to effect. In particular, before a midterm election, it’s a political no-brainer to force votes that clarify where the parties stand.
Over the past several months, Democrats have announced absolutely wild positions on immigration. Now is the perfect time to force them to stand behind them. So, you want to defund the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE)? Great, let’s vote on it. You’d rather prioritize open borders than provide more resources for enforcement? Again, let’s vote and make support of that position a part of your permanent record.
Republicans should also push for maximum funding for Trump’s border wall, more border enforcement, and more resources to handle families that cross illegally. It should be incumbent upon Democrats to fight to oppose those items in legislation, rather than put on the backs of conservatives and others to fight to put them in.
At a time when many voters are wondering what it is Republicans stand for, a policy battle will both energize the base and provide the clarity voters need when heading to the ballot box. Republicans have wasted the better part of this year making excuses. If they want to keep their base energized, it’s time for some action sooner rather than later.
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