After earning plaudits for canceling their August recess to work, the Senate came back into session this week for the first time since August 1. They gaveled in to vote at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, and had ended votes for the week by Thursday afternoon at 2:00, less than 24 hours later. For those keeping track, the Senate has worked all of two days so far this month. (That hasn’t stopped senators from complaining about their canceled break, however.)
The story of the Senate’s August—particularly the disparity between the commitments made and the actual results—is the story of this Senate, writ small: Big phenomenal promises! Itty bitty outcomes.
This became all the more evident this week when, during their brief foray into the working world, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell handed out a palm card (PDF) to members of his conference, touting the major accomplishments of the Senate during the 115th Congress.
For anyone who remembers the lofty goals that House Speaker Paul Ryan and McConnell set back in January of last year, this current list evokes the plaintive, sputtering wail of a deflating balloon.
For one thing, border security and immigration, two issues Americans care about most, don’t even make the list. That’s because, on immigration, Congress has done a big fat nothing.
Worse than nothing, actually. The giant omnibus spending bill Congress passed in March actively blocked the president from building any of the wall prototypes he’s been testing. Meanwhile, McConnell and Ryan have taken steps to stifle debate on the immigration issue in both of their respective chambers.
Bungling the Obamacare Repeal
Then there is the GOP’s longstanding promise on Obamacare. This one is on the list, but barely (literally, it’s on the back of the card, sixth from the bottom). That train crashed hard with the dramatic, late night thumbing down from Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). His vote, along with those of Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), sealed the fate of McConnell’s oft-repeated pledge that, if voters gave Republicans the majorities, the first thing they’d do is repeal the law “root and branch.”
Rather than plowing ahead on repeal, however, Republicans have been scheming to keep critical parts of Obamacare in place, even as they congratulate themselves for small-ball repeal. In March, Republican senators begged Democrats to let them include a billion-dollar bailout of Obamacare’s exchanges in the already bloated omnibus spending bill. And just last month, Senate Republicans—after voting to undo the penalty for the individual mandate nationally—defeated an amendment by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to undo efforts by the District of Columbia to re-impose it.
Two Cheers for a Middling Record
In fairness, this Congress has delivered on one of their key agenda items. The tax reform package passed last year is estimated to deliver American households $26,000 more in average take-home pay over the next 10 years. Crumbs, to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but substantial savings to the rest of us.
On judges, too, the Senate has done its job. As Senate Republicans are quick to point out, they have confirmed 26 appellate judges since Trump took office, the highest number for a president’s first two years. But they have done so while precious floor time has been wasted as Democrats continue to obstruct unchallenged. And it’s come at the cost of confirming Trump’s political appointees, which has let career agency bureaucrats run wild.
Moreover, though the number of appellate confirmations is precedent setting, Trump is still second-to-last when it comes to the overall number of judges modern presidents had confirmed at similar points in their terms. There are more judicial vacancies now than when Trump took office.
Despite dressing it up to claim otherwise, this Republican Congress has a middling record, and it shows. Without more than one substantial achievement, they’re scrambling for things to point to—going so far as to slap themselves on the back for passing gun control in March, hoping Middle America will be inspired by the partial repeal of Dodd-Frank, or that anyone outside of the D.C, foreign policy establishment has heard of (or cares about) the Taylor Force Act.
Voters Want Something More
What Washington Republicans fail to grasp is that their voters aren’t necessarily looking for a list of bullet point accomplishments. They’re looking for leadership. They’re asking for a vision.
This is becoming increasingly clear as pollsters, reporters and researchers unpack the dynamic that propelled Trump into office. While it remains too early to tell if Trump’s election represents a spasmodic electoral fit or a broader reshaping of our politics, one thing is obvious: voters are disenchanted with both parties and a political establishment they view as ossified, out-of-touch, and condescending.
In survey research conducted by journalist Salena Zito and pollster Brad Todd, 89 percent of Trump voters agreed with the statement “Republicans and Democrats in Washington are both guilty of leading the country down the wrong path.”
As Ed Harry of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a life-long Democrat, told the two: “I would argue that the election of Donald Trump wasn’t about him, but about those of us who want something more from Washington. Maybe we just wanted to shake things up. Maybe we wanted to send a message. Maybe it was a lot of both.”
The immediate point here is clear: the old ways of doing business aren’t going to cut it. Voters are no longer satisfied with being handed a list of achievements they don’t care about and told to be happy with it. They want authenticity, and a genuine commitment to promises and principles.
The effort of Senate Republicans to run on issues like extending entitlements and rolling back regulations for Wall Street shows they don’t yet understand this.
They’re running out of time to figure it out.
Despite talk of a “blue wave,” new polling shows that voters actually haven’t made up their minds. A bulk of independents are still undecided and could swing in either direction. If Republicans want those voters to swing their way, they’d better deliver on something these voters actually care about. And soon.
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