WASHINGTON ― Republicans couldn’t believe their luck after the 2016 elections. Many of them fully expected Hillary Clinton to become president. Instead, they found themselves with every politico’s dream: one-party control of the three branches of government.
“We would like to see the country go in a different direction and intend to work with him to change the course for America,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared.
Two years later, the Republican dream is left in shambles. And voters were clearly not impressed with what the GOP Congress accomplished with its one-party rule. In January, Democrats will take control of the House.
At midnight, the federal government partially shut down for the third time during Trump’s presidency after Republicans failed in their most basic duty as lawmakers: funding government operations.
“We’re right in the middle of a sort of meltdown on the part of the Republicans,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday. Pelosi is expected to become speaker in the new Congress.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), however, argued that this turmoil was normal.
“I’ve been in the state legislature for 14 years, six of those as speaker. I’ve been here for 20 years,” he told reporters Thursday. “I’ve never seen it not end this way. The last week of a legislative session is ugly. Always is.”
But it’s not always this ugly. When then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) retired in 2015, he cleaned up the place. He pushed through a two-year spending deal and a two-year raise in the federal borrowing limit, theoretically allowing Congress to get other things done so they wouldn’t have to waste time lurching from crisis to crisis.
And the messiness wasn’t restricted to this past week.
Former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), who left Congress in 2017 and recently gave up his party affiliation, said the Republican Party’s unified control of government was “defined by remarkably damaging wins and complete capitulation of separation of powers.”
Congress spent two years behaving as a political committee of the president, not a branch of government empowered with independence by the Constitution.
Former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.)
Since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, Republicans made repealing it their rallying cry. Up until the 2018 campaign, it was their central political message. But the ACA turned out to be far more popular than they anticipated and repealing it was far harder than expected as well ― despite controlling both chambers of Congress. Trump and his Republican allies continue to weaken the law, but there was no all-out repeal as promised.
Congress’ biggest legislative accomplishment was passing the new tax law, but it fell far short of what was promised. There were deep, permanent cuts for corporations, and a more modest cut for individuals that expires at the end of 2025. The tax bill was not as popular as Republicans expected, and they largely abandoned it as a campaign message.
The tax law also contributed to a complete abandonment of the GOP’s stated concern about fiscal responsibility.
When Barack Obama was president, Republicans hammered him on the national debt. “America Can’t Afford Obama’s Legacy Of A Skyrocketing National Debt” read a typical document on the Republican National Committee’s website in 2017. When the national debt was at $15 trillion in 2012, Ryan warned of the “red tidal wave of debt” that would mean the “end of the American dream” in as little as two or three years.
But it’s 2018, and the national debt has grown to $21 trillion under the GOP’s watch. The federal government’s budget office projects the GOP’s tax law will add more than $1.8 trillion to deficits over the next 10 years. So much for fiscal austerity.
One bright spot for Republicans is the criminal justice reform bill that passed on a strong bipartisan basis this month. The bill is designed to help nonviolent federal offenders make an easier return to society after they’ve served most of their sentences. It also trimmed a handful of mandatory minimum sentences, such as for crack cocaine, that helped explode the federal prison population over the past three decades. Most Republicans probably wouldn’t have supported such a bill without cover from a president like Trump, who does “tough on crime” politics like it’s still the 1980s.
That same macho impulse, however, is what led to the government shutdown, with Trump insisting Congress appropriate billions of dollars for a giant wall to keep “bad guys” from crossing the southern U.S. border. It’s such a ridiculous idea that Republicans in Congress try to pretend the president’s talking broadly about “border security” and not a physical barrier made out of concrete or steel.
Ryan and McConnell could have sent the president a clean funding bill and dared him to veto it ― instead, they played along with his demand and made a show of holding votes, even though it was clear Democrats wouldn’t go along.
And while Senate Republicans did push through two conservative Supreme Court nominees, they largely overlooked or dismissed sexual misconduct allegations against one: Brett Kavanaugh, who was rushed ahead for confirmation without the usual vetting.
But most notably, the Republican majority will be remembered for what it didn’t do: It didn’t stand up to Trump.
“Congress spent two years behaving as a political committee of the president, not a branch of government empowered with independence by the Constitution,” Jolly said.
Congress never passed legislation protecting Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into the Trump campaign. Ryan frequently dismissed Trump’s concerning rhetoric and actions ― like attacking fellow Republicans or outright lying ― calling it “noise” or “trolling.”
It’s a fitting finale to this two-year period that in the end, the government is literally not even open.