The White House has made it official: the all-Republican government in Washington has no major legislative agenda this year.
The news came without fanfare at the press secretary’s daily briefing Wednesday. Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that all of President Donald Trump‘s talk of a massive, trillion-dollar upgrade to America’s infrastructure, from “Infrastructure Week” declarations to a 53-page plan unveiled three months ago, won’t produce “a specific piece of legislation” in 2018.
That conclusion managed to be extraordinary and unsurprising at the same time. Trump is just 16 months into his term, with fellow Republicans controlling both houses of Congress after an eight-year Democratic presidency. Yet the GOP’s deep-seated anti-government stance leaves the modern party with fundamental reflexes of negation.
Those reflexes block action on the bold promises that once positioned candidate Trump to deliver infrastructure investments pleasing business and working-class supporters alike. Investments cost money. And after the $1.5 trillion tax cut that represents their only major Trump-era achievement so far, Republicans don’t think they have any.
The return of trillion-dollar deficits led House Speaker Paul Ryan to suggest a different 2018 agenda altogether. He favors “entitlement reform” curbing the huge costs of Social Security and Medicare, the twin landmarks for retirees that Democratic governments created over fierce conservative opposition.
But both programs enjoy overwhelming popularity. That’s why candidate Trump promised not to touch them. So even as the surge of baby boomer retirements strains their solvency, Republicans have also set entitlement reform aside.
That doesn’t mean Congress won’t do anything at all. With support from some Democrats, Republican leaders aim to roll back regulations on small and medium-sized banks under the Dodd-Frank law that President Barack Obama pushed through after the 2008 financial crisis.
Republicans also hope to pass a new farm bill, although it’s unclear whether they can muster the votes for Trump’s “welfare reform” push to impose new work requirements on Americans who receive food stamps. They’ll consider an administration request to roll back some previously approved spending.
Yet that package of “recissions” – 1/100th the size of the tax cut – wouldn’t produce big savings anyway, since much of the money is sitting in dormant government accounts.
The White House has turned to foreign policy. This week, Trump defied U.S. allies to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal even as he pursues a new deal with North Korea. He has not resolved his threats to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico and to impose import tariffs on both China and friendlier partners including the European Union.
On major domestic issues, Republican leaders worry most about depressing core supporters in a challenging election year. So they devote their energies to stopping things from happening.
Calls for major gun safety legislation after the Parkland, Florida, school massacre in February have gone nowhere. GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee this week offered last rites for his bipartisan effort, once embraced by Trump, to stabilize Obamacare marketplaces as insurance premiums rise.
House GOP leaders are scrambling to stop Republican renegades from joining Democrats to shield from deportation the so-called Dreamers in Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell says he won’t allow floor consideration of a bill to prevent Trump from halting the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Inaction, like action, carries it own risks. Just as Obama’s Washington did, Trump’s Washington faces fierce attacks from Republican hopefuls like Don Blankenship, whose West Virginia Senate campaign smeared McConnell and his “Chinaperson” in-laws.
“If Blankenship wins, GOP must realize extreme outsiders are winning because elected officials aren’t getting anything done,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary to President George W. Bush, before Tuesday’s primary. “Get things done and the public won’t be open to candidates like him.”
West Virginia Republicans relieved the urgency of that advice. Blankenship lost.