Limited government conservatives remain disgruntled in Congress, both when in the majority and when in the minority. Republicans campaign on shrinking government, lowering taxes, embracing free markets, and upholding the constitution. But members who actually hold themselves to these promises once in Congress exist only in small pockets.
These members often are put in tough spots, frequently going against their own party leadership and occasionally teaming up with their counterparts — anti-establishment members across the aisle — to represent ideas that neither establishment wants to confront. Usually, these ideas cut counter to the way Washington has always been run. That is, in a way that serves the politicians, not the people.
This idea of going against the grain contributed in a large way to President Trump’s election in 2016. People realized the way things were going in Washington was not working, and they saw him as somebody to change it up. It contributes to President Trump’s affinity for the members of the House Freedom Caucus, which stands up to the establishment in a way similar to how he views his own presidency.
Towing the party line does not work for politics anymore. This was evidenced through President Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton and even more so through the losses that establishment Republicans — those who were too fearful of party leadership to follow through on their conservative promises to their voters — suffered in the 2018 midterms last fall.
Although the party control of the House of Representatives has switched to Democrats, we can’t expect Washington as usual to change. In fact, Republican and Democratic leadership both do excellent jobs of insulating their parties and members from having to really do anything “difficult.” They consistently close off the legislative process meant for true debate and instead elect to put forward false fronts and mislead the public.
For instance, it began even before the 116th Congress began, in discussions surrounding the Democratic rules package for the House. The package includes PAYGO, which in theory requires (but in practice is useless at requiring) spending cuts or revenue increases to accompany any increase in direct spending. In an effort protect her members in moderate districts, though, who need to be able to tell their constituents that they — in even such a meaningless way — support fiscal responsibility, Speaker Nancy Pelosi included the PAYGO rule in the Democratic package.
They want their voters to believe that they are following through on promises when in fact they are more often than not either only doing so in name, or intentionally doing the opposite. This will only change when the people demand that it does.
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) policy director attempted to challenge the move to include PAYGO, as they see it as a hindrance to their progressive agenda. Likely, most progressive voters would agree. However, their effort was in vain, and only three of 234 Democrats voted against the package. Whether under Republican or Democratic leadership, the will of the establishment continues to prevail.
Republican leadership in the 115th Congress saw much of the same, and this resulted in serious losses for establishment Republicans in the 2018 midterms. However, two areas where immense pressure from conservatives over the years to hold their elected officials accountable has borne fruit for limited government conservatives are deregulation and tax reform.
Largely as a result of Trump’s campaign message of “draining the swamp,” deregulation has been at the top of the executive branch’s agenda since his inauguration. Additionally, comprehensive tax reform is a legislative goal of conservatives that has been sought after but not accomplished in over 30 years. Even tax reform, however, which only 12 Republicans in the House and zero in the Senate voted against in the end, was a heavy lift to get across the finish line.
Even things with outward-facing widespread support among Republicans, clearly, are difficult to get done legislatively. This is unfortunately the case with repealing ObamaCare and with cutting spending. Repealing ObamaCare has been a nearly decade-long promise of Republicans, who run campaign after campaign on the issue. But, advocates were always told that holding the House and the Senate wasn’t enough, and that Republicans needed the White House to do it.
However, in 2016 when Americans answered to this call and gave Republicans the House, the Senate, and the White House, ObamaCare repeal still couldn’t be done. It’s easy to point fingers at those who voted against the opportunity to move forward on a bill in the Senate, including Sens. Murkowski, Collins, and ultimately McCain, but the issue is much bigger than those three senators.
The truth is that the bills considered in the summer of 2017 were a far cry from true repeal of the law and a viable solution to replace it was debatably further from being agreed upon. Since then, the response from Republicans has been that we “tried” and couldn’t do it, and so be it This response lost Republicans multiple seats in the House this past cycle.
Republicans were repeatedly attacked for voting to repeal Obamacare’s pre-existing condition protections in 2015, and few if any were able to come up with the feasible conservative alternative to addressing care for those with pre-existing conditions. Ideas for better, more free-market solutions are out there, including creating invisible high-risk pools, establishing insurance portability, and enhancing direct primary care, but Republicans are afraid to talk about them. It was easier to say that they at least “tried” and move on, but that cost them severely in their elections.
As abominable as it is that Republicans have all but given up on repealing Obamacare, there is an even bigger issue facing our country. Cutting spending has been the largest failure of Republicans as far back as the eye can see, and it is one of the biggest priorities of true limited government conservatives. It’s hard to justify calling Republicans the party of small government when objectively speaking this hasn’t been true. In reality, both parties love their spending, just as long as it’s on what they want or it’s too difficult to address.
For Republicans — especially for former Speaker Paul Ryan — this is an utter embarrassment. Since his speakership began in Oct 2015, the national debt has increased from $18.1 trillion to $21.9 trillion — a nearly $4 trillion increase. For somebody who was known as one of the leading “budget hawks” in Congress before taking the gavel as Speaker, this is very disappointing.
This failure to reign in our federal spending — which has brought us into so high a public debt-to-GDP ratio that we are already experiencing what is known as a “debt drag” on economic growth — is simply brushed aside by Republican leadership and falsified to make folks believe they are “trying” to cut spending.
For example, in 2018, just weeks after passing a secretly-crafted 2,232-page omnibus spending bill in less than 24 hours that busted established spending caps by nearly $400 billion over two years, Republican leadership put an ineffective, doomed-to-go-nowhere “balanced budget amendment” to the Constitution on the floor and let its members vote on it.
In the days after the vote, the fundraising emails were everywhere, that Republican members voted to “balance the budget”… Just a few days after they just finished spending the country further into oblivion on the bill that actually became law. Touting a show vote on a balanced budget amendment as a success for fiscal conservatism is dishonest and misleading at best.
What is clear is that limited government conservatives need to continue to mount pressure on Republicans to follow through on their promises. Other limited government goals, as a result of this pressure, are seeing some movement as a result of huge pressure, such as reclaiming Congress’ Article I war powers. The successful Senate passage of the Yemen War Powers Resolution, S.J.Res. 54, in the last month of the 115th Congress over continual the objections of Republican leadership and powerful establishment forces in the administration is evidence of this.
Ultimately, while there are few elected officials in Washington who limited government advocates can count on to honestly fight for the principles that they purport to support. These members, whether in the majority or in the minority, are constantly devising new ways to both call out their own party for failing to keep its promises and force legislative action.
In the 116th Congress, we can expect these constitutional conservatives to continue their patterns of raising awareness to the American people that their government is not being responsive and is failing to following through on promises, and even worse is often deceiving them. We will likely also see true progressives challenging its own majority leadership on issues important to them.
In the majority or the minority, nothing changes for principled members. They continue to fight for an open, transparent process where members can receive up-or-down votes on issues they and their constituents find important. During this fight, though, so long as leadership of both parties continues to dictate the process of legislating in Washington and “protect” its members from doing the job they signed up for, the federal government will continue to put party above principle instead of vice versa, and will work for the politicians instead of for the people.