It didn’t take long for Republicans to make their first tin-eared mistake after winning a broad victory in November. In fact, they had barely opened the new session of Congress before performing a pratfall that called into question whether they learned anything from the populist revolt that struck both parties over the past two years.
On Monday night, House Republicans met to consider their top priorities for the 115th Session of Congress, after an election in which voters made clear their displeasure with the Washington DC establishment and the status quo. Instead of focusing on moves to improve accountability within the Beltway, they instead put their efforts into limiting the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have complained about alleged abuses from OCE, and there may well be defensible changes to reduce the potential for future reforms. However, as Paul Ryan reportedly warned the caucus, this self-interested focus was hardly what voters expected of the new Congress, and it didn’t take long for Ryan to be proven prescient. The media gleefully reported that House Republicans had “gutted” ethics accountability, and even Donald Trump tweeted out his disapproval. Less than 24 hours after their vote to change the House rules on OCE, the GOP caucus reversed course and threw in the towel.
The Washington Post headlined this as “a day of chaos.” It certainly wasn’t a propitious start to the ambitious session planned by president-elect Trump and Republican leadership. The fumble left the impression that many Republicans still thought voters would accept business as usual, and perhaps even assumed that their lopsided victory at all levels in November signaled a specific embrace of the Republican Party and carte blanche to act on the agenda of its politicians.
That would be a dangerous assumption. Voters did not suddenly embrace Republicans as much as they rejected Democrats, with the GOP benefiting from the binary political system. Democrats made a similar assumption after winning sweeping victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections, and have paid for it ever since. Democrats failed to understand that and spent the last six years reducing their party to its worst political position since the 1920s, and possibly since Reconstruction.
Voters did not elect Republicans as much as they elected for a change – and want it to result in positive action, economic revival, a secure and strong America, and most of all greater accountability from Washington DC. Had they articulated among themselves a set of tests for proposed actions that reflected those principles, they might have avoided this debacle entirely. These seven tests, in descending priority order, will provide Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue insight into whether their actions reflect their understanding of that mandate:
- Does it serve to bring accountability to the political establishment in Washington DC? – No other value mattered more to voters in both parties in this cycle. Donald Trump ran explicitly on a promise to “drain the swamp,” a promise he has reaffirmed after his election. Had Republicans internalized this properly, they never would have dared to make OCE changes as their Day One action item.
- Does it add to the economic power of the US and create good jobs for Americans? – Populists on the Left cared more about attacking corporate and individual wealth, but on the Right, the main driver was economic stagnation outside of the coastal enclaves and Washington DC. Twenty-five years ago, James Carville said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” but now it’s the making sure the economy produces winners across the board. That may matter most in trade agreements, but the expected regulatory and tax reforms have to take this into account as well.
- Does it address the most critical needs of the country ahead of the ideological agendas of the parties? – Voters increasingly see Republicans and Democrats in Washington as a separate species, not as members of their communities. They want the government to fix what’s truly broken and stay out of what’s not. Voters expect politicians to find solutions rather than conduct the same endless debates we have had for decades. Delivering practical solutions that benefit their communities will go a long way in establishing credibility.
- Does it enhance national security and the defense of Americans both at home and abroad? - Voters demand both liberty and security as part of making America great again. They want national security tailored to our needs rather than those of other nations, or a very good explanation of why the latter falls within our national interest.
- Does it serve the rule of law equally applied to all? – Perhaps no more corrosive belief to well-functioning self-governance exists than the assumption that power and privilege result in favorable treatment from the government. That manifests itself in many ways – law enforcement as well as regulatory and tax policy, but also in accountability. Restoring confidence in the system requires a renewed commitment to the rule of law rather than the rule of whim or cronyism. The failure to adhere to this principle is a key factor in the rise of populism.
- Does it restore the proper balance of power between the executive and legislative branches? – Braggadocio about pens and phones might have proven satisfactory for the outgoing president, but the legislature is the most accountable branch of government to voters. Regulatory reform must account for a massive shift in power to executive agencies when it comes to rule-setting and law enforcement over the last several decades, much of which leaves Americans at the whim of bureaucrats without due process to protect them. Congress needs to exert control over the bureaucracy as part of reducing regulation as an end in itself.
- Does it restore the proper balance of power between Washington DC and the states? – Voters feel disconnected from self-governance because the government has increasingly become disconnected from them. A renewed push for federalism and subsidiarity will allow voters more control over policies in their own communities and states, while at the same time reducing the opportunities for cronyism and corruption in Washington DC. Republicans promised this the last time they had single-party control in the Beltway, and instead delivered the K Street Project and more federal programs that crowded out local and state initiatives. They can ill afford another failure.
Republicans don’t have a great deal of time to prove to voters that they have learned this lesson. Both the Trump administration and the GOP on Capitol Hill need to earn their credibility by adhering to the principles on which voters put their trust in them. If Republicans fail to learn from the Democrats’ failures in 2010 forward, and especially their own failures in 2006 and 2008, voters will turn on them just as quickly.