You may not have noticed, but many of the leaders in the Republican Party have shifted their focus recently and started proposing substantive policy agendas.
This intellectual resurgence is still in its infancy stage, but after nearly five years of obstruction, this shift towards a positive policy platform is an important first step for the reform conservative movement.
It began in September with Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) plan to reform that tax code, which focused on expanding the child tax credit and ensuring that it is available to all parents. Lee also unveiled a prison reform bill that would allow judges leniency in mandatory minimum sentences under certain conditions and would cut some drug-related mandatory minimums in half.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) crafted the budget deal with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) over intense opposition from tea party groups and the conservative base. The agreement relaxed some of sequestration both this year and in 2015. He is also planning on releasing an antipoverty agenda sometime later this year, as well as potentially a health care reform proposal.
A few weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) unveiled his own antipoverty agenda that would create a Flex Fund that would transfer lump sump payments to the states and let them use the money as they see fit. It would also turn the earned income tax credit (EITC) into a wage subsidy so that married couples can take more advantage of it.
Yesterday, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) unveiled a new health reform plan that is the most comprehensive, realistic replacement to the Affordable Care Act that any Republican has introduced in years.
All of these proposals have good and bad ideas. Most of them are just raw frameworks and need much more detail before we can judge them. But they are all positive platforms that at least attempt to solve real problems.
That has been missing from the Republican Party since Obama took office.
Congressional Republicans stuck to repealing Obamacare, rather than outlining a replacement. They never proposed a different jobs plan. On middle class wages and poverty, there was nothing. In Congress, their goal was not to put forward legitimate platforms, but to oppose everything that President Obama and the Democratic Party put forward.
“If you’re in the minority, you’re not going to get your plans through,” said James Pethokoukis, the economics columnist-blogger for the American Enterprise Institute. “The best you can do is either change the plans of the majority or try to block those plans.”
Republicans chose the latter strategy and unwaveringly stuck to it. Now, that’s changed.
This is not to say that congressional Republicans now have a substantive jobs plan, for instance. They don’t. Just two weeks ago, they filibustered the extension of emergency unemployment benefits.
But the road to creating a reformed Republican policy platform is a long one. It cannot begin by suddenly disavowing everything the party has stood for the past few years – namely cutting the deficit. Lee’s tax reform plan and Rubio’s antipoverty agenda are revenue-neutral for precisely that reason. That’s why you’re unlikely to see any major new spending initiatives, even if their coupled with long-term entitlement reform – something both parties are reluctant to specify since neither wants to risk alienating voters.
That’s also why you shouldn’t expect radical policy platforms that involve massive infrastructure spending or an increase in the EITC. You shouldn’t expect a comprehensive immigration bill or a clean debt ceiling increase. The conservative base is still a powerful force. If you’re expecting the reformist Republican policy agenda to take that form, you’re going to be waiting a while.
You’re also going to miss the beginnings of reform.
“It’s a first step,” Pethokoukis said. “I’m just not sure if the next step is seeing a lot of other folks in Congress climbing on board or if the next step is for somebody with these ideas, whether it’s somebody from Capitol Hill or a governor, who runs for president, makes it a core part of their presidential platform and then wins the nomination. If that happens, then it’s a different ballgame.”
That may be part of the reason why some Republicans – Rubio and Ryan in particular – are experimenting with different ideas. They may be doing so in anticipation of a presidential run.
In addition, the economy is finally recovering, albeit slowly, giving both parties the chance to focus on issues that were ignored in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
The lackluster start to Obama’s second term may have spurred on some of these policy platforms as well. It offered policymakers the opportunity to put forward their own ideas.
“One theory is that president Obama’s been in office a long time,” said Reihan Salam, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and a contributing editor to National Review. “There’s a sense that his agenda has stalled so there’s interest in some alternatives. If you’re a savvy legislator, you might think, well here’s an opportunity for me to build an identity and build a profile.”
Whatever the reason, the Republican Party has taken a big first step towards a positive policy agenda during the past six months. These proposals may not end with bill signings but the lack of them should not be confused with a lack of development within the party. Change is happening and will continue to happen throughout this year.
“It’s nice to see because there have been a bunch of people who have been working on some of these things for many years and risk-aversion kind of overcame this taste for novelty,” Salam said. “The balance is shifting now and I think that you’re going to see more stuff coming down the pipeline.”
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