A Time to Lead

For the first time in eight years, Republicans will return to Washington in January with control of both houses of Congress. Now what? How  Congressional Republicans answer that question may determine which party controls the White House in 2017.

Before the results were in Tuesday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz already declared the Republicans’ first priority should be Senate hearings to expose the Obama administration’s “abuse of power, the executive abuse, the regulatory abuse, the lawlessness that sadly has pervaded this administration.” Sen. McConnell disagreed and argued for “a responsible governing Republican majority.” On Thursday, he and Speaker Boehner laid out an agenda in the Wall Street Journal.

Naturally, there will be investigations of the Obama administration. But it should not be the first priority. With President Obama lingering in the White House and only a slim margin in the Senate, large and permanent conservative policy victories is unlikely in the next two years. If the Republican majority squanders its power the next two years re-litigating Obama’s first six years, it will miss a tremendous opportunity to define the agenda for the 2016 presidential election.

President Obama will not be on the ballot in 2016. Hillary Clinton will. Making the Obama administration the focus of the Republican Congress will not trap the Clinton campaign. Instead, it would invite Hillary to distance herself from President Obama with the same triangulation strategy practiced by her husband. Contrary to Cruz’s wishes, Republicans in Congress should not give her such gifts.

If the next two years are to have long-term impact, the new Republican majority must coalesce around a positive agenda, or they’ll fritter away a short-lived majority.  With Obama off the ticket, 2016 will not be a referendum election. Without an incumbent on the ballot, it will be a choice election – and the ultimate winner will be the party best able to articulate a vision for our country’s future. It may even resemble the 2008 election – which President Obama won with promises of “hope” and “change” that appealed to America’s inherent optimism. 

Rather than litigate the past, Republicans should look forward. Much of that vision requires a series of stand-offs with Senate Democrats and President Obama. First, the low-hanging fruit. Authorize  the Keystone XL pipeline and dare Democrats to filibuster it and Obama to veto it. Pass legislation to stop the backdoor carbon tax making its way through the EPA.  Extend the soon-to-expire law that keeps Internet access tax free,  an underreported issue that Senate Democrats have stalled. Shift the CDC’s focus back to infectious disease control.

Then, move to more difficult topics. Put a balanced budget on President Obama’s desk. Start an adult conversation about entitlement reform starting with Rep. Paul Ryan’s ideas. Pass a realistic immigration bill that prevents President Obama’s unlawful executive overreach, but also addresses the problems.

On health care, pass an Obamacare repeal out of the House and bring it up for lengthy debate in the Senate, where Democrats will filibuster. Then ditch the County Club collegiality rule in the Senate that permits Senators to filibuster a bill by mail. Make them stand and debate. After failing to break the filibuster because there aren’t 60 votes, offer alternatives and start working on smaller fixes. For example, repeal the medical devices tax. Allow  more flexibility for plans offered in exchanges. Grant states more flexibility in administering state Medicaid programs.

Get serious about corporate and individual tax reform. As Rep. Jeb Hensarling recently told the Wall Street Journal, “it’s a put-up or shut-up moment” for the GOP on taxes. This is a task far easier said than done. Every special interest in Washington has a piece of the tax break pie. Hensarling wonders whether Republicans have “the intestinal fortitude to be able to do fundamental tax reform.” Yet, it’s a task which the GOP must undertake.

With a positive agenda, the Republican Congress can  develop sustainable conservative policy victories and give the 2016 Republican nominee a jumpstart on a defining vision that sharply contrasts with the Democrats’ antique, clunky notions of bigger government and central planning nearly everywhere you turn.

In the midst of a crisis of government competence, now is the time to lead with a vision for smaller government. The idea of investigating the Obama administration may be enticing. After six years in the minority, there are axes to grind. But American voters are less interested in investigations of the past than they are in visions for the future. The Republican Party has earned control of Congress. It should use it to build a home, and not get sidetracked bulldozing the ramshackle cottage of the Obama administration that is collapsing in on itself.