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The GOP is moderating — and coming unhinged

While far-right Republicans make it hard to keep the government running, others in their party have been reaching constructive legislative compromises.

Mike Johnson grimaces.
House Speaker Mike Johnson holds a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

Last week, House Republicans once again struggled to meet the most basic obligation of a governing party as roughly half its members effectively voted to force a government shutdown.

This was only the latest chapter in Congress’s long, strange quest to pass a budget for 2024. Eight months ago, then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy cut a deal with Joe Biden over this year’s spending bill. Before that agreement, McCarthy and his caucus had held the nation’s economic health hostage, threatening to force the United States into a debt default — a course of action that could trigger a global financial crisis — unless the Democratic president acquiesced to conservative policy goals.

Nevertheless, when Biden made it clear that he would not be coerced into repealing his own climate and student debt policies, McCarthy accepted a relatively ordinary fiscal compromise.

This cost McCarthy his job. In order to secure election as speaker in the first place, McCarthy had needed to appease the far-right flank of his party’s narrow House majority. He did this by, among other things, giving conservative hardliners the power to vote him out of his leadership position at any time. Still smarting over McCarthy’s traitorous openness to legislative compromise, the hardliners ousted the speaker in October.

The party’s new leader, Mike Johnson, himself extremely right-wing, is a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus. Unfortunately for his right-wing comrades, however, Johnson is also capable of understanding that his party does not control the White House or Senate and must therefore compromise with Democrats in order to pass legislation. Thus, earlier this month, Johnson reached a budget deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that closely resembled McCarthy’s agreement with Biden from last year. Yet Johnson’s House allies in the Freedom Caucus still feel entitled to dictate terms to Democrats, so they have denounced the new agreement for its excessive social spending and lack of anti-abortion provisions.

Now, nearly one year after the initial deal between House Republicans and the president, McCarthy is out of Congress, and Congress still hasn’t passed a budget for 2024.

Instead, lawmakers have been keeping the government running through a series of temporary emergency spending bills, the latest of which was set to expire on January 19. This week, Congress scrambled to extend temporary funding through March and finally got a continuing resolution to Biden’s desk on Thursday night, January 18. But the House’s GOP majority proved incapable of keeping the government open on its own. While 107 House Republicans voted to pass the continuing resolution, 106 voted against it. If House Democrats had not been largely unified behind the legislation, Johnson’s caucus could have forced a government shutdown.

And yet, even as the House’s conservative hardliners were making it difficult for the party to execute the rudimentary task of keeping Uncle Sam’s lights on, other Republicans were crafting a bipartisan plan for reducing child poverty in the United States.

This jarring split screen — in which Republicans look like anarchic extremists in one picture and constructive partners for important legislative reforms in the other — is actually quite typical of today’s GOP. The Republican leadership has been far more open to bipartisan cooperation in the Biden era than they were in the Obama years, even as their party’s presidential frontrunner and House hardliners remain as radical and reckless as they’ve ever been.

In the Biden era, the GOP’s congressional leadership has been doing its best impression of a normal center-right party

On Tuesday, House Ways and Means Chair Jason Smith announced that he and his Democratic colleague Sen. Ron Wyden had struck a deal on tax policy: Democrats had agreed to support more favorable tax treatment for corporate spending on research and development, among other business tax breaks, in exchange for the GOP’s backing of an expansion in the child tax credit for poor and working-class families.

The details of these policies are deeply technical. But the upshot is that the changes to the child tax credit will primarily benefit families earning between $10,000 and $50,000 a year, with the average benefiting household securing $1,130 in additional annual income from the change, according to the Tax Policy Center. Altogether, the expanded benefits are sizable enough to pull 400,000 children above the poverty line and increase the household incomes of 3 million more, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

What’s more, some of the business tax breaks are defensible on the merits. For instance, the bill would enable firms to immediately deduct from their taxable income any investments they make into research and development. Before Donald Trump took office, businesses already enjoyed such a deduction. But the Trump tax cuts scrapped that benefit in order to generate revenue for across-the-board corporate tax breaks. Giving companies a financial incentive to invest in R&D for new technologies — instead of merely accumulating cash or paying it out to shareholders — may be socially beneficial, especially at a time when innovation in the energy sector is an environmental imperative. The bill pays for these changes by rolling back the now-obsolete Employee Retention Credit, which encouraged businesses to keep their workers on staff during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In other words: Republicans agitated for one of corporate America’s more reasonable requests while acquiescing to an expansion in pro-family social welfare policies.

This is the sort of thing that one would expect from a healthy center-right party. And the tax deal is not wholly an aberration for the Biden-era GOP.

In marked contrast to his conduct during Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, Mitch McConnell has not reflexively obstructed Biden’s every legislative ambition. Instead, the Senate minority leader has facilitated the passage of bipartisan bills increasing federal investment in infrastructure, scientific research, and domestic semiconductor production. He also allowed the enactment of federal legislation effectively codifying equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The Biden-era GOP therefore has two distinct faces. Look at its Senate leadership, and most pragmatic House members, and it may appear to be a relatively ordinary (if unusually conservative) pro-business party in a Western democracy. This GOP has sheepishly retreated from its Obama-era contempt for the necessity of compromise under divided government, having decided that forcing government shutdowns is bad politics and that securing incremental legislative gains through bipartisan horse-trading is good policy.

This wing of the Republican Party still offends the moral sensibilities of any liberal. Its members are still committed to redistributing income and power away from workers and toward bosses. And their brand of social conservatism remains exceptionally reactionary, while their approach to climate change would only accelerate ecological decline. But the party nevertheless evinces an interest in sustaining democratic governance through its upholding of election results and sharing of power with co-equal branches of government controlled by its rivals.

Of course, if you look at the House GOP’s perpetual failures of governance, or at the candidate winning its presidential primary, the party will seem like an authoritarian personality cult too suffused with rage and nihilism to fulfill its most basic civic obligations.

Why today’s Republican Party looks reckless in one moment and weirdly responsible in the next

The causes of this duality aren’t mysterious: Different factions of the GOP serve different interests. McConnell’s wing is aligned with both big and small business. The Chamber of Commerce’s agenda is focused on the short term and often cruel, favoring tax breaks for the rich over maintaining health insurance for working poor Americans. But it is nevertheless an agenda. The nation’s business owners and shareholders have things they want to get out of public policy, and they have an interest in political stability. They are therefore served by pragmatic legislative compromise and the upholding of liberal democratic norms.

But many in the House Freedom Caucus are either too reactionary or too nihilistic to have use for such things. These Republicans’ first loyalty is to either their own radical ideology, the conservative infotainment complex, or both. Such right-wingers often believe — or pretend to believe — that the Democratic Party has no legitimate claim to power (due to its reliance on the votes of immigrants and/or city slickers), that the nation’s culture and moral character are in catastrophic decline, that true patriots are at risk of irrevocably losing their country, and that the Republican leadership has enabled red America’s dispossession through its perennial refusal to truly fight.

Conservative media reflects and cultivates this paranoid and protoauthoritarian worldview. Right-wing entertainers have long recognized that fear and outrage drive viewership. They also long ago ascertained the appeal of morality plays in which a small band of true conservatives struggles against a Republican leadership too craven or cowardly to stick up for “real” Americans. Encouraging brinksmanship and legislative dysfunction may not be a sound way of obtaining conservative reforms, but the primary aim of Fox News et al is generating ratings, not achieving policy goals.

Some Republican lawmakers, reared on right-wing agitprop, sincerely believe themselves to be in an epochal struggle with an essentially evil adversary. But it’s likely that others simply see more to gain from performing for the Fox News faithful than from carrying water for the GOP leadership. Why seek coveted committee assignments through quiet service to the party when you can earn a national following through anti-establishment theatrics?

Giving yourself a starring role in a headline-generating legislative fiasco can bring attention to your social media feeds, which can then be monetized via appeals to small-dollar donors or else a future career hawking paranoid rage, gold bars, and supplements. Matt Gaetz boasts little affection from his party’s congressional leadership (indeed, at least one of his colleagues has tried to physically attack him in recent months, while others decry him as “diabolical”). But his 2.4 million-strong X following may ultimately be more valuable than the admiration of his peers.

Donald Trump did not need to pander to conservative media devotees to gain fame and fortune. But his insatiable appetite for attention and adoration (combined with his own Fox News obsession) gave him many of the same incentives as far-right House backbenchers. Throughout his 2016 campaign and ensuing presidency, Trump often concerned himself less with advancing policy than with giving voice to right-wing America’s id.

The GOP’s more staid wing is complicit in the extremism and nihilism of its more radical faction. To build a majority coalition for their plutocratic agenda, business Republicans cultivated the resentments and anxieties of white conservative Christians and abetted the rise of conservative media. The latter’s propaganda was supposed to be a means to the ends of legislative action. Now, many Republicans — including the party’s likely 2024 standard-bearer — see legislative action as a means to the ends of propaganda.

Whether due to the shock of January 6 or personal affection for their former Senate colleague in the White House, Senate Republicans have proven more amenable to compromise during the Biden era than they were under Barack Obama. Yet almost all of the party’s senators are nevertheless prepared to support Trump over Biden this November. So long as the GOP’s most functional faction remains more enamored of power than alarmed by its co-partisans’ illiberal extremism, the party’s truest face will be its ugliest.

Correction, January 20, 1:45 pm ET: An earlier version of this article identified Jason Smith as a member of the Senate; he is actually the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. The article has been corrected to address his title, as well as to remove language indicating that House Republicans were not involved in the crafting of a bipartisan compromise on tax policy.

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