The Continuing Extremism of Congressional Republicans

by Neil H. Buchanan

There is no question that moderation has died in the Republican Party, especially among those in the U.S. House and Senate.  From the environment to gun safety to women's rights to economic inequality to judicial appointments, congressional Republicans continue to vote in lockstep to pass an agenda that would make even Ronald Reagan cringe.

Recent events, however, have raised hopes that some of those extremely conservative Republicans will begin to act differently.  Might some, including those who are retiring -- the two most celebrated being Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake -- at last be willing to buck the party line and vote against the most extreme policies that their leaders have (since long before Donald Trump came along) been forcing down the country's collective throat?

Not a chance.  The underlying policy situation has not changed, with Republicans in Congress moving forward on their extreme agenda no matter what their feelings are about Trump's fitness for office or their worries about being complicit in the demise of democracy or nuclear Armageddon.  The United States Congress is still a place where elected Republicans go to give to the rich and take from everyone else.

The most recent example of this is the Senate's rejection this week of a regulation that would have prevented financial institutions from inserting forced arbitration clauses into their form contracts with customers.  Arbitration is great for banks and terrible for customers, and Wall Street has been whining about this proposed regulation while claiming (as they always do) that they merely want to eliminate "frivolous lawsuits."

(As an aside, I cannot help but note that the news article -- not an opinion piece -- in The Washington Post that described the Senate's vote included this nugget: "After years of suffering under tough regulations imposed after the global financial crisis, bankers had been giddy at the prospect of a regulatory reprieve."  Suffering?!  Then how is it that "American bank profits are higher than ever"?  May we all suffer so horribly.)

One might think that this could be an issue on which even some conservative Republicans would take a deep breath.  The recent Wells Fargo and Equifax scandals have hardly made the financial industry more popular in the public's eyes, and it is not difficult to imagine a Republican who values her or his moderate (or "principled" or "reasonable") street-cred saying that there is nothing good about forcing victims of Wall Street wrongdoing to have their fates decided in secret proceedings without due process.

But there were exactly two of those creatures.  The Senate's vote was 50-50, with Vice President Pence voting with his party to kill the proposed regulation.  Who were the two Republicans who voted with the 48 Democrats?  Lindsey Graham (who correctly called arbitration "a windfall for the companies in terms of how you settle their cheating") and Louisiana's John Kennedy.

This means that every other Republican who has ever put on airs about being independent or moderate or principled went along with their colleagues to allow banks to continue to cheat their customers.  All three of the supposedly principled conservatives who have made news in recent weeks by breaking with Donald Trump -- Senators Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and John McCain -- rejected their fellow hyper-conservative colleague Graham and went along with Republican party leaders' effort to continue to feed Wall Street.

This is only surprising to people who imagine that these senators are somehow not comfortably in the pocket of moneyed interests.  Corker and Flake are hard-right ideologues who happen to believe that the president should not be a blithering idiot with no impulse control.  McCain is a cold warrior who is worried about Trump's isolationism.  McCain surprised everyone by rejecting the Republicans' unprincipled health care bills, but he did so on procedural grounds.

And did any of the other names that are often bandied about as either moderates or principled, reasonable conservatives oppose the bill?  Ohio's Rob Portman, whose only claim to moderation is his decision not to oppose same-sex marriage because he found out that his son is gay?  Nebraska's Ben Sasse, whose pretensions to intellectualism (and occasional mild tut-tutting of Trump) have made him a media darling?  No to both.

What about Lisa Murkowski, one of the other two Republican senators who killed one of the Republicans' health-care bills over the summer (but who never came out against the even worse Graham-Cassidy bill this fall)?  Or Nevada's Dean Heller, who caved on health care in July after being seated next to Trump at a lunch?  No, and no again.

And what of the pundit class's ultimate example of the principled and moderate Republican, Maine's Susan Collins?  Collins received a great deal of credit after joining McCain and Murkowski (and, let us remember, 48 Democrats) to kill TrumpMcConnellCare, and she even came out fairly quickly against Graham-Cassidy.  (Remember, Graham is the moderate hero in the forced arbitration vote, but he was fine with the health care mess.)

But where was Collins on this vote?  Siding with the full slate of Senate Republicans to give Wall Street a big win.  None of which should be surprising, because Collins reputation does not match the reality.

During the 2016 general election campaign, Collins made big news by coming out against Trump.  Yet she would not endorse Hillary Clinton -- who, Collins readily admitted, was "clearly qualified to be president" -- because Collins said that Clinton was making "[p]romises of free this and free that, that I believe would bankrupt our country."

Aha.  So Collins is all about not bankrupting the country!  In faux-moderate-speak, that means not running up big deficits.  (Leave aside the minor fact that Clinton's spending proposals were extremely moderate and paid for -- and that, even if they had increased deficits, they would still have improved the country's overall financial position, not moved us toward bankruptcy.)  We can therefore be sure that Collins will be against big giveaways that will increase the national debt?

Not a chance.  Republicans in the Senate just passed a budget blueprint (now also now passed by the House) "that would protect a $1.5 trillion tax cut from a Democratic filibuster."  Principled enough for you?

It gets better/worse.  "The budget resolution could also pave the way for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration by ensuring that drilling legislation can pass with only Republican votes."  Reasonable, indeed.

Did any Republicans vote against the budget resolution?  In the House, some blue-state Republicans voted no because they are (rightly) opposed to White House's desire to repeal the state-and-local tax deduction.  But in the Senate, only arch-libertarian Rand Paul voted no, "in protest of what he deemed excessive spending."

So it was not just Collins who went along for the ride to pass regressive tax cuts.  It was McCain, Graham, Portman, Heller, Flake, Corker, Murkowski, and every other Republican.  I have no doubt that some of them will claim that this was merely a procedural vote, and they will fight later about particular tax proposals.  But that is a dodge.  They just all but guaranteed that some version of a "budget-busting" tax cut for rich people and large corporations will pass.

None of which, again, is surprising.  These people have been making it clear for years who and what they are.  Not only are they not moderate, but they are not even principled conservatives,  nor are they amendable to reason.  As a Post columnist wrote about the most recent go-round on the health care mess, "‘Reasonable’ Republicans are betraying us, too."  Rarely have scare quotes been more deserved.