Former Congressman Robert Walker, a leading member of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Republican Revolution, once famously said that “the chief job of the minority party is to become the majority.” Of course, how that job is carried out can be more or less conducive to a well-functioning representative government. At its best, the minority party plays a vital role in checking the majority’s power while presenting a serious alternative vision for the next time voters enter the polling booth. In recent years, however, the minority party’s strategy has often taken the form of obstructing and sabotaging any legislative accomplishments that the majority seeks, setting the minority up to campaign on the majority’s failures.
The strategy can work, but to what end? Divided government has become the norm since the 1970s, with control of Congress whip-sawing between the two parties as each sets the other up for failure. After Republicans decided to make the Affordable Care Act enemy number one, they were rewarded with the Tea Party wave in the 2010 midterm election. Yet the Affordable Care Act remains law and has only grown in popularity with time.
Republicans ultimately achieved unified government in 2016, which was used to eke out a single major piece of legislation—the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—before Democrats‘ own procedural subterfuge paid dividends with a blue wave in 2017.
The 2020 Georgia run-offs have subsequently given Democrats unified government for the third time since the Carter administration, instigating a rush to cram every progressive priority through a few ham-fisted budget resolutions, before Republicans have a chance to retake the House in 2022, starting the cycle all over again.
This is no way to run a government, much less the most powerful nation on earth. Making defeat of the majority party the sum total of politics would make sense if elections were a one-off affair. In reality, electoral politics is a repeated game in which no majority is ever permanent.
Gaining control of Congress should therefore be seen as a means to the end of a governing agenda, not an end itself.
For its part, the Biden administration seems to have learned from Obama’s mistakes. The ACA’s core political problem was simply the length of time it took to implement. With many of its major provisions only coming into effect after 2014, the gap between when the ACA’s costs were litigated and when its benefits were finally felt tested many voters’ patience.
This time around, Democrats have put together a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill chock full of goodies that, whatever the policy merits, are front-loaded to ensure the benefits are felt immediately. This includes $1,400 stimulus checks that polling consistently shows are extremely popular. But rather than stop at a one-off payment, the package also includes a greatly expanded Child Tax Credit that Democrats intend to have the IRS deliver in monthly installments of $300 per preschooler and $250 for kids age 6 to 17. The expansion is only for one year but is planned to be made permanent at a later date, setting up an annual battle that puts Republicans in the awkward position of opposing monthly payments to families—delivered through a credit that they pioneered.
Republicans are well-positioned to retake the House in 2022, but opposing monthly child benefits will be a tough hill to die on. The genius of Biden’s beefed-up child credit is thus precisely in how it short-circuits the purely negative, oppositional politics we’ve grown used to. For once, the Grand Old Party’s best hope is not to stand athwart history yelling stop, but to step up and explain how they can do even better.
To date, Utah Senator Mitt Romney is the only Republican lawmaker who seems up to the challenge. In early February, he unveiled the Family Security Act, a plan to replace the Child Tax Credit with a universal child benefit administered through Social Security. Compared to Biden’s plan, Romney’s is more generous for preschoolers ($350 per month rather than $300), and designed with conservative values in front of mind; it’s deficit neutral and includes reforms that eliminate marriage penalties in the tax code.
Moreover, to reaffirm the value of the unborn, Romney’s child benefit would be available to pregnant women four months ahead of their due date. Talk about a mid-term strategy!
These and other design nuances have helped the Family Security Act gain praise from every corner of the conservative coalition, from religious groups like CatholicVote to taxpayer advocates like the National Taxpayers Union.
Congressional Republicans now face three options: back Biden’s child credit, get behind Romney’s child allowance or some future version thereof, or oppose both in a familiar but futile fashion. Falling behind the Biden plan is a nonstarter, but entrenching the Republican brand as blind obstructionists could be an even bigger mistake.
The Biden administration and Congressional Democrats will pass expanded child benefits either way, so if Republicans want any chance to set the terms—and share the credit—their best path forward is to rally around Romney’s principled conservative alternative.
In fact, the Romney child allowance represents a golden opportunity for Republicans to secure the pro-family, pro-working-class high ground while demonstrating how enduring conservative principles have contemporary policy relevance.
One strength of a universal child allowance, for example, is in the freedom it gives parents to choose how to raise their children, in contrast with the Democrats’ plan to supercharge subsidies for credentialed daycare providers. A majority of American families say they are uncomfortable sending their children to external daycare centers, preferring home- and family-based arrangements instead. By centering the debate around parental choice and family freedom, the Romney child benefit could be a huge winner for Republican candidates up and down the ballot.
Recent polling found that 71 percent of Americans (including 70 percent of independents) want Republicans to work with Biden to pass legislation, but only 25 percent want them focused on “keeping Biden in check.” Even if there’s general pressure within the party to fight Biden’s legislative efforts, 63 percent of Republicans surveyed say they want their representative to work with Biden on child care affordability, in particular.
If Republicans decided to work narrowly with Biden on the child benefit, even while opposing the larger package, the party’s -30 net approval ratings would stand to improve. Indeed, it isn’t a coincidence that Susan Collins, routinely ranked the most bipartisan senator, outperformed Trump more than any other Republican candidate in 2020.
Forfeiting influence in policymaking is shortsighted in the best of circumstances. But when it’s over something as salient, popular, and pro-family as monthly child benefits, refusal to engage could well be the thing that breaks the recent pattern and keeps Republicans in the minority for another cycle to come.