The House outlook
The House is in recess through the Thanksgiving holiday and will return on Tuesday, November 27, to begin what is expected to be a brutal lame-duck session for conservatives.
On the legislative agenda is a final conference report on the nearly $1 trillion food and farm welfare bill, an expiring continuing resolution that funds the Department of Homeland Security, State Department, and other agencies, and a potential battle over the FIRST STEP Act, a soft-on-crime jailbreak bill destined to put more criminals on our streets in the name of “bipartisanship.”
It’s critical that Republicans secure a policy victory on border security and immigration reform during the lame-duck session as part of the debate on DHS funding. At a minimum, there must be substantive wins on securing border wall funding, defunding sanctuary cities, and reforming the broken asylum process.
But this must not come at the expense of a “compromise” amnesty for DACA recipients. If the parameters of the debate are set on those terms, conservatives will lose. The end result will be a full path to citizenship for the DACA population — despite that population being riddled with criminals — and toothless border security that aims to placate the Republican electorate without resolving the underlying problem.
Instead, House Republicans should refuse to pass — or even debate passage — of a conference report for the tone-deaf FIRST STEP Act, should the Senate pass its version, unless and until all border security policy demands are met. This sets the stage for a potential win-win on both policy and messaging.
If the tradeoff for passage of the FIRST STEP Act (and the release of drug traffickers into our communities) is linked with full wall funding, defunding of sanctuary cities, and asylum reform, then progressives and the misguided Koch-funded conservatives working hand in hand with them on passing jailbreak will be put into a terrible position. They will be forced to deal with the fact that the opioid epidemic that killed some 30,000 Americans last year is actually a border issue. This will link that crisis to immigration in the minds of the American people and will force the Soros-Koch coalition pushing the FIRST STEP Act into the untenable position of defending the release of individuals who have trafficked the same fentanyl-laced drugs that have caused tens of thousands of American families to bury their kin.
This will inevitably cause the FIRST STEP Act to be watered down and pared back, will give conservatives the advantage they need in pushing back on the bipartisan soft-on-crime agenda, increase the likelihood that actual border security provisions will be enacted, and most importantly, divorce a potential DACA amnesty from the border security debate.
The “leadership” race
As is typical in Washington, the status quo reigns. Sitting Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who has served as part of the feckless GOP leadership team since 2009, was elected by the Republican conference to be the incoming minority leader. In a closed-ballot election, McCarthy defeated conservative challenger Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, 159-43.
This is obviously discouraging, but it should not be surprising. Jordan’s bid was a long shot from the beginning. Nevertheless, he received almost double the number of votes that then-Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., secured in his effort to oust former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as leader of the GOP following the party’s 2006 electoral loss.
The path forward is clear: The House Freedom Caucus must declare its independence from the Republican Party. This is the only way to begin the long and necessary process to both regain the trust of the public and start winning hearts and minds over to liberty, free markets, and empowering civil society instead of government bureaucracy.
This doesn’t mean working against GOP leadership and aiding the hardline progressive radicals in a likely Pelosi-led House. But it does mean separating from a stagnant, inertia-laden GOP that lacks both vision and competence.
It means the House Freedom Caucus should lay out its own policy agenda, set its own messaging, and define the legislative battle lines on its own terms. The HFC not only maintained most of its membership, but picked up several members in the election. It therefore already has a greater influence in a diminished Republican conference.
The same cannot be said for the liberal Tuesday Group wing of the GOP conference. This group was decimated on November 6. This faction was the primary obstacle to actually repealing Obamacare, constantly pressed for amnesty for the DACA population, and worked alongside Democrats to increase our debt and deficit.
Indeed, Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., was the main culprit in crafting an Obamacare “compromise” bill last year that maintained the cost-driving insurance regulations responsible for doubled premiums and diminished access to care. He lost. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., was a leading agitator for a path to citizenship for the DACA population. He lost. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., was the champion of a massive big-government, poverty-inducing carbon tax bill that would have Washington regulating our light switches. He lost. And Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., repeatedly attempted to sneak amnesty provisions into defense bills during his tenure in Congress, while also pressing for massive taxpayer funding of pet infrastructure projects. He also lost.
May none of these statists ever run for anything ever again. Now it’s time for an intact and empowered Freedom Caucus to take charge.
The Senate outlook
The Senate is also in recess this week and is expected to return on Monday, November 26. It looks like the GOP will pick up a net of two seats in the Senate, which will help Republicans confirm judges without the necessity of votes from liberals like Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
However, the Senate’s policy agenda will remain aligned against the interests of conservatives. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has yet to show an interest in serving as a bulwark against the radical progressive excesses of a Nancy Pelosi-led House. The first test of whether or not the Senate will work with House conservatives to secure policy wins will be the FIRST STEP Act.
The GOP-led Senate must provide the leverage that House conservatives will need to extract border and immigration policy wins. This means holding up passage the FIRST STEP Act unless and until Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., agrees to provide the votes for a strong DHS funding bill.
FIRST STEP Act (S. 3649)
Sponsors: Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Committee of Jurisdiction: Senate Committee on the Judiciary
What does the bill do? The bill would provide a number of “sentencing reform” measures alongside re-entry provisions for prisoners. Among these measures is providing judges (many of whom are left-leaning) discretion to ignore mandatory minimums to release “non-violent” first-time drug offenders. It would spend nearly $400 million in new funding on “job training and education programs” for rehabilitation. It would fix the so-called “crack cocaine disparity” that punished crack cocaine offenders more harshly than powder cocaine offenders by essentially releasing up to 2,600 felons back onto the streets. And it would also provide retroactive early-release credits for prisoners by altering how the Bureau of Prisons calculates “good time served.”
Should conservatives be concerned? In a hair-on-fire way. While being touted as something that saves money due to the alleged reduction of incarceration costs, the bill allocates nearly $400 million in new spending for job training and education programs. It’s important to remember that most federal prisoners are violent offenders who pose a danger to society. That’s why they’re there in the first place.
The bill would provide early release for up to 2,000 inmates each year, while providing a litany of exceptions to eligibility for early release. However, because these exceptions are written explicitly into the law, there are critical loopholes that proponents refuse to discuss. These loopholes would allow early-release credits to be given to people who have been convicted of assaulting law enforcement officers, those convicted of possessing weapons during a drug bust so long as they didn’t discharge it, and illegal aliens convicted of drug trafficking unless they had previously been deported for committing felonies.
Conservatives believe in protecting civil society and empowering it, as opposed to expanding the size and scope of government. This does not mean, however, a softening on criminals and drug traffickers who inflict chaos and violence in our neighborhoods and communities. Indeed, such an approach is anathema to conservatism, which believes in the rule of law as essential to protecting the law-abiding and putting the interests of victims ahead of their criminal victimizers.
The American Revolution changed the world because it understood that our rights come from God and that government is only necessary to ensure that the rule of law is established to protect these rights from man’s infringement. Aside from big-government tyranny, criminals and foreign forces pose the most direct threat to the rights of the American people.
The push for the FIRST STEP Act shows that many so-called conservative organizations have not only forgotten this truth, but also may no longer be interested in remembering it.
Summary: Both chambers are out this week for the Thanksgiving break. Republicans didn’t learn from their failures that led to the loss of the House on November 6 and put Kevin McCarthy in charge of the conference. This is a bad but not unexpected outcome. Fortunately, with both chambers in recess, no immediate harm can come from Washington at a time when we gather with our families in thankfulness for the many blessings that God and His gift of liberty have bestowed upon us. Therefore, this week’s congressional Liberty Outlook is: Code green.
The Weekly Watchman
Welcome to the Weekly Watchman, a regular series at Conservative Review where we highlight and analyze legislation pending on the House and Senate floors so that you know exactly what your representatives are voting on — and the impact those votes will have on your freedom.
The truth is that every single vote cast in Congress either advances liberty or diminishes it. And in all the noise on social media and 24/7 cable news chaos, it can be difficult to keep track of what is really happening on Capitol Hill and what it means for you and your family.
Patrick Henry once stated, “The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
Drew White spent three years at Heritage Action for America as a legislative strategist covering domestic policy issues. He then served as Sen. Ted Cruz’s domestic policy adviser for two years, working on issues including Obamacare repeal, educational freedom, elimination of federal agencies and departments, and defunding Planned Parenthood. Most recently, he served as senior federal policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He currently resides in Austin, Texas, with his wife, son, and golden retriever, happily clinging to his guns and religion.