Originally published in Vox on September 14, 2022.
With the midterm elections less than two months away, Republicans are strongly favored to win a majority of seats in the House. Democrats, for now, are expected to keep control of the Senate, though some of the contests — particularly Wisconsin, Georgia, and Nevada — could be particularly close.
With President Joe Biden’s veto power, the implications of Republicans reclaiming one or both chambers in Congress will have more to do with blunting a Democratic policy agenda than swiftly enacting conservative priorities.
But if they do win power, what do Republicans want to do with it? If you’ve had some trouble figuring that out, you’re not alone. It’s been confusing. Different factions within the party are competing for the agenda-setting mantle, and it’s been a long time since Republicans wrote a unified policy and governing platform. When they tried at their 2020 national convention, they ended up scrapping their plans. Instead, they kept their 2016 platform, and avoided an anticipated fight with Donald Trump over a new one.
Even the right-leaning magazine National Review observed recently that “Republicans are doing little to explain what they would have the government do differently if they took power.” There has been a mix of proposals introduced with varying degrees of specificity, and previews of the intraparty fights we might see over the next few years.
It’s always easier for a party to appear united when they’re in the minority, but if Republicans reclaim power, they will have the much harder task of needing to unite around a real agenda. That’s when they’ll have to make real decisions on issues like abortion bans, civil rights, rollbacks of environmental protections, and welfare subsidies.
Here are the many competing proposals for the GOP’s policy vision — and what they tell us about what might come next.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s forthcoming “Commitment to America”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has been preparing for a world where he becomes majority leader, and has been taking cues from Newt Gingrich, who in 1994 helped write the “Contract with America” that House Republicans used to successfully return to power. When the GOP retook the House in 1994, they worked swiftly to bring votes on their agenda.
Gingrich has been advising Republicans over the past year, suggesting they focus on “kitchen table” issues, on being “happy warriors” who are enthusiastic about the future of the country, and on doubling down on government oversight and accountability, like election security and Biden investigations.
McCarthy is even calling his forthcoming platform the “Commitment to America” — a name intentionally resonant of Gingrich’s 1994 plan. The Commitment to America, which has been in the works since last June, is expected to be formally announced September 19 in Pittsburgh, according to Axios.
Much of the platform will sound familiar to anyone who has read news headlines over the last few years, with bullet-point themes around economic conditions, crime, race, and gender. Details are sparse, but ideas it’s expected to contain include fighting inflation by ending “Build Back Better” federal spending, reimposing work requirements to incentivize labor force participation, and lowering gas prices by increasing American energy production.
School-related issues include a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” and expanding school choice.
Republicans also plan to target Big Tech and illegal immigration, and to increase funding for police and the military. Holding the Biden administration accountable for “mismanagement” and supporting gun owners and anti-abortion groups are additional listed priorities.
While the platform takes aim at rising health care premiums and a “Democrat socialist drug takeover” that the GOP says could lead to fewer treatments, the McCarthy agenda notably excludes any language about repealing Obamacare — a priority for the first eight years of the law’s existence.
Mitch McConnell has resisted any specific agenda
While McCarthy is looking to 1994, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is urging his party to instead heed the playbook from 2014, when Republicans seized midterm control of the Senate chamber after campaigning primarily just against President Barack Obama.
He thinks the Commitment for America-style bullet points are too politically risky and create too many opportunities for Democrats to attack the Republican Party. Last fall, McConnell rejected pleas from colleagues and donors to release a legislative agenda, preferring instead to keep the midterms as a referendum on the White House incumbent.
McConnell suggested that whoever is the 2024 Republican nominee for president can lead the process of crafting the party’s next agenda, in part out of recognition that Biden holds veto power until then. Still, not everyone in his chamber agrees; Sen. Lindsey Graham came out this week with a bill banning abortion after 15 weeks, sending a clear, if expected, signal about what he’d push for if his party takes power.
Some Republicans are getting specific
The House’s conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, and two presidential hopefuls have also entered the fray in releasing policy priorities.
In June, the RSC released a 122-page manifesto dubbed the Blueprint to Save America, with a long list of conservative ideas. While not a formula campaign document per se — it’s billed as an alternative budget to the one put forth by Democrats — it gives much clearer indications as to where House Republicans might go if they take power, as nearly 75 percent of House GOP members are in the RSC.
For example, while the Commitment to America platform states merely that the party would “defend the unborn, fight for life,” the Blueprint to Save America lists nearly two dozen anti-abortion bills the caucus supports codifying, including a bill effectively prohibiting abortions after about six weeks, and one that would provide 14th Amendment protections to fetuses.
Likewise, while the Commitment to America platform includes preventing transgender girls from playing school sports with other girls, the RSC platform lists seven specific anti-trans bills the caucus supports codifying, including one that would create a new criminal offense for providing gender-affirming health care to minors.
While Republicans may realize that campaigning explicitly on the items in the Blueprint to Save America creates more political vulnerabilities than the vague ideas in the Commitment to America, the RSC document offers more concrete clues as to what exactly conservative lawmakers are looking to do if they gain power.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, a first-term senator and chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in March released his own 12-point “Plan to Rescue America” — billed as an agenda for the House and Senate if Republicans take power in November. Like the other aforementioned proposals, it’s a mix of cutting taxes, fighting Big Tech and crime, and pushing cultural fights in schools, though some of its components seem more geared toward standing out in a future Republican presidential primary. For example, Scott recommends completing the border wall and naming it after Donald Trump, putting “America First,” and fighting socialism. (“Socialism will be treated as a foreign combatant which aims to destroy our prosperity and freedom,” Scott’s platform proclaims.)
Former Vice President Mike Pence also released his own 28-page policy proposal in March, dubbed a “Freedom Agenda.” It’s gained little traction among midterm candidates, but that probably wasn’t really the point, as analysts suspect he might use it for himself if he decides to run for president in 2024.
Centrists are pleading for a different path
Some political analysts and policy wonks are pushing for moderation and compromise if Republicans take control — likely a tough sell for many conservatives who are loath to give Biden any more bipartisan wins ahead of the 2024 election.
Last month, leaders with American Compass, a conservative think tank that bills itself as pro-worker and pro-family, penned a New York Times op-ed urging the GOP, if it takes power next year, to consider bipartisan dealmaking on industrial policy with China, apprenticeships and non-college educational pathways, and something like Sen. Mitt Romney’s proposed expanded child tax credit. “The common force pushing forward these various policy opportunities is the evolution in conservative thinking toward greater focus on the interests of the working class and a greater role for government in addressing the free market’s shortcomings,” they wrote.
In July, Douglas Schoen, a centrist Democratic campaign consultant who advised Mike Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential run, wrote an op-ed in The Hill urging the Republican Party “to coalesce around a moderate agenda that offers real solutions” and avoids “relitigating past grievances.” Schoen suggested some ideas that have been part of aforementioned Republican platforms, like prioritizing deficit reduction, loosening regulations on America’s energy sector, providing parents with school choice options, and increasing funding for law enforcement.
He also suggests that, “perhaps most importantly,” conservatives should moderate on abortion and guns, something no GOP coalition is calling for.
“By assuming a more open stance on abortion legality, Republicans can better sell their party as one that protects individual liberties,” Schoen writes. “Similarly, by moving to the middle on guns, the GOP can position and promote themselves as the law and order party.”
These latter proposals will likely fall on deaf ears for now.
The Trump wild card
One hard-to-predict variable that could greatly affect what Republicans do if they reclaim power in Congress is Trump, and how much pressure he seeks to put on their governing agenda. Trump made dozens of endorsements in congressional and gubernatorial elections, and even though his candidates’ win rate has been declining over past cycles, his influence over Republican voters, and thus candidates looking to win Republican primaries, is still very strong. If he mounts a bid for president, that could also affect the trajectory of a Republican-led House. He’s already promised that, if elected in 2024, he’d pardon January 6 rioters, sentence drug dealers to death, and abolish the federal Education Department.
Expect investigations and maybe an impeachment push
While the Commitment to America platform is sticking to less controversial euphemisms like “hold the Biden administration accountable,” some rank-and-file Republicans have been more explicit about the revenge and retribution they’d push for if their party takes over.
In late August, The Hill reported that some members plan to push for impeachment of the president, some of whom have already introduced at least eight resolutions to do that. While the existing impeachment resolutions will expire at the end of the year, some lawmakers have vowed to reintroduce theirs in January, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Another possibility is to push for impeachment of other high-ranking Biden administration officials, but not Biden himself. McConnell has urged his party to avoid campaigning in the midterms on impeachment, and a highly politicized impeachment process is unlikely to be a unifying strategy for the 2024 election, but sometimes pressure for impeachment takes on its own hard-to-control momentum.
Aside from impeachment, Republicans have confirmed they’re looking at holding a series of House investigations next year if they take power, specifically on areas like Democrats’ handling of the southern border, the DOJ, inflation, and energy. Rep. James Comer (R-KY) is set to lead the House Oversight and Reform Committee and told Politico he also wants to spearhead investigations into the business dealings of Hunter Biden and the origins of Covid-19.