While President Joe Biden has received high marks for delivering on the priorities of the American people over his first 100 days in office, Republicans in Congress have spent that time demonstrating a fundamental inability to govern that is unparalleled in modern American history. They have directly undermined not only the national effort to defeat the coronavirus but also U.S. democracy itself and the nation’s urgent need for economic relief and growth.
Denying the seriousness of COVID-19 and undermining the public health response
From the beginning, Republicans in Congress have consistently denied the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and attempted to discredit scientifically based public health precautions, all driven by political motivations. By all accounts, this has cost lives and destroyed any chance of a unified national public response. While one may have hoped that former President Donald Trump fading from the spotlight would change this behavior, congressional Republicans have been just as irresponsible during President Biden’s first 100 days. This has resulted in gaping disparities in vaccination hesitancy along partisan, and therefore geographic, lines.
Sixty-seven percent of the 72 diagnosed COVID-19 cases among members of Congress have been Republicans, including the only two members who died from the virus, Rep.-elect Luke Letlow from Louisiana and Rep. Ron Wright from Texas. Despite these figures and Congress members’ early access to the vaccine last December, roughly 25 percent of House members, where the average age is 58, had yet to be vaccinated as of mid-March. While no data have been officially released on who these members are, a States Newsroom survey of federal lawmakers in 22 states found that all but one were Republicans. The only Democrat, Ron Kind from Wisconsin, said at the time that he intended to get vaccinated when his age group was eligible in his home state. The House Republicans who refused the vaccine included some of the most outspoken members of the caucus, including Matt Gaetz from Florida, Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia, and Madison Cawthorn from North Carolina.
Among senators, three have publicly said they are refusing to get the vaccine. They are all Republicans: Rand Paul from Kentucky, Mike Braun from Indiana, and Ron Johnson from Wisconsin. Sen. Johnson went as far as to say there is “no reason to be pushing vaccines on people” in a recent radio interview, questioning the vaccine’s effectiveness and suitability for everyone. He said he was “‘getting highly suspicious’ of the ‘big push to make sure everybody gets the vaccine.’” Given this lack of leadership, it is not surprising that recent polling shows that Republican men are the least likely demographic group to get vaccinated, with nearly 50 percent saying they would refuse the shot.
By and large, Republican members of Congress also helped sow this distrust among their base throughout 2020. One hyped disinformation about hospitals faking deaths to make money; another refused a COVID-19 test ahead of a debate with his election opponent. Still another poked fun at mask wearers, while his colleague went swimming in the Senate pool hours before receiving a positive COVID-19 test result. Another member told reporters that he wasn’t taking precautions then jokingly asked to shake their hands, while his colleagues encouraged constituents to eat in restaurants amid the early lockdowns, refused to wear masks on commercial flights, and flew on commercial flights two days after coming in direct indoor contact with the former president the day before he tested positive for COVID-19. Others promoted miracle cures and repeatedly disparaged guidance from public health officials.
While some Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have been outspoken, actively urging the public—and specifically Republican men—to get vaccinated, the primary message from congressional Republicans on vaccines has been talking up efforts and legislation to ban vaccine passports (even after the White House said it had no plans to implement such a system) and fire Dr. Anthony Fauci. There was even an effort from eight House members to strip funding out of the American Rescue Plan meant for public awareness campaigns to educate the public about the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.
Republicans also refused to seriously negotiate the American Rescue Plan, the COVID-19 relief package that President Biden proposed and eventually signed that helped increase the nation’s capacity to fight the virus and speed up delivery of vaccines. The bill was supported by nearly 70 percent of the public, including 54 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of independents. The closest congressional Republicans came was a counter offer from a fraction of their caucus that provided one-third of the funding of the president’s proposal, and no Republicans voted for the final package.
A party of white nationalism and insurrection
The January 6 insurrection, fueled by white nationalists and conspiracy theorists seeking to overturn the presidential election at Trump’s behest, could have and should have been a turning point for the national Republican Party as that presidency ended. For a moment there were signs, such as Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) changing his initial vote to overturn the certification of the election results, or Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) voting to decertify the election and later voting to impeach Trump for his actions involving the riot. Still, just hours after the riots, 147 Republicans voted to unilaterally overturn the election. And months later, any real rejection of the attempted political overthrow has been stomped out, with those few who worked toward accountability systematically condemned and censured by their own party.
Moreover, a week after the insurrection, nearly one-quarter of Republicans polled said violence can be acceptable to achieve political goals. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released in early April showed that by an overwhelming 2-to-1 margin, Republicans reaffirmed their view that the election was “stolen” from Trump. An April Yahoo! News/YouGov survey found that 70 percent of Republicans still believe there was enough fraud to change the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. This sentiment has allowed the most poisonous representatives of this burgeoning white nationalist, insurrectionist movement to flourish.
Most recently, Reps. Greene and Paul A. Gosar (R-AZ) were involved in the launch of the “America First Caucus.” According to The Washington Post, “A detailed document laying out the caucus’s platform suggested that it would focus on promoting ‘Anglo-Saxon political traditions’ and warned that mass immigration would have an impact on the ‘unique identity’ of the country.” The caucus was notably supported by Rep. Gaetz, who is reportedly under investigation for breaking federal child sex trafficking laws, and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who sued former Vice President Mike Pence for certifying the 2020 election results. The caucus came on the heels of Fox News personality Tucker Carlson’s parroting of the white nationalist “replacement theory,” an echoing of the same talking points white nationalists in Charlottesville used when they chanted “Jews will not replace us.”
According to CAP Action tracking, Republicans in at least 14 states have either censured, called to censure, or publicly rebuked members of their party who voted to impeach Trump for insurrection or voted to certify the 2020 election results against Trump’s wishes. Republicans such as Sen. Ben Sasse (NE), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (AK), Rep. Liz Cheney (WY), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (IL), and more have been disowned by their own official state parties.
Six official statewide GOP parties have issued formal censures of their own congressional representatives: Wyoming, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arizona, and Alaska. Four additional GOP state parties have issued rebukes or condemnations, including Nebraska, Washington, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Finally, 11 states in total contain county GOP parties that have censured their own representatives, including Nebraska, Wyoming, Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Kentucky, Illinois, Washington, and Michigan.
Undermining democracy, state by state
The Republican Party’s voter suppression efforts are nothing new. In the long tradition of Jim Crow, the modern myth of significant voter fraud as cover for deliberate and utterly unnecessary voting restrictions has grown for more than 15 years. However, in the wake of rhetoric from Trump and national and state Republican parties leading to the January 6 insurrection, the party has dramatically expanded its efforts to implement a coup through abuse of gerrymandered state legislatures rather than outright violence.
The backlash from civil rights groups, and even corporate America, has been swift and overwhelming. Corporations that have long supported the Republican Party and its posture on taxes and deregulation largely withdrew campaign contributions to Republican members of Congress who voted to overturn the presidential election and disenfranchise Black urban voters in several swing states. Roughly 94 percent of the corporations with political action committees that previously gave to the 147 election objectors in Congress have yet to contribute to them this year. Corporations have also fled the spectacle of such drastic actions targeted at Black voters in state legislatures: A coalition made up of hundreds of corporations and business leaders stood in active opposition to attempts to suppress voters of color. In response, the Republican Party has undermined democracy further by threatening direct (and possibly unconstitutional) government retribution against any company that objects, with the chair of the Senate Republican campaign arm stating in an open letter, “The backlash is coming.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice’s “State Voting Bills Tracker,” legislators had introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states as of April 1. One of the most notorious of these is the recently passed legislation in Georgia that imposes significant new obstacles to voting and gives the Republican-controlled state government new power to assert control over the conduct of elections in Democratic counties.
In response to corporations speaking out against the bill’s passage, Minority Leader McConnell warned them to “stay out of politics” but not Republicans’ pockets. While Republicans’ sudden turn on corporate donations is welcome, threatening companies for expressing their views in the free market is quite the reversal for a party that has consistently used the First Amendment as an excuse to defend white nationalism and xenophobia. Indeed, even as Republicans in Congress single out specific “woke” corporations for punishment, they continue to describe any increase in the corporate tax rate as a “non-negotiable red line.”
Blockading and undermining economic rescue
At a moment of twin public health and economic crises, Republicans in Congress have rejected President Biden’s urgent actions to shore up the economy—even before legislation was drafted. The strategy is in line with then-Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s strategy under former President Barack Obama: to deprive a Democratic president of bipartisan cooperation and a successful economy for political ends. Even meager bipartisan outreach from a small group of Senate Republicans has consisted of virtually no constructive ideas except to cut Biden’s proposals by two-thirds, levels far short of answering the economic moment.
While Biden inherited an unemployment rate of 6.3 percent, President Trump and his Republican Congress inherited a far healthier economy with 4.7 percent unemployment and yet quickly moved to pass, on a party line vote, a deeply unpopular $2 trillion tax cut aimed at wealthy Americans and large corporations. Before that, they moved to repeal the Affordable Care Act on a partisan basis, which would have eliminated protections for people with preexisting conditions, stripped health coverage from more than 20 million people, and resulted in yet another massive tax cut for the wealthy.
Even on something seemingly uncontroversial, Senate Republicans have refused to consider Biden’s proposal to help pay for his proposed infrastructure bill with a modest increase in the corporate tax rate, which would still be far below the pre-Trump rate. This is a broadly popular initiative, with 65 percent of all voters recently telling Morning Consult they support a corporate tax increase to pay for the infrastructure plan. Senate Republicans have unanimously rejected the president’s proposal, and instead want a small fraction of the investment in infrastructure, while proposing to charge user fees, including an increased number of toll roads, and claw back $350 billion of the aid to state and local governments that Congress already sent out in the American Rescue Plan. In other words, congressional Republicans want to invest less in American infrastructure; charge people to use the little that is invested in; and take back money promised to teachers, firefighters, and front-line health care workers under intense strain from the pandemic.
The most concrete economic position that the Republican Party has taken has been to readopt a policy of economic hostage-taking. Republicans in Congress conveniently forgot their purported concerns about fiscal discipline and the debt for the four years of the Trump administration, passing massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations and spending as much as they wanted. Yet now that they are out of power, their budgetary concerns risk instigating another showdown that could cause the government to default on its debt. Later this year, Congress will have to raise the debt ceiling, an arbitrary limit Congress imposes on how much the government can take out in loans. In 2019, then-President Trump and congressional leaders reached a deal to do this. But some congressional Republicans are now signaling they will try to force deep spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling—which would be deeply dangerous—essentially threatening the health of the American economy in order to harm political opponents.
The American Rescue Plan received no Republican votes, despite being quite popular with Republican voters. Yet this has not stopped some Republican politicians from trumpeting and trying to take credit for the aid they attempted to stonewall. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MI) said on Twitter after the vote that, “Independent restaurant operators have won $28.6 billion worth of targeted relief”—even though he voted against this targeted relief. Rep. Madison Cawthorn also tweeted after the vote that he was, “Happy to announce that NC-11 was awarded grants from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services,” listing tens of millions of dollars sent to medical centers and clinics in his district. New York Reps. Lee Zeldin (R) and Andrew Garbarino (R) both voted against the American Rescue Plan yet trumpeted the restoration of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Railroad service, which was only made possible by the stimulus bill they opposed.
In the course of President Biden’s first 100 days in office, and in a time of national crisis, Republicans in Congress have embraced a level of extremism and irresponsibility that has led them to dangerous attempts to undermine the country. While the Biden administration has achieved significant things despite these attempts, great challenges are ahead on the economy and the pandemic that congressional Republicans are making much more difficult to address.
Jesse Lee is a vice president for Communications at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Zahir Rasheed is a research and press assistant with the Center for American Progress Action Fund War Room. Ryan Koronowski is the director of Special Research Projects at the Center for American Progress Action Fund War Room. Will Ragland is the senior director in the Center for American Progress Action Fund War Room.