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The Missing Republican Agenda

 President Trump takes center stage as Congress moves to the background
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell outside the White House, February 27, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

When Paul Ryan launched his “Better Way” agenda in 2016, the idea was to provide a blueprint for the next Republican administration. The man who would lead that administration was skeptical, to say the least. The Ryan agenda, focusing on health care, taxes, military spending, and welfare reform, was resisted and belittled by Donald Trump’s populist-nationalist supporters. But a funny thing happened when Trump won the presidency. It was Ryan’s priorities that shaped Trump’s first year in office.

That’s no longer the case. After the failed attempt to replace Obamacare, the passage of the Trump tax cut, and the agreement over a two-year spending deal that ended the defense sequester, congressional Republicans do not expect to accomplish much during the remainder of 2018. They blame the filibuster, which allows Senate Democrats to block any legislation that doesn’t have 60 votes. Fiscal measures could pass by a simple majority, but only through the process called budget reconciliation. And that process is unlikely to happen, since there are only 51 Senate Republicans, and two of them are often absent due to illness.

When you talk to people on Capitol Hill, many say they wouldn’t be surprised if the agriculture bill turns out to be the sole piece of legislation that reaches the president’s desk this year.  Shepherded by Representative Mike Conaway of Texas, the bill is expected to be the vehicle for welfare reform — excuse me, “workforce development.” But any workforce-development measure that could pass Congress likely would fall short of conservative expectations. We are in a legislative Catch-22: The Senate is too divided to take up the bills the House passes, and the House is too conservative for the sort of mushy-middle legislation that could overcome the filibuster. (A possible exception: Changes to Dodd-Frank enjoy the backing of red-state Democrats up for reelection.)

The lack of a 2018 agenda has had several consequences. It’s meant that Republicans are gambling their majority on the tax cut, which will be close to a year old when polls open in November. Republican leaders return to the tax cut whenever they are asked what their message will be this fall. It’s their safe space. Now, it’s true that support for the tax cut is increasing as the economy reaches full employment. But just as attitudes toward the plan changed once, they may change again. And surely it would help Republican candidates if they had more than one accomplishment.

A third consequence of the missing Republican agenda is that it reveals the underlying divisions and stasis of conservative thought. Marco Rubio has embraced a novel proposal to allow families to draw early from Social Security for parental leave, but has encountered resistance from the same conservative institutions that fought his increase in the child tax credit. Representative Bob Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia, has a tough and effective immigration bill that can’t reach 218 votes in the House because of opposition from business, especially agriculture. Even John Cornyn’s bipartisan improvement of the background-check system, a bill the NRA supports, faces Republican opposition, as Chuck Schumer rubs his hands together over GOP infighting.

There’s more work to be done. Representative Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania and Senator Susan Collins of Maine are negotiating over a bill to improve reinsurance programs. Representative Doug Collins of Georgia has another bill that increases price transparency. What remains is for Congress to pass this legislation, publicize its efforts to reduce health-care costs and increase portability, and explain to the public the necessity of repealing and replacing Obamacare in the next Congress. 4

Sounds fantastic, I know. But Republicans need to give their people a reason to vote for them in the coming months, and the historical record shows that a growing economy is not enough. Then again, if the tax cut won’t do the trick on its own, maybe a Supreme Court vacancy will.

This article first appeared in the Washington Free Beacon.


Georgia’s Colleges Are Suppressing Christian Speech


Free speech is for everyone, regardless of party, ideology, race, ethnicity, religion, or sexuality. Everyone someplace or sometime is in the minority, and freedom of speech is a minority’s best friend. We protect the speech of minorities because someday, somehow, we may be in the minority too.

Although we should never forget this larger point, sometimes you have to get down to cases. Georgia is one of many states that have seen a string of speech incidents on campus recently. Incredibly, Christian speech is the minority viewpoint that needs protecting on Georgia’s college campuses, despite being a state where traditional Christians may be a majority, or something close to it. How have Georgia’s Christians been put in these straits — on public college campuses, no less — and what can be done about it?

Before addressing legislative state of play, let’s have a look at the plight of Christian speech on Georgia’s public college campuses.

The Georgia Gwinnett case, filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of plaintiff and Georgia Gwinnett student Chike Uzuegbunam, is very much about so-called free-speech zones. Georgia Gwinnett’s two tiny speech zones occupy less than 0.0015 percent of the campus, and are open only 18 hours a week. If you want speak in public or leaflet about politics or religion anywhere on campus on a Friday, for example, it had better be in those tiny zones between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. or you’re out of luck  — and even then you’ll have to get authorization three business days in advance.

Uzuegbunam first got into trouble for standing outside the library while distributing religious literature and telling passers-by about the need for salvation through Jesus Christ. You see, Uzuegbunam was standing outside of the official speech zones, and hadn’t submitted a request to leaflet. Next time, Uzuegbunam applied to use one of the speech zones and submitted for administrative approval a copy of the pamphlet he planned to distribute. Georgia Gwinnett granted his request. But when Uzuegbunam stood on a stool inside the official speech zone, he told passersby that Jesus Christ had come to earth to die on the cross, and rose from the dead to grant men and women the way to salvation. That’s when Uzuegbunam was silenced by campus police.

Georgia Gwinnett’s outrage against the First Amendment has rightly drawn national attention, and it is by no means the only such incident in Georgia.

Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, a Christian student organization at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University (KSU) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the university’s speech-zone policy. As with Uzuegbunam, the group is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom. (ADF has done yeoman’s work to protect free speech in Georgia, and nationally.) In this case, the student group Ratio Christi (Reason of Christ) was forced to confine its pro-life display to a tiny out-of-the-way speech zone consisting of less than 0.08 percent of Kennesaw’s 405 acre campus.

According to Ratio Christi’s suit, a KSU administrator told the group that if they removed the pro-life posters she deemed most “controversial,” she would upgrade their protest to a less out-of-the-way zone. Ratio Christi refused to remove the posters this administrator disliked, and so were pushed to a spot far away from other students. While Ratio Christi’s pro-life displays were relegated to tiny out-of-the-way zones in both 2016 and 2017, due to their supposedly “controversial” nature, in October of last year KSU permitted an LGBT group to reserve all seven speech zones for its “Pride Day” demonstration. So KSU’s zone policy can easily be manipulated by administrators to censor ideas that offend their secular prejudices.

The Georgia Gwinnett and Kennesaw State cases follow in the wake of the legal battle fought from 2006-2008 by two conservative students, Ruth Malhotra, a leader in the Christian student community, and Orit Sklar, a leader in the Jewish student community, at Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology).

The atmosphere was electric when Malhotra testified at a February hearing on the Georgia Campus Free Speech Act (SB 339). (I also testified at that hearing in favor of SB 339.) Malhotra recalled that when she confronted a Georgia Tech dean and accused him of indoctrination, he brazenly admitted, “Ruth, students have been indoctrinated for the first 18 years of their lives by their parents and by their churches; we only have four years to undo the damage.” Although administrators rarely speak so openly, this is the nub of the problem.

I’ve only reviewed the high-profile cases. You can bet that for every federal case there are plenty more instances in which students are cowed into self-censorship and never heard from again. Malhotra’s lawsuit prompted rape threats, death threats, and other violent threats. She was forced to move out of her sorority house and had to attend class with police protection during her final months on campus. How many students simply surrender and stay silent rather than face all that? This is why legislation is necessary. Students should not have to face the risks and burdens of suing their own school, just to secure the basic rights colleges ought to be safeguarding to begin with.

Given the track record of hostility to Christian speech on Georgia’s public college campuses, and given the importance of traditional Christianity to so many Georgia citizens, you would think the legislature would put an end to these pernicious so-called free-speech zones. Unfortunately, the truth is just the opposite.

Should a campus free-speech bill become law in Georgia while doing nothing to curb the practice of speech zones, it would be shocking — and an embarrassment to the state. Speech zones are generally the easiest problem for legislatures to fix. The initial wave of campus free-speech laws specifically targeted speech zones as an easily outlawed, facially unconstitutional practice. Most often zones were banned with strong bipartisan support. It would be little short of incredible for a campus free-speech bill to be stripped of all protections against speech zones — especially in a state where zones continue to be used as a weapon against the majority Christian view. With the Georgia Gwinnett case drawing national concern, you would think that speech zones would be the very first thing to go. Instead, a bill meant to eliminate campus speech zones has been amended by the university to give these zones, if anything, increased protection.

State Senator William Ligon, the sponsor of SB 339, has fought valiantly for the bill, and will be working with members on the House side to strengthen it with amendments that restore protections against speech zones. Other essential protections for the liberties of Georgians that were stripped by the universities in the Senate may also be restored in the House. 0

Ligon is on the case, but time is running short. Georgia’s legislative session is compressed, and the House has only a limited window over the coming weeks to strengthen sections of the bill that the universities have managed to gut.

I’ll have more to say in the coming days about SB 339, but the central point is clear. Georgia’s public colleges and universities have been using unconstitutional speech zones to suppress Christian speech in a state where traditional Christians make up a large part of the citizenry. And those same universities have managed to gut the core protections against speech zones in SB 339. Should the Georgia State House fail to restore those protections, nobody’s speech will be safe on Georgia’s public college campuses. If even the dominant view in Georgia can be ostracized and banned at its universities through flagrantly unconstitutional acts, then the rights of every student in the state are will be subject to the whims of irresponsible administrators. Georgia deserves better than this.