Congress Set To Do Basically Nothing For Rest Of 2014
Over the past two months or so, Congress has actually demonstrated something that we haven’t seen very much of in the past several years, in that it accomplished most of the things that it was supposed to be doing in the first place. In December, the House and Senate easily passed a Budget Plan for Fiscal Year 2014 after both parties decided to step back from the brink of forcing another shutdown crisis. Then, in January, we saw them pass not only a bill to fund appropriations for the entire Federal Government through September 30th and pass a Farm Bill after more than a year of back and forth between both parties, and the lobbyists for farmers and other interested groups, over the terms of such a bill. Yesterday, of course, the House of Representatives passed a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling through March 2015, and the Senate is expected to pass that same bill and send it on the the President today. All in all, given the gridlock and partisanship we’ve seen on Capitol Hill in in recent years it’s been a remarkable two or three months of actually getting some work done.
So, what can we expect Congress to do next? Well, pretty much nothing between now and the midterm elections it would appear:
The debt-ceiling bill passed by the House Tuesday, unburdened by additional Republican policy demands, appears headed for approval in the Senate, which would mark an end to major fiscal fights for the rest of the year.
With the debt limit raised, a budget passed, and the funds appropriated, Congress will have largely cleared its decks—though for what is still unclear.
As lawmakers head into Presidents Day recess, they have few big-ticket legislative aspirations this year, only a few accomplishments, and plenty of time to campaign.
nOf course, there’s something on everyone’s list. Senate Democrats will pursue a host of issues, including a minimum-wage increase and an extension of federal unemployment insurance. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said earlier this month that House Republicans will finally advance a GOP alternative to the Affordable Care Act. But the odds against those becoming law are long, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was hard-pressed to name other bills that are likely to pass this year. “There aren’t a lot,” he said.
Lawmakers still will have to approve another round of spending bills for the 2015 fiscal year. But whether they do, and whether those will be full-scale budget proposals or messaging tools, remains to be seen. Either way, it won’t be the heavy lifting seen in years past. The bipartisan budget deal has already set the level of government spending, which is one of the major flash points.
The rest is small-ball stuff: tax extenders, an energy-efficiency bill, and addressing how the government pays doctors under Medicare. That has some saying this is the true kickoff to campaign season.
This kind of relative inaction isn’t entirely surprising. Congress in an election year isn’t typically very active when it comes to pursuing major pieces of legislation to begin with. Both sides of the aisle play a role in this in that the each have agenda items that they want to make part of the midterm campaign. That means, even in an era of bipartisanship, it would be unlikely that we’d see major breakthroughs this year on issues like tax or entitlement reform, immigration reform, or anything major dealing with the budget beyond actually passing a Fiscal Year 2015 budget, or more likely a Continuing Resolution that pushes the final budget deal out to a point after the midterms themselves. The motivation behind this applies regardless of which party you’re talking about. Democrats are likely to make issues such as the minimum wage and, where appropriate, immigration reform part of their 2014 campaign against the GOP, and Republicans are likely to do the same with issues like taxes, entitlements, the budget, and health care reform. Neither party is going to have much of an incentive to compromise now when the possibility exists that they could be in a better bargaining position after the election when the makeup of the 114th Congress will be known. This is especially true for Senate Republicans who have what seems right not to be a very good chance of taking control of the Senate or at the very least substantially reducing the size of the Democratic majority to the point where their bargaining power would increase significantly. The other side of the coin, of course, is that what is actually typical midterm election year behavior by Congress will give Democrats the chance to once again make the argument that the GOP is responsible for the existence of a “Do Nothing” Congress. So, while you may see both parties push legislation over the balance of the coming year, those pushes will be more directed at setting the table for the General Election battles in the summer and fall than they will be aimed at actually getting legislation passed before Election Day.
By the way, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the 114th Congress to be something that produces a lot of breakthroughs either. The 2016 Presidential campaign will essentially be beginning the day after the 2014 elections. Indeed, I expect we will start seeing some candidates making their opening moves toward a Presidential run even before November 2014, at least on the Republican side. Given that, both parties will begin moving into 2016 campaign mode very early in 2015, just as we saw the last time both parties had no incumbent running for President in 2007. Beyond the basic business of passing budgets and such, the two years of the 114th Congress are likely to be little more than political groundwork for what will likely be a battle royale both inside the two parties and between them in 2016.