Don’t Expect Anything Out Of Washington In Obama’s Final Two Years
Despite the conciliatory language after Tuesday, it's unlikely that much will change in Washington in the next two years.
Listening to the comments from President Obama, Speaker John Boehner, and presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell one could easily find oneself confused as to what the path forward in Washington, D.C. is likely to be now that Republicans have regained control of both Houses of Congress for the first time since losing it in the 2006 midterm elections. In their post-election press conferences, held in the days immediately after Tuesday’s big election successes for the GOP, all three men struck conciliatory ones and talked about working together to get things done, for example. Senator McConnell, for example, struck a conciliatory tone and talked about restoring what he has long called “regular order” to the Senate by requiring most bills to go through the committee process and allowing members to offer Amendments on the floor, something that the GOP has long complained that outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid has failed to do. McConnell also sent what many saw as a clear message to the Ted Cruz wing of the Senate GOP Caucus by vowing there would be no government shutdowns, and no default on the national debt. At his press conference later that same day, President Obama said he was similarly eager to find common ground to work with Congress going forward, a task that will be much harder for him than it has been since the start of his Presidency, but also sent hints about possible confrontations in the future over immigration and other issues. For his part, Speaker Boehner’s post-election tone was more combative, in no small part because he was the last of the three to speak in the wake of the election results and was, at least in part, reacting to the President’s comments that he would take unilateral action on issues like immigration unless the House took the action he demanded, but at the same time the Speaker also put forward the face of someone who wanted to appear to be open to working across party lines to pursue progress on issues that have been moribund for years now, including tax reform and international trade issues that have largely been ignored by both sides for various reasons. The three men, along with other members of the House and Senate leadership, closed out the week with a long working lunch at the White House from which there were very few leaks, but what we did hear was largely a repetition of the same conciliatory tone we’d heard since Tuesday night.
Most of this, of course, is the same sort of feel-good rhetoric you hear after every election not matter what the result. It’s become something that the voters, the press, and the pundits expect, especially in an era of divided government such as this, and, as always, it’s largely all just rhetoric and that, for both parties, the incentives are likely to push everyone toward a continuation of the confrontation that has epitomized the first five years of the Obama Presidency and will likely be a large characteristic of the next two. For one thing, the political realities that dictated how Republicans in the House and Senate proceeded forward in the years after the 2010 elections have not really change after last Tuesday. It’s true that the Tea Party movement and hard core conservatives in the GOP had a rough year backing candidates to either challenge sitting members of the House or Senate or win the nominations for open seats, especially in the Senate, however as I’ve said before that only tells half the story. To a large degree, the Tea Party has already won the ideological battle inside the GOP and is going to have a lot to say about how the party proceeds now that it has a lot more power in Washington. One sign of this can be seen in a post-election editorial from National Review, which cannot fairly be considered part of the Tea Party movement per se, in which the magazine pushes back against the suggestion from McConnell, Boehner, and others that the GOP needs to show the American public that it can “govern” and get things done. Instead, the editors argue that the party should use this new found power to lay out an agenda for 2016, a course of actions which essentially means eschewing deal making and compromise in favor of setting things up for the next election, strategy that makes it less likely that we’d see progress on controversial issues like immigration reform.
There’s nothing new in the suggestion that Republicans ought to use the next two years to set the stage for 2016, of course. The final two years of any President’s eight years in office are seldom one in which major progress is made on controversial issues as a general rule. We did see major immigration and tax reform in the final two ears of President Reagan’s term, of course, but both of those measures had been in the works well before being signed into law late in 1986 after the GOP had lost control of the Senate and the Iran/Contra scandal had broken in the weeks afterwards. From that point forward, Washington found itself consumed by hearings on that scandal and the President, after righting the ship from the crisis that the scandal had caused inside the White House, turned his attention to foreign affairs and working out historic arms control and other agreements with the Soviet Union that helped end the Cold War and, albeit unintentionally, hasten the demise of the nation he had once called an evil empire. The final two years of President Clinton’s time in office were remarkably similar, with a scandal that led to only the second attempt to impeach and convict a President in American history and the President turning his attention outward, that time to the always tempting effort to bring Middle East peace.
In all likelihood, things will likely unfold the same way in President Obama’s final two years. Emboldened by their election victories, Republicans are likely to step the oversight hearings that we’ve seen since 2011 up a notch, with the Senate how looking in to many of the same alleged scandals that the House of Representatives has been looking into. Both parties will be looking ahead to 2016, and will likely be unwilling to reach broad deals on issues that they believe will benefit them in that election, such as immigration, tax reform, and entitlement reform, The fight against ISIS, the crisis in Ukraine, and the fight against Ebola in western Africa, are likely to distract the nation significantly from domestic politics for the foreseeable future, as well as likely serve as the vehicle by which President Obama will take advantage of his inherently greater powers to act instead of worrying so much on domestic policy. And, most importantly, within a matter of mere months, candidates for President, including those who can be safely said to be “serious” candidates rather than merely vanity candidates like Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders, will start announcing their candidacy for the White House, All of this essentially guarantees that the status quo in Washington will be political posturing, playing to the base, and preparing for 2016. In the end, neither party really has an incentive to do much of anything else at this point.
On a final note, one thing would seem to guarantee that little will be done in Washington should President Obama go forward with it, and that’s immigration. In a tone that was strangely combative given the electoral drubbing that his party had just taken, President Obama threatened Congress with unilateral action on immigration reform if it fails to act by the end of the year, This, of course, is the same unspecified threat of unilateral action that the President made over the summer, only to postpone it just prior to the start of the post Labor Day campaign season, much to the chagrin of many immigration activists and pundits on the left. We still don’t know exactly what it is the President is contemplating, but from various hints it would appear to entail some kind of expansion of the temporary relief granted by the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program he announced in 2012. While this action may well be well within the discretion granted to the President by applicable law, it seems obvious that such unililateral action will indeed “poison the well” as Speaker Boehner has put it and make it far less likely that he and other Republicans in leadership will be able to convince back bench members and the grassroots to go along with compromise on other issues Moreover, establishing a deadline for action in this area of the end of this year is completely unrealistic given that the new Congress will not take office until January and there isn’t any realistic possibility of the House Leadership putting immigration reform bills passed by a Senate that won’t exist after December 31st before a House composed of many lame duck members. If that’s the measuring stick the President intends to use on this issue, then he’s going to get the inaction he appears to want, the excuse he wants to act, and the result will be a new 114th Congress that he will be starting off with on completely the wrong foot.
Perhaps the pessimism will be proven wrong, but the idea that we’ll see anything other than more of the same from Washington between now and the 2016 General Election is rather Pollyannaish in any case.