Watch for action on China, ISIS and oil prices
Congress completed its 2015 business the week before Christmas and headed home. The House returned shortly after the new year and the Senate a week later.
Paul Ryan’s elevation to speaker broke a potential end-of-the-session logjam. Several measures were passed at the end of the first session of the 114th Congress: the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Surface Transportation Act, a $700 billion tax extension bill, and a $1.15 trillion “omnibus” spending package.
On deck for the second session are issues like higher education program reauthorization, judicial reform, firearm reform (or re-affirmation of gun rights with or without an actual challenge to President Obama’s recent executive actions on gun control), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
Issues not grabbing the attention of beltway reporters (or others, for that matter) should be a concern to all of us: China is building a second aircraft carrier and continues its progress on landing strips in neutral waters; ISIS, though seemingly in retreat in some sectors, continues its effective PR campaign across the globe; and plummeting oil prices (my household budget is all the better, but the impact on the U.S. oil and gas industry and its ripple effect could have significant impact on the economy, especially in certain geographic regions).
Speaker Paul Ryan is promising “regular order” where the House abides by its standing rules giving members an opportunity to offer amendments to bills and the ability to delve into the weeds of the spending bills while making sure programs are authorized and properly paid for. This would be a positive step for the democratic process and government accountability, and the Congress would be able to complete budgets on time. Moreover, it is politically necessary for the Congress to assert oversight over the federal government given the public’s recent frustration with veterans’ health programs, the visa application process, General Services Administration, IRS and more.
But given the sheer scope of the federal government, regular order is not easily realized, and it poses many pitfalls for party leaders like Ryan who can’t always predict how many open votes will turn out. With 435 members of Congress — all of whom have committee and subcommittee assignments, constituent work, hearings, mark-ups, meetings with colleagues, agency officials and their staff — regular order is difficult to achieve. My former House staff colleague, John Feehery, wrote it would take about eight years to get through the first two weeks of legislative business if all 435 members of Congress were given their allotted time to offer their ideas on the House floor. That is why diligent leadership is so important with divided government.
Another Ryan goal is, instead of a trillion-plus-dollar omnibus bill, for all 12 appropriations bills to be passed separately. This is a lofty goal, but if anyone could get it done it’s the wonkish Ryan. You can disagree with him on philosophy, but not on the technical aspect of pretty much anything. And if any Appropriations Committee chairman can keep the trains running on time, it’s Harold Rogers (R-Ky.). Rogers is a soft-spoken Southern man, but it’s a mistake to challenge him.
But it’s not about the leadership; it’s about the clock and calendar. Not only for the reasons I’ve stated on regular order, but also because it’s an election year, and every draft bill, every dollar figure attached to a federal program opens up Congress to a free-for-all attack from Democrats and the far right. The omnibus bill was a prime case in point, as Ryan had to impose party discipline to get the bill passed. He rightly points to his accomplishments for his party base on getting some “good wins for conservatives” in lifting the oil export ban for the first time in 40 years, limiting IRS “meddling” in politics, and getting more permanency in tax policy, as he said Dec. 20 on “Meet The Press.” At the same time, he will have to address his party’s populist wing in its desire to impose restrictions on refugee programs, Mideast immigration, H-2B Foreign Worker Visas, and its aversion to spending increases.
The hyper-politics have begun, and each House member and one-third of the Senate will be walking and voting with their next election in mind. By the looks of this season so far, it will be one for the history books. The virtual likelihood of a non-politician becoming the Republican nominee and a socialist giving the Democratic front-runner a run for her money is an indication of what kind of an election November will hold.
Grand Rapids native Steve Carey is president of Potomac Strategic Development Co. in Washington, D.C.