As Congress comes back to town to start its 2018 session, the to-do list is long: preventing a government shutdown, dealing with the expired Children’s Health Insurance Program, renewing the foreign surveillance program, doing something on Dreamers (and maybe the border wall), disaster relief, and a few more.
Republican leaders have placed even more big items on their wish list: entitlement reform, infrastructure funding, welfare reform, amending Dodd-Frank, and taking another stab at Obamacare repeal are all being bandied about as follow-ups to their success on taxes.
But the odds of Congress accomplishing much before the midterms is pretty slim. Here are six reasons why:
1. Republicans aren’t on the same page. If there are two issues on which virtually all Republican lawmakers could agree, it’s cutting taxes and repealing Obamacare. They accomplished the first at the end of 2017, but failed mightily at the second (although they did manage to repeal the individual mandate in the tax bill). Beyond those two issues, what else unites Republicans as much?
Immigration reform is a top priority, but one that exposes severe cracks in the GOP coalition between those who want more border security and nothing that even remotely looks like amnesty, and those who support a more nuanced approach. Entitlement reform? In theory yes, but the political challenges make many GOPers queasy. Even energy issues have lost urgency since the pro-production crowd got drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into the tax bill.
Simply put, there is no other issue for which Republicans can be counted on to put aside their differences and political queasiness like taxes and Obamacare. And as 2017 showed, neither of them was easy. The fact that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are not on the same page about entitlement reform and welfare further shows that, with taxes behind them, Republicans don’t have a unifying agenda.
2. Republicans will need Democrats. Republicans were able to muscle tax reform through (and nearly repeal Obamacare) thanks to the reconciliation process, which enabled them to advance both with a minimum of 50 votes (and the Veep’s tie-breaking vote). But under budget rules, they can’t use reconciliation again this fiscal year. Without it (and with a 51-49 seat majority) they will need the support of at least nine Senate Democrats on any major item they bring up.
This means major items like entitlement reform and welfare reform – where there are stark differences between the parties – will be hard, if not impossible, to enact. True, there are exactly nine Democrats up for re-election in 2018 in states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But the odds of Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (R-PA), or Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), to name three Democratic Senators facing the voters in November, supporting entitlement cuts are basically zero. And in any event . . .
3. Both parties need to energize their bases. Midterm elections are typically won or lost on which party best energizes and turns out its base. After a year in which Republicans kept Democrats out of the discussions on health care and taxes (see reconciliation, above), and with the possibility of taking back one or more chambers in the 2018 midterms, Democrats have no incentive to play ball with the Republican majority. The more Democrats draw stark differences between them and Republicans, the more energize their base will become.
On the GOP side, with 2017 elections showing flagging enthusiasm, there is little incentive for Republicans to compromise, either. Their political calculus will be, the more base-pleasing their proposals are, the more likely their voters will come out – especially if they can paint Democrats as obstructionists. Although there are a number of House Republicans from blue states like New York and California who will want bipartisanship on issues like immigration and the environment, they don’t control the agenda.
4. Legislative success doesn’t portend electoral success. A lot of ink was spilled in 2017 on Republicans’ desperation to get something big passed; had tax reform failed, a lot of observers would have chiseled their political obituary in stone. That would seem to indicate that Republicans will crave more legislative success to ensure they keep their majorities.
But history has shown that big policy success doesn’t lead to election wins – especially if those wins piss off the other side. Leading up to the 1994 midterms, the first with Bill Clinton in the White House, Democrats had scored big victories on gun control and deficit reduction; they ended up losing both chambers. In 2010, two years into Barack Obama’s first term, Democrats boasted of passing Obamacare, stimulus, and Dodd-Frank. They lost the House and nearly lost the Senate.
In fact, the only recent example of a party in the White House gaining seats in their first midterm was in 2002, when Republicans took back the Senate two years into George W. Bush’s first term. That was due in no small part to the post-9/11 political landscape. But beyond that, the only major legislative achievement Republicans could boast of was . . . a major tax cut. With that history, Republicans may be less motivated to expend political capital on controversial issues that won’t help them at the polls.
5. The must-dos will suck up time. Even if Congress and the White House can finally approve this month appropriations bills for the remainder of the current fiscal year (and that’s looking iffy, since discussions have barely begun), they will find themselves forced to address a host of simmering issues, from the Dreamers to stabilizing the Obamacare insurance markets. Republicans would love to see these wrapped up into larger reforms of immigration and health care, but for all the reasons stated earlier big packages will be mightily tough.
With only 108 scheduled legislative days in the House before the election and a similar number in the Senate, those must-dos will eat up a lot of time. And that’s not even counting unexpected must-dos, like confirmations of Cabinet secretaries in case any leave (has anyone heard from Rex Tillerson lately?).
6. The Executive Branch is not exactly helping. Presidents play a major role in shepherding policy through Congress: using the bully pulpit to drive consistent messages that dominate the news cycle, offering serious policy proposals and putting forth consistent redlines on what they will sign or veto, cajoling or intimidating members of Congress.
Unless you’ve been hiding out on Ahch-to the past year, you’ve noticed that the White House has not been a study in message discipline, policy seriousness or effective lawmaker-wooing. Most accounts suggest that President Trump’s major role in passing tax reform was in staying the hell out of the way. Unless the President was right when he claimed he understood the “big bills” better than any of his predecessors, Congress is going to have to do it while ignoring the simmering dumpster fire down Pennsylvania Avenue.
As a result, beyond its must-dos, the odds of Congress and the White House achieving any significant policy goals is pretty slim. The one caveat to all of this: if Republicans hang onto their majorities in November election, it is quite possible that a lame-duck session could yield some significant action.
On the other hand, if Robert Mueller concludes his investigation right around then, everything will go out the window.
Welcome to 2018!