What’s past isn’t necessarily prologue, but the outcomes of some recent political battles – and a look at who will be coming and going when Congress reconvenes in January – give us a pretty good sense of the dynamics that will shape the next two years of American politics.
So while we don’t have a crystal ball, here’s our preview of what you can expect in the final quarter of Barack Obama’s presidency.
1. Gridlock, and an Endless Game of Chicken
The past two sessions of Congress have been the least productive in our history, and the next likely will offer more of the same.
We will see the “crisis governance” of the past few years continue. Deals will be cut in the final hours before the government shuts down, or the debt limit is breached, or — as with the Department of Homeland Security’s funding, which is set to end next February – a major budget provision is about to expire.
Recent experience with the “Cromnibus” spending bill – which will fund the government through next fall – suggests that Democrats will play defense in these negotiations. They accepted two provisions that infuriated their base, in order to maintain current funding levels for most government agencies, and obtain more money for things like combating Ebola.
But there are advantages for Democrats in these standoffs: First, Americans tend to blame Republicans for government shutdowns and debt limit shenanigans. Second, the Republican leadership hasn’t been able to impose enough discipline on their members to pass legislation without Democratic votes.
The Republicans’ advantage in these standoffs is the strength of what progressives describe as the GOP’s “suicide caucus.” This is a significant bloc of tea party-aligned legislators who refuse to vote for budget legislation that doesn’t defund Obamacare – or won’t undo the White House’s executive action on immigration. They don’t seem to care if doing so results in a government shutdown that hurts their party’s standing with the public. In a game of chicken, a seemingly irrational driver who doesn’t appear to mind a flaming car crash will always hold the upper hand.
In past negotiations, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has made good use of his own caucus’ defiance, claiming that while he personally wanted to avoid a shutdown or debt limit standoff, he could only marshal the votes necessary to head off disaster by giving conservatives steep concessions.
How these standoffs play out will have a significant impact on American families. Not only will they determine spending on things like health and education — and people’s tax rates — but if the government shuts down or we have more debt limit shenanigans, it could slow an economy that’s looking stronger as we head into the new year.
2. The Clash of the Republican Establishments
The media will continue to hold that there are deep divisions between the “Republican establishment” and the tea party.
That’s only true to a degree. There are few ideological differences between these camps; the “divide” mostly comes down to strategy.
The kernel of truth is that in the wake of Citizens United and other decisions deregulating campaign donations, effectively there are now two Republican establishments: The traditional one, made up of the party leadership and Congressional campaign committees that worry about the party’s long-term prospects in national elections, and the network of outside conservative funders who support “renegade” lawmakers like Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Earlier this month, Politico offered a good example of how influential this group of funders has become in a story about the Koch brothers’ efforts to build a nationwide voter database. Mike Allen and Kenneth Vogel reported that the billionaires “and their allies are pumping tens of millions… [into] developing detailed, state-of-the-art profiles of 250 million Americans, giving the brothers’ political operation all the earmarks of a national party.”
These dueling establishments will continue to be at loggerheads, with the tea party caucus making life difficult for congressional leadership, but the tactical divide will be more pronounced as lawmakers with presidential aspirations look to shore up their ideological bona fides and build campaign warchests in the run-up to 2016.
3. A Smaller, More Progressive Democratic Caucus
During the recent omnibus spending bill fight, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and other progressives came close to scuttling the legislation, which many observers took as a sign that Democrats feel that they can buck the administration during Obama’s final two years in office.
Expect more of the same, as a smaller, more progressive Democratic caucus takes office in January.
With the recent defeat of Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, there will be no Dems representing the Deep South in the incoming Congress.
Landrieu, a loyal friend to Big Oil, will be replaced as the lead Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee by Washington’s progressive Sen. Maria Cantwell — the first time in years that position has been held by a senator from a non-energy state. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont will take over as the ranking member of the Budget Committee, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) will be the top Democrat on the Banking Committee — replacing conservative South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson — and Elizabeth Warren will serve in a leadership position. All of these lawmakers are among the more progressive on the Hill.
4. A Not-So-Lame-Duck
In the two months since the midterm elections, Barack Obama has unilaterally normalized relations with Cuba, protected several million undocumented immigrants from deportation, created a special commission to consider new police reforms, told the FCC it should enforce net neutrality, made it harder for federal contractors to misclassify their workers as management and instructed the EPA to issue new regulations on ozone emissions.
That followed a year in which he used his authority to create what The Washington Post described as “the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in the central Pacific Ocean,” raised the minimum wage for employees of government contractors and barred contractors from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Obama told NPR that he feels “liberated” as a result of Congressional dysfunction, and will continue to use his executive power wherever he can. Watch for an order that could help the middle class significantly by strengthening overtime rules – progressive economists are coalescing around the proposed rule.
He also told NPR he would freely use his veto pen. The president has so far vetoed only two bills, but that number is set to explode in the coming years.
The battles lines already are drawn. The Hill reported last week that Republicans are “rallying behind using a rarely deployed budget tool next year to dismantle Obamacare.” Using a process known as reconciliation, Senate Republicans can pass some legislation with a simple 51 vote majority, skirting potential filibusters by the Democrats. According to The Hill, “While Obama is certain to veto anything that tries to roll back his landmark healthcare law, Republicans increasingly see reconciliation as an important messaging tool.” In other words, expect Congress to pass plenty of red-meat legislation that will go nowhere.
With a growing economy and a president who appears ready to fight, also expect Obama’s approval ratings — which this week matched Ronald Reagan’s at this point in his presidency — to continue to rise, especially among Democrats and Dem-leaning independents.
5. Republicans Will Continue to Overpromise, and the Tea Party Base Will Be Furious
Republicans have long assured their supporters that if they won the Senate and maintained control of the House they would roll back Obama’s agenda. But the reality is that their capacity to kill Obamacare, constrain the president’s executive authority and advance a conservative agenda will remain severely limited. Having been promised the moon, conservative base voters aren’t going to be happy with the modest spending cuts and largely symbolic concessions that their representatives are going to be able to deliver.
6. Democrats Will Make Concessions, and Their Progressive Base Will Be Furious
Democrats will have to pick their battles. Having won control of Congress, Republicans expect to advance at least some of their agenda. Many on the left will view this reality as a betrayal.
7. Fewer Backroom Deals
In the past month, two pieces of legislation stirred quite a bit of public controversy. First, there was a package of corporate tax cuts known as “tax extenders” which would have blown a hole in the budget in order to reward big business. Then there was the aforementioned Cromnibus, which loosened campaign finance limits – and into which bank lobbyists inserted a provision that weakened the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.
What’s notable about these bills is that both represent the kind of quiet corruption that usually passes with large bipartisan majorities, while going largely unreported by the political press and unnoticed by the public at large. Some of the tax extenders, for example, had been renewed every two years since the 1980s.
The most likely explanation for the media’s sudden focus on what these bills contain is the internal rifts emerging within the two parties. When progressive Dems led a revolt against the White House on parts of the Cromnibus spending bill, that became hot news, just as it was news when Ted Cruz bucked his leadership by briefly holding up the bill in an attempt to add language limiting Obama’s immigration order.
As long as there are intra-party fights about the details of this kind of legislation, K Street won’t be able to operate outside of the public’s view.
With the GOP in control of the House and Senate, expect plenty of hearings in both chambers about a whole laundry list of Fox News-quality, White House “scandals,” especially any that can be linked to Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Like Benghazi.
In November, the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee released a report debunking all of the right’s conspiracy theories about the 2012 attacks on our consulate there, but days after the report’s release, John Boehner announced that he was reappointing members of a special select committee to investigate the non-controversy yet again, and a day later, The Hill reported that “Senate Republican leaders are under pressure from GOP lawmakers with presidential ambitions to join the House in investigating the 2012 Benghazi attack.”
With a limited ability to actually advance their policies, Congressional hearings offer lawmakers the ability to get facetime on TV, preen for their constituents and put their opposition to Obama — and Clinton — on display for their base and their funders.
9. The Issues
Immigration, the Keystone XL pipeline, new EPA regulations and Obama’s attempt to broker a deal with Iran will be among the most contentious issues in the coming years.
Republicans will continue their efforts to hobble the IRS and pare down the social safety net. According to Politico, the GOP is going to mount a full-court press against the Obama administration’s nutrition policies, including the school lunch standards Michelle Obama has championed.
There’s a remote possibility that the parties could come together to reform the tax code or pass legislation paving the way for trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But with both inter- and intra-party squabbles underway, and the heat of a presidential election, it’s doubtful.
The Affordable Care Act will continue to feature prominently in the political discourse, but the White House any efforts to undermine it will be greeted with a swift veto. More importantly, Republicans have been unable to coalesce around an alternative, and Obamacare has covered far too many people for their push for outright repeal to remain politically viable.
10. The Wildcard: King
Most legal analysts believe the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell – a case challenging Obamacare subsidies in states with federally-administered insurance exchanges – has no chance of succeeding. But that was also the conventional wisdom early on in the Hobby Lobby case, and it underestimated the activism of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority.
It’s difficult to predict the fallout if the Supreme Court were to strike down the subsidies – other than the fact that millions of people would likely be priced out of insurance coverage altogether. Would Congress, fearing a backlash from those who would lose insurance, scramble to fix the law? Will states scramble to establish their own exchanges?
A ruling is expected by June, and while it will likely affirm the status quo, it also has the potential to become a major political story for the next two years.
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