October 4, 2010
Lawmakers slipped out of town in the wee hours last week with little to show for the past month of contentious partisanship except a monster stopgap spending bill to keep the government going, and a long list of unfinished business awaiting them after the Nov. 2 election.
With so much riding on the midterms -- control of the House and possibly the Senate --the ruling Democrats put off a tricky vote on whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts to all Americans or just the middle class until after the election, for fear of worsening their already tenuous political standing.
Republicans have made a miraculous recovery from the ruinous 2008 election by opposing virtually every major initiative of the Obama administration.
Republicans have made a miraculous recovery from the ruinous 2008 election by opposing virtually every major initiative of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress -- and they have the Democrats on the defensive in the final month of the election campaign. There is little to suggest Republicans will be any more willing to be accommodating to President Obama and the Democrats after the election, when they will have either diminished the Democrats' majorities in the House and Senate or won control of the House. A more likely scenario, some lawmakers and policy experts believe, is that Washington is headed into a political deep freeze -- months or years of legislative gridlock, until the 2012 presidential election is resolved.
"Looking out after the election, I'm afraid I'm more pessimistic than I am before the election, because the incentives that are going to face members of Congress will be no different," Robert Reischauer, president of the Urban Institute and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, told a Fiscal Times forum on Friday. "Will [Republicans] have an incentive to compromise with the president and in a sense build a record of positive accomplishment for the president for his reelection effort? I have a hard time seeing that."
David Axelrod, the president's political adviser, said Thursday he is concerned in light of the Republicans' unyielding opposition and the growing political influence of corporate interests funneling money to the GOP. Asked during a forum at the Newseum sponsored by The Atlantic whether the administration could get along with a new Republican majority in the House, Axelrod replied: "What I know is this, that for the past 20 months we have seen a Republican Party that made a decision that they were going to sit on the sidelines and let us wrestle with the problems that they had a lot to do with creating. It has made it a lot more difficult to confront those problems."
"My hope is that moving forward, no matter what happens in November, we will see a new spirit of cooperation," he added.
Early Exit, Late Passage
The House vote to adjourn until after the election -- and thus skip a vote on tax cuts -- was decided by one vote, as dozens of Democrats voiced their support for a vote.
While both parties have a long list of pending pet projects to negotiate in a post-election lame duck session, leaders are setting a low bar for what must get done. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the number two Senate Democrat, listed just three items: extending the expiring tax cuts; enacting a giant spending bill to fund government for the next fiscal year; and ratifying the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
"It is conceivable that returning [Republican] senators will say, well . . . let's wait until January, until we have more forces," Durbin said. "And if that's the case, it would argue against any progress in the lame duck."
Also set to expire soon after Congress returns: a hiring tax break for businesses, an extension of unemployment benefits, and another postponement of scheduled cuts in Medicare payments to doctors, all of which were subject to partisan fights this year.
In the next session, things don't look much clearer. While Republicans have laid out plans to overhaul the budget and appropriations processes, change Medicare's structure and "repeal" the new health care law, they would still face a closely split Congress and a Democrat in the White House if they took control. "It requires, normally, bipartisan support and bicameral support, and then the president's signature," noted California GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, who is in line to take over the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform if Republicans take the House. "And that's a lot of good places for legislation to slow or stop."
Obama recently told Rolling Stone that energy legislation is a top priority for next year, but Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a leader on the issue, was far more measured about its chances. Obama's budget office also lacks a director, as Jacob (Jack) Lew awaits Senate confirmation.
The last-minute vote on a stopgap bill to keep the government running until Dec. 3 shows the degree to which the annual spending process is broken. Neither chamber passed a budget blueprint for the year. None of the 12 annual spending bills has been enacted for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The House has passed only two spending bills and the Senate none. Bizarrely, Republicans started voting against bills they helped to draft.
That has also meant that the details of Obama's budget plan, released in February, haven't been operative on the Hill all year. Only a small handful of his initiatives have survived the grueling legislative process. Boosts for education programs like Pell grants, enhancing community colleges and his "Race to the Top" plan languished, as did some proposals to cut small business taxes and raise those on companies that move jobs overseas.
Not surprisingly, the parties blame each other for the breakdown. "You can't operate a $3 trillion government unless you have a budget and do the appropriations bills," said retiring Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. "The reason they don't like to do them is, one, the spending issues, but two, they don't like the amendment process. They don't like to have their members have to cast difficult votes."
Democrats say it's Republican obstruction that's made the process unmanageable. "The inability to get cooperation at the top level made it very difficult," said Rep. Norm Dicks of Washington, who will be the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee next year. "Everybody wanted to offer a zillion amendments when you brought a bill to the floor and that just made it impossible."
Minnesota Democratic Rep. James L. Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block many initiatives and then turned around and blamed Democrats for accomplishing little. "It's like the guy who kills his father and mother and then appeals to the court for mercy because he's an orphan," he said.
But some Democrats voice optimism that the two parties will be able to find common ground on some important fiscal issues after the election. "It's an initiative that is going to be surrounded by an awful lot of demagoguery, but I think with adroit leadership by the president and just a few people on the Republican side willing to take the deficit seriously and speak up, I think there becomes room to maneuver," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. "So I remain cautiously optimistic that something significant can be done."
Obama Won a Few Big Ones
To be sure, Obama scored some major and historic accomplishments during his first two years, including the health care and financial regulation laws, as well as smaller priorities like eliminating costly middlemen on college loans, and enacting pay-as-you-go budgeting rules and small business tax cuts.
And some in both parties say there is hope for cooperation. "I see a good opportunity with a Republican majority in the House and the Senate for bipartisan effort here with the president along the lines of what happened in the second term of Bill Clinton, where you basically got a balanced budget and welfare reform," said Gregg.
"One of the factors that I believe works to reformers' advantage is that if the ratios are close next year between Democrats and Republicans, both sides are going to have to face voters in 2012 with accomplishments," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., author of a broad tax reform plan. "It's not possible to just say it's the other guy's fault."
One venue for change could be the president's bipartisan fiscal commission, which may present politically difficult recommendations for addressing the long-term deficit problems and putting Social Security and Medicare on a sounder financial footing. Leaders in both parties have put stock in the panel, which is scheduled to report on Dec. 1, and have committed to voting on their recommendations.
But the next two years are already lining up as dog-fighting, not legislating. "It may be a little bit rowdier with 15 or 18 new Republican senators, but it's the kind of rowdiness I look forward to," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.