Why Congress Will Get Even Less Done in 2016
Policy + Politics

Why Congress Will Get Even Less Done in 2016

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Despite a burst of legislation from Congress in the last few months of 2015, several key issues were left unresolved ahead of what promises to be far less productive 2016 in Washington.

Lawmakers began a furious downhill slalom of work back in September, reaching deals with the Obama administration on a $1.1 trillion bill to fund the government through next September, a $650 billion package of tax cuts and a five-year highway measure. But they ignored some important problems, such as what to do about Puerto Rico’s dire financial situation.

Related: With Early Test Out of the Way, Paul Ryan Eyes 2016

The White House and lawmakers have already begun working to lower expectations for the coming year, citing the age-old obstacle to progress in the nation’s capital: politics.

“It's an election year, and obviously, a lot of the legislative process is going to be skewed by people looking over their shoulders, worrying about primaries, trying to position themselves relative to the presidential candidates,” President Obama said during his end-of-the-year press conference.

“So that makes it harder,” he added.

With the Senate very much in play next November, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says he intends to keep a sharp eye on the measures that come before the upper chamber and how they could play out politically in states where vulnerable GOP incumbents will be on the ballot, including Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

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While Republican control of the House isn’t in doubt, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has repeatedly said he hopes to use his gavel to shepherd legislation that sets up a contrast between the two parties.

"What we will probably try to do is, where we can get things done, where we can find common ground without compromising principles, get those things done,” Ryan told NBC’s Meet the Press earlier this month. "Make sure that government works. But we're going to have one heck of a contrast in 2016.”

One issue Ryan has already taken off the table for 2016 is comprehensive tax reform, something that has been dear to his heart for years. He and Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY), who is expected to be the next Democratic leader, have signaled they will wait for 2017, after Obama is out of office, before tackling the topic, though lawmakers might work on overseas corporate tax reform next year.

Election Day politics are also directly responsible for the second major hurdle in the Beltway in 2016: the congressional calendar.

Related: Why Congress Is Throwing in the Towel on Tax Reform

The House will be in session just 110 days next year, with a whopping 255 days off scheduled by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). That’s compared to 133 days in session in 2015 and 122 in 2014, with the midterm elections.

For example, the lower chamber is set to adjourn on July 15 and won’t return until Sept. 6, according to the calendar. The House will be in until Sept. 30 and adjourn until Nov. 14, after the election. The Senate has a similar calendar, breaking from July 18 to Sept. 5, though they plan to adjourn for the campaign trail on Oct. 7.

The political jockeying and resulting truncated calendar leaves little margin for error for lawmakers to take up and pass the 12 separate appropriations bills that will fund the federal government in 2017.

Both McConnell and Ryan have placed a premium on returning to “regular order” on the spending bills rather than cobbling together another trillion-dollar omnibus neither party is thrilled about and avoid talk of a government shutdown that typically rattles the country.

But any one of the spending bills could be tripped up by political issues, as they were this year by $80 billion in increased spending for the Defense Department and the use of taxpayer funds to display the Confederate flag on federal lands.

Aside from straightening out Puerto Rico’s books, Congress also could take up a measure to overhaul the country’s mental health system, something Republicans point to as a possible panacea to staunch the number of mass shootings in the U.S.

Democrats have offered support for the effort, but likely will continue to push for major gun control legislation, which they believe is the right solution to stemming the violence that killed nearly 460 people in 2015, according to Vox.

There might be room for compromise, however. Ryan has said he wants to work with Obama on revamping the country’s criminal justice system. Both sides could also work toward passage of the sprawling Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, though McConnell remains on the fence about the 12-nation agreement and has suggested it might have to wait until the lame-duck session of Congress after the election.

Of course, the entire legislative and political calendar could be upended by international events, as they were in November after the ISIS attacks in Paris that killed 130, or by unforeseen developments in the 2016 presidential race.

With only 13 months left in office, Obama shows no signs of backing off efforts to cement his White House legacy. In 2016 that could include closing the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay by executive fiat, and more possible actions on immigration and the environment.

The country should get a glimpse of what Obama has in mind when he delivers his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on January 12.

White House officials involved in crafting the address have promised that it will be “nontraditional.”