The new legislative session convened on Jan. 3 and lawmakers are already making headlines for voting—then reversing the decision—to weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics.
We asked assistant professor of political science Nicholas Beauchamp, an expert in U.S. politics, what else we might expect from Congress in what has become a truly unique moment in the nation’s political history.
Under Republican leadership, can we expect smoother governance than what we’ve seen the past eight years?
Among the first things a new Congress does at the start of every session is adopt the rules that will govern themselves for the next two years. If this year’s events in the House are any indication, the House will be riven by the same sorts of intra-party conflicts we’ve seen over the past six years, where the tea party wing clashes with the more moderate Republican leadership. This time, the day before the rules were to be adopted, the Republican caucus voted to significantly weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics, only to be met with a hailstorm of protest from across the political spectrum; the next day, facing the possibility that some Republicans might vote against the change, the Republican caucus switched gears and removed that rule change. But though dramatic, the underlying pattern is much the same as we have seen over the past few years, where moderate Republicans threaten to side with Democrats against extremist policies and the speaker is caught in the middle.
That said, Democrats shouldn’t hold out too much hope that this dynamic will rescue them as it has in the past. With a hold on the House, Senate, presidency, and soon the Supreme Court, Republicans are well positioned to pass a series of conservative bills that unite the far- and center-right factions. Democrats can hope for a few veto points to slow this process: first, the threat of revolt by centrist House Republicans; second, the filibuster and centrist Republicans in the Senate; third, Trump’s erratic bouts of centrist populism; and finally, a Supreme Court whose more conservative members (such as Justice John G. Roberts) may nevertheless balk at more extreme measures. But each of these is a slender reed, relying mainly on Republicans who are receiving large amounts of pressure from the ever-stronger conservative wing of their party.
What should we keep an eye out for during this session? Any specific legislation? Party tensions? Personality clashes?
The first true test of this new dynamic, of course, is the “repeal” of the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare.” In this, House and Senate Republicans have already acted with unusual efficiency: Senate Republicans have taken the lead, passing a blueprint for a joint House-Senate committee with a goal to report back in late-January and have finished legislation by late-February. The blueprint also provides guidance for which aspects of “Obamacare” can be repealed through the reconciliation process, which requires a simple majority in the Senate rather than the usual 60 percent. Reconciliation applies only to budgetary matters (as opposed to new laws), but since much of “Obamacare” is budgetary, much can be changed with only 50 Senate Republicans (e.g., the Medicaid expansion, the mandate, insurance subsidies, taxes, etc.). Replacing these cuts will be significantly harder, but Republicans appear likely to both delay the effective date of repeal and indefinitely delay attempting to pass any replacement, so the effects of these cuts will be muted at first, perhaps up to or beyond the 2020 election.
Further ahead, the Senate faces a series of Cabinet confirmations, and Congress must raise the debt ceiling by mid-March and pass a budget by late-April. Most Cabinet confirmations are expected to pass without much trouble, since such confirmations now need only a bare majority to pass. The debt ceiling and budget may be more contentious, though, since these have the potential to split the Republican Party, especially on the debt ceiling. But with a little party discipline and the appropriate promises of sweeteners in the form of upcoming budget cuts and-or increases in the military budget, the Republican leadership should manage to dodge this issue with so much else to look forward to. We should also expect a series of higher-profile votes, possibly on issues like trade or abortion, as well as continued discussion of whether Republicans will attempt to revamp Medicare, a long-time ambition not just of the far right, but of Speaker Paul Ryan and a number of Trump’s Cabinet and staff picks.
How do you expect congressional Democrats will react to such proposals? What sorts of political tactics can we expect from the minority party?
As for what Democrats can actually do apart from prepare for 2018 and build public support, we may see increasing amounts of more unusual methods of resistance, which have already begun: the NAACP sit-in at Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Session’s office in Alabama; legislative sit-ins that the House just voted to fine the broadcast of; various marches on Washington; etc. The chances of such maneuvers successfully blocking majority-backed legislation are slim, but may lay the groundwork for the 2018 elections, which should favor Democrats as the out-of-power party, even though Democrats often underperform in midterm elections and face a challenging set of Senate contests.