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A Government Relations Overview: A Report Card on Washington at the End of its First Quarter Under the New GOP Congress

- April 2015

As the Republican-led House of Representatives and the now-GOP led Senate were sworn in last January, many pundits predicted, and some in the GOP promised, that a new day had dawned in Washington. Congress was no longer going to be mired in endless partisan squabbles and gridlock, and, finally, Washington was going to get back to work.

So, the first quarter of the year is behind us. And is Washington back to work?

The answer is…yes and no.

First, it warrants noting that, while there were lots of promises that the new GOP Congress would break the gridlock, those promises were not often made by House Speaker John Boehner or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Speaker would still face opposition from the determined “no-compromise” conservatives in his caucus willing to deny him the majority vote necessary to pass legislation; the Senate GOP majority would have to overcome a 60-vote threshold to pass anything the Democrat minority was determined to block. And breaking the gridlock in Washington would require the cooperation and participation of the Obama White House.

All three of those hurdles have proven very difficult to overcome in the first few months of the year.

First, the President has generally been unwilling to work with the GOP Congress:

When Democratic President Bill Clinton faced a newly-elected GOP majority in Congress after the 1994 mid-term elections, he chose to work with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Congressional Republicans, and that cooperation produced a balanced Federal budget and significant welfare reform.

Unfortunately, President Obama took the opposite approach. In his press conference the morning after the 2014 midterm election that cost his party additional seats in the House and control of the Senate, the President famously blamed his party’s loss on the voters who did not go to the polls. And he repeatedly refused to accept any responsibility for the election outcome, despite the fact that the unpopularity of his policies was widely credited for significant GOP gains in the House, Senate, state legislatures and governorships – including the defeat of 5 incumbent Democrat Senators whose support of President Obama was the key issue in their campaigns.

While the president said in that press conference that he would work with the GOP Congress, his actions following the election told a different story. Most notably, just two weeks after the election the President issued an executive order providing temporary legal status to and delaying deportation of millions of illegal aliens, ignoring pointed and specific pleas from Speaker Boehner that he not do so. Congressional Republicans were enraged, and promised both legislative and legal action in response.

While the immigration executive action was the most blatant, it was only the last in a long series, and the elections clearly did not persuade the President to consider a more cooperative approach. Beginning with recess appointments early in his Administration – appointments which were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in a case in which NAW participated through our Coalition partners – the unilateral executive actions have been numerous and continuous.

The President and his agencies and departments have taken executive actions to impose workplace regulations regarding discrimination and affirmative action, wages and salaries, and numerous labor law provisions; to impose more stringent environmental regulations; to remove public lands from energy production; to delay implementation of clearly-written provisions of Obamacare; to make environmental deals with China and extend diplomatic relations to Cuba; to pressure the Federal Communications to treat broadband service providers as regulated utilities; to change Federal policy on education, on retirement plans . . . the list goes on.

On December 17th, USA Today published a report on an analysis they had done of presidential executive actions, in which they stated that “Obama is on track to take more high-level executive actions than any president since Harry Truman battled the ‘Do Nothing Congress’ almost seven decades ago.”

Most recently, the Administration’s negotiation of a deal with Iran to lift economic sanctions in trade for Iran curtailing its nuclear program has brought the issue of the President’s abuse of power back to center stage. Many in Congress and a number of academics have argued that the President’s agreement with Iran is tantamount to a treaty and therefore must be submitted to the Senate for approval. In addition and at a minimum, they argued that the US sanctions against Iran were imposed by Congress and could not be lifted without Congressional approval.

Despite the President’s strong opposition to it, bi-partisan support for legislation giving Congress a voice in the Iran deal continued to grow. Faced with a clear veto-proof majority in Congress in support of the legislation, the President reversed his position in what one news story described as a “rare and reluctant agreement between the president and the Republican-led Congress.” The President’s reversal was so sudden that Secretary of State John Kerry was still lobbying Democrat senators to oppose the legislation just hours before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously to support it and the White House announced that President Obama would sign it. Clearly, absent a veto-proof majority in Congress and strong Democratic opposition to him, the President would have ignored the demands from Congress that – at a minimum – their right to a voice on lifting the sanctions be recognized.

As we enter the second quarter of the year, there is no indication that the Administration is considering trading executive action for legislative cooperation. When President Obama delivered his State of the Union address on January 20th, he had already issued veto threats on 7 pieces of legislation – including legislation that had not yet been written. In an interview on CBS This Morning the morning after that speech, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said, “If the president wants to work with us – we’ve only been here two-and-a-half weeks and he’s put seven veto threats – I think that’s probably not the best start. Let us work the legislation before you decide something’s going to be vetoed.”

As of March 31st, President Obama had vetoed two bills, and issued veto threats on 17 additional pieces of legislation.

Is the House a more manageable place for Speaker Boehner this year?

Well, yes and no.

In the last Congress, the coalition of no-compromise conservative House members was strong enough to repeatedly deny Speaker Boehner the majority vote he needed to pass legislation. This self-inflicted chaos in their own caucus proved damaging to the GOP on the numerous occasions – the debt limit debate, the Speaker’s effort to reduce the automatic tax increases that were part of the “fiscal cliff” debate, the government shut-down, etc. Repeatedly, the no-compromise conservatives forced the Speaker to find votes on the Democrat side to enact must-pass items like the debt limit extension and government funding bills, giving the Democrat minority leverage and resulting in more liberal policies than would have resulted if the GOP had been united.

The Speaker’s prospects for leading a unified conference – or for at least being able to find the 218 votes necessary to pass legislation without going begging to Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for help – looked much better in the new Congress. House Republicans picked up more than a dozen seats in the 2014 mid-term elections, increasing their majority to 247 seats, giving the GOP the largest Congressional majority it has had in 85 years. With his increased majority, the Speaker can now lose 29 of his own members and still have a majority to pass legislation. That comfortable margin would seem to have ensured him the ability to set the House agenda and pass whatever GOP bills he wants.

Unfortunately, the year did not begin well for Speaker Boehner. On the opening day of the new Congress, 25 GOP House members voted against Boehner in his bid for re-election – the largest number of votes cast against an incumbent Speaker in the last century.

The fight over funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) further demonstrated that Boehner will continue to have trouble herding the House cats. House conservatives defeated the funding bill because it did not include language defunding Obama’s immigration executive action, and they were willing to shut down the federal agency in charge of our anti-terrorism and national security functions to get their way. The House then passed a bill with the immigration language the conservatives demanded. The House-passed bill was sent to the Senate, where it was successfully filibustered by the Democrats. With the Senate unwilling to pass the funding bill with the House immigration language, a shutdown of DHS was imminent, and Speaker Boehner had to again ask for help from Democrats to finally pass a clean funding bill and avoid a political disaster for the GOP.

So the unity of the House GOP conference – or at least a united 218 GOP votes necessary to pass bills without Democrat support – remains elusive.

Has Senator McConnell delivered on his promise of a return to “regular order” in the Senate?

So far, yes he has.

Under former Majority Leader Harry Reid’s rule, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” became his personal fiefdom in which the rights of all 99 of his colleagues to participate in the legislative process were consistently abrogated. Reid strictly controlled the Senate floor, preventing any of his colleagues from offering amendments or getting votes on any policy issues. Senators of both political parties chafed under Reid’s autocratic rule, none more than now-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Majority Leader McConnell promised to open the Senate back up to debate, to allow amendments to be offered on the Senate floor, to welcome the recorded votes that Reid improperly denied. He has also said the Senate would discharge its statutory responsibilities to consider a budget resolution and pass individual appropriations bills rather than again wrapping up all of the spending bills into a single Continuing Resolution or Omnibus bill.

So far, he had delivered on those promises. In fact, there were more votes on a single day on amendments to the Keystone Pipeline bill than Reid allowed in the entire previous year.

The Senate has passed a Budget, they are committed to producing a Budget Conference Report – for the first time since 2009 – and McConnell promises they will consider separate appropriations bills. These don’t sound like much – they are in fact simply discharging their statutory obligations. But Harry Reid’s Senate did NONE of these things. In other words, McConnell is trying to return the Senate to a legislative body – to restore “regular order.”

But they still need 60 votes to pass bills that the Democrat minority wants to block. Senator McConnell has said he is willing to work with the House majority, the Senate minority, and the White House… that he wants both the Senate and Washington to work again. Whether Senator McConnell will succeed with his ambitious and welcome plan will depend on more than his own strategic planning and legislative skills, both of which are unmatched in the Senate today.

First, he will need some cooperation from the no-compromise conservatives in his own conference. That small group of senators, led by controversial Texas Senator Ted Cruz, has been as willing as their colleagues in the House to obstruct rather than legislate.

And he will need at least 9 Democrat senators to walk across the aisle and work with the GOP majority. They did so on Keystone, and even more did so on the Iraq resolution. But it remains to be seen how often bipartisan agreements will be reached.

Finally, Democrat Leader Harry Reid recently announced that he would not seek re-election next year. (He is still recovering from a serious injury he sustained in January when an elastic exercise band he was using either slipped or broke and he was thrown against a cabinet; he remains blind in his right eye as a result of the accident.) Within days of Reid’s announcement, New York Senator Chuck Schumer had locked up the votes necessary to be elected Democrat Leader after the 2016 election. Senator Schumer is unlike Senator Reid in both style and demeanor and, while Reid will remain Minority Leader for the rest of this Congress, it’s too early to tell if Senator Schumer will assume s greater leadership role.

[See separate staff report “A Look at the Legislative Landscape For 2015” for information on subsequently-passed bi-partisan legislation]