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A Government Relations Overview: A Look Ahead at 2016 Can the GOP-Controlled Congress Govern?

- January 2016

Traditionally, very little happens in Congress during an election year, with members of Congress needing to spend more time in their home states and districts campaigning. And even less happens during a presidential election year, especially with president serving his last year in the White House. Given the notable lack of cooperation between the Obama Administration and the GOP Congress, it is fairly certain that little significant legislation can be expected this year.

Moreover, presidential election campaigns always dominate the political dialogue, and historically both the minority and the majority in Congress defer to the issue agendas of their respective nominees. Since the presidential nominating primaries – especially the phenomena of Donald Trump – were already the dominant political story through much of 2015, it’s not likely that the Congress will garner much attention in 2016.

That said, there are some things to watch for in the coming year.

In the Senate:

Harry Reid is retiring from the Senate and this will be his last year as Democrat Leader. Within days of Reid’s retirement announcement last year, 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 style and demeanor and, while Reid will remain Minority Leader for the rest of this year, Senator Schumer will likely assume a greater leadership role. While he is viewed as a staunch liberal – which his voting record confirms – Senator Schumer is also viewed as a “dealer.” Some GOP members have described him as “someone we can do business with.” And as the New York Times pointed out in a January 2nd story, Senator Schumer took issue with his own Party’s agenda when he “questioned the political wisdom, for Democrats, of having pursued a national health care law in the midst of an economic recession,” and “has maintained a working and even warm relationship with some conservative-leaning elites, including political donors on Wall Street and . . . with Republicans like Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Speaker of the House.”

Since it is often reported that Senators McConnell and Reid have a “frosty” relationship, Senator Schumer taking the reins in the Democrat caucus could bring détente to the Senate. Whether this year brings that détente will depend in large measure on whether the unavoidable partisanship of the presidential campaign will spill over into the Senate and make cooperation as elusive this year as it has been under Harry Reid’s leadership. We will be watching closely.

In the House:

Speaker Ryan successfully navigated the troubled waters of the fractious GOP caucus at the end of last year, shepherding through the final bills with comfortable vote margins and little of the public displays of unrest that plagued Speaker Boehner’s last years in office. However, it remains to be seen if he can maintain peace in his conference.

Paul Ryan is a very different kind of Speaker. Not only did he not seek the powerful position, he stated unequivocally after Mr. Boehner’s announcement that he would not run for the job. He was widely seen as only reluctantly being prevailed upon to change that decision out of a sense of duty, not personal ambition – and only then after a week of soul-searching at home in Wisconsin with his wife and children. Speaker Ryan is a “policy wonk” and would probably have preferred to remain Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee where he could pursue his long-fought-for goal of enacting comprehensive tax reform. But Speaker he is, and he got very high marks from people on both sides of the aisle as he moved through the big year-end bills in November and December.

But the praise of his handling of the job was not universal, and the trouble forewarned by the 45 GOP votes against his candidacy for Speaker in the GOP caucus vote last year manifested itself very quickly. Although many conservative members of the House voted against the final spending bill, they otherwise remained quiet, acknowledging that most of the content of the bill had been negotiated before Ryan became Speaker. But the conservative radio talk show hosts that so often incite discontent in the GOP were not so quiet – or rational. As “The Hill” reported in December: “Outside the Beltway, the right is livid with new Speaker Paul Ryan’s trillion-dollar spending deal with Democrats.”

And their criticisms of Ryan were intense and vitriolic. Conservative commentators on Breitbart.com screamed that Ryan “Betrays America.” Notable right-wing author Ann Coulter called for a primary challenge to Ryan in Wisconsin. Radio talk show hosts Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh said, respectively, that Ryan should be “regarded as a declared enemy of the Base,” that he is “already a disaster,” and that he has sold the country down the river. Most ridiculously, conservative Twitter activists focused their vitriol on Ryan’s newly-grown beard, calling it a “Muslim Beard” and accusing him of advancing the cause of radical Islam – seriously. You can’t make this stuff up…..

These irrational critics obviously do not vote in the House, but they do have the ear of the Freedom Caucus members of the House who do, and it is not clear whether those members will continue to work with the Speaker – to be part of the governing process – or return to the “all-or-nothing-at-all” demands that became their trademark in the last Congress.

A story in The Hill in December quoted one Freedom Caucus leader saying that “Everyone gave Ryan a mulligan … but he will not get any more mulligan[s].” And a New Yorker story on December 15th quotes Freedom Caucus leader Raul Labrador (R-ID) issuing a warning to the new Speaker: “Paul needs to realize the honeymoon is over and start bringing us some conservative policy. . . The final exam for Paul Ryan will be in January, 2017, when there is a Speaker election, and we will look at his body of work and determine whether he gets a passing grade or not.”

Speaker Ryan so far does not seem inclined to respond to his conservative critics. In an interview on Meet the Press on December 20th, the Speaker defended the final spending compromise legislation that had caused the conservative criticism, telling host Chuck Todd: “This spending bill, we thought we got some very good victories. . . But let me first say, this is divided government. And in divided government you don’t get everything you want. So we fought for as much as we could get.”

Moreover, in the same Meet the Press interview, he clearly stated that he would not be pressured by the outside conservative critics. “None of this stuff gets to me. Look, I think results are what matters. We made good on our promises. We advanced good legislation.” When Todd asked if the Speaker thought the conservative rhetoric was out of line, Ryan said: “I don’t really pay attention to it. . . . My members know I am a movement conservative . . . with an eye on the prize, which is actually achieving success. . . If we just do nothing, if we just become an opposition party only, then we will not give the people of this country the choice they deserve, and that’s why I know we are going to go on offense in 2016 and I am looking forward to doing that.”

It is too early to know if the new Speaker will succeed in convincing the Freedom Caucus conservatives that being just an opposition party is a recipe for failure – on both policy and political battlefields – but he has certainly begun to make his case for governance instead of gridlock.