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A Government Relations Overview: What's Ahead for the Last Six Months of the Obama Administration?

- June 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 a president serving his last year in the White House. Given the notable lack of cooperation between the Obama Administration and the GOP Congress, it was fairly certain that little significant legislation could 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. However, this year none of the leading candidates for either Party nomination put forward a clear issues agenda in any normal sense of the word. Bernie Sanders offered a Socialist economy in which everything would be free with no clue as to how all the free stuff would be paid for; Secretary Clinton is running on her experience and as the eventual first female president; Donald Trump tells us to believe him that he will make America great again, just don’t ask him how.

All of the candidates, including those not among the last three standing, ran on hyperbolic descriptions of the ends they would achieve if elected, but none provided specificity as to the means by which they would achieve those ends. Nevertheless, despite the vacuum on issue specifics – or maybe because of it – the presidential campaign has clearly dominated the political agenda. Congress has garnered little attention this year to date, and that is to continue through the November elections.

That said, there is reason to pay attention to Congress.

In the Senate:

Continued partisanship, and the well-known frostiness of the relationship between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), have made the Senate a difficult place to manage. In February, the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia added a major new dimension to the problem. Leader McConnell – backed by an almost unanimous GOP Conference – announced that the Senate would not consider any Obama-named nominee to fill the Court vacancy; that this close to a Presidential election, the next President should be allowed to make the life-time appointment to the Court. And they called this the “Biden Rule” because then-Senator Joe Biden took exactly the same position during the final year of the Bush Administration.

The Democrats accused the GOP of obstructionism, demanding that McConnell at least allow a vote on a court nomination, even if the GOP refused to confirm the nominee. And there was immediate speculation that President Obama would again abuse his executive power and make a recess appointment to the Court (as he had to the National Labor Relations Board – appointments later ruled unconstitutional). The GOP Congress responded to that threat by making it clear that they would keep the Senate in session throughout the year to deny the President any opportunity to make a recess appointment.

In the days immediately after Justice Scalia’s death the rhetoric escalated, and threatened to completely bring Senate business to a halt. Then, surprisingly, President Obama said that he would nominate a candidate for the Court in due time, after proper vetting and consideration, thus calming the fear of a sudden recess appointment. And Senate Democrats turned their attention to making the GOP refusal to consider a nomination a political issue that they believed would help their candidates in the November elections.

So the Senate went back to work. They resumed consideration of a broad “Energy Policy Modernization Act” – a bill that the Democrats had previously blocked – and passed it with a broad bipartisan vote. And they passed a significant bill to reauthorize and reform operations of the Federal Aviation Administration. They have passed several of the regular appropriations bills and half a dozen more have been reported by the Committee and await Senate floor action.

Given the short legislative session this year, they will not be able to pass all the spending bills to avoid yet another end-of-fiscal-year “omnibus” bill, but their progress this year is significantly improved over previous years.

In the House:

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is a very different kind of Speaker from his predecessor, John Boehner (R-OH). He did not seek the powerful position last fall when Mr. Boehner stepped down; he was prevailed upon to accept the position out of a sense of duty. But Speaker he is, and he got very high marks from people on both sides of the aisle as he successfully navigated the troubled waters of the fractious GOP caucus at the end of last year, shepherding through the significant end-of-session bills with comfortable vote margins and little of the public displays of unrest that plagued Speaker Boehner’s last years in office.

However, his honeymoon was short-lived, and the infighting within the House GOP conference resumed almost immediately after the new Congress was sworn in last January, as the far-right Members were pushed to increase their opposition to Ryan by the conservative radio talk show hosts who so often incite discontent in the GOP.

Conservative commentators on the internet and conservative talk radio screamed that Ryan “Betrays America,” that he should be “regarded as a declared enemy of the Base,” and that he has sold the country down the river. 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 unfortunately many of those members returned quickly to their “all-or-nothing-at-all” demands that became their trademark in the last Congress.

Ignoring the vocal criticism from the GOP’s right-wing base outside the “Capital Beltway,” Speaker Ryan reached out to all factions of the GOP Conference, attempting to rally them around the cause of putting forth an issue agenda. Consistent with his track record as a conservative thinker and “policy wonk,” Ryan led a GOP Conference “retreat” to bring everyone together to discuss common broad policy objectives. He appointed issue task forces, again involving both committee leaders and Freedom Caucus intransigents, to develop specific issue agendas within those broad policy objectives.

Again he got high marks from his colleagues for his effort and initiative, and those House Task Forces are now reporting their policy recommendations. Given the upheaval in the Republican Party at the presidential nomination level, the Ryan effort has taken on a new intensity, as the House GOP attempts to develop an issue platform on which its candidates can run in the event the GOP presidential nominee chooses a different set of issue on which to focus.

It remains to be seen how successful the Task Force effort will be, and whether the new Speaker will succeed in convincing enough of 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. Continued GOP majority control of the House could well depend on the Speaker’s success.