Congress in 2018: What’s left?
Josh Huder | March 5, 2018
Last month Congress struck a two-year deal that greases the budget wheels to the tune of an extra $320 billion. While political posturing and two brief government shutdowns hampered bipartisan negotiations, congressional leaders in the House and Senate ultimately settled on a budget that outlines discretionary spending, lifts the Budget Control Act’s(aka sequestration) caps for defense and nondefense spending in FY2018 and FY2019, and suspends the debt ceiling until March 2019.
The budget deal is an important marker for another reason: it is among the last significant bipartisan efforts you should expect to see from Congress until after the midterm elections. Entering 2018, there were several must-pass policies clamoring for Congress’s attention: looming budget caps, the debt ceiling, a continuing funding resolution (CR) for FY2018, reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and a fix for immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Against this backdrop, the White House continued to float infrastructure funding as its next big legislative priority.
Now, though, virtually everything on that list has been addressed in one form or another. In addition to the aforementioned budget deal that raised the BCA caps and suspended the debt ceiling, CHIP was reauthorized in the CR that reopened the government after the January shutdown (and extended even further in the February CR). The Supreme Court has effectively stalled the President’s effort to suspend the DACA program. Finally (and unsurprisingly), Majority Whip Cornyn has confirmed that action on an infrastructure plan is not likely. In short, the only remaining legislative priority is the 12-bill appropriations omnibus to fund the government for the remainder of FY2018. Once that passes, there will be scant policy deadlines forcing the two parties to come together.
With mid-term elections looming, there is neither catalyst nor appetite for big-ticket bipartisan deals. Primaries are already underway, and with each passing week, the eyes of incumbents and their leadership will begin to focus on November of 2018 to the exclusion of much else. In other words, the remainder of the 2018 legislative calendar will be driven by campaign and messaging concerns. Governing will take a back seat to retaining (or reclaiming) the majority.
How the Republican majority interprets its chances in 2018 will drive the agenda it pursues in Congress. Based on historical precedents, Republicans face a difficult task. Midterm elections are typically bad for the party that controls the presidency. Since the Civil War, presidents’ parties have only picked up seats three times in the House and six times in the Senate. The average midterm loss for the president’s party is north of thirty-three seats in the House and five seats in the Senate.
Most recent elections bear this out. Under Obama, Democrats lost in a landslide in 2010, giving up sixty-three House seats. In 2014, Democrats lost nine Senate seats and the majority in a rout. Republicans face the same fundamentals as previous majorities. Therefore, they will focus on policies and votes that protect their moderates while also solidifying and energizing their base.
The casualty in this calculus will be policy-making and governing. Partisan bills aimed at campaign messaging have little chance of passing the closely divided Senate, but the House is likely to grant them significant floor time. Meanwhile, with passage of the two-year budget deal, Republicans appear to have abandoned the budget process this year, which means that any reconciliation bill is off the table for the remainder of the 115th Congress. Reconciliation bills avoid the filibuster in the Senate, so not having this tool means that big-ticket policy items that could pass with 51 but not 60 votes are also cast aside. Put simply, both chambers have pressing political and electoral priorities, which means their legislative calendars will be largely devoted to partisan messaging vehicles with the potential to rally the troops, but with little to no chance of actually becoming law.
This is not to say that nothing will pass. What will become law between now and the end of the year is a small collection of must-pass legislation and less-significant policy changes. Outstanding reauthorizations like the National Defense Authorization Act and the Farm Bill will take up significant time, as will the omnibus spending bill for FY2019. However, most of these bills will likely be pushed back until after the election. Other policy changes with broad bipartisan support are also possible, including tweaks to financial reforms, health insurance, and energy policy. These “smaller” changes can have a significant impact on federal agencies and operations but will fail to grab newspaper headlines.
With big-ticket negotiations off the table Congress’s silly season begins to rear its head. Campaigning and partisanship will be on the rise over the next several months, which means governing will increasingly take a back seat to other political priorities.