Laura Blessing | December 6, 2018
Another election cycle has washed over our nation’s capital. As outgoing members clear out their desks and incoming members eye their new offices, Congress gets ready for the next phase. It’s time to adjust to the aftermath of the election results, their ongoing appropriations work, other lame duck session policy attempts, a budget process reform attempt, and the battle for congressional leadership in the 116th Congress.
The 2018 midterm elections saw a high number of members voluntarily retiring and an unusually large incoming class. While there is no official definition of a wave election, most analysts have assessed this cycle as such. Of course, it is typical for the President’s party to lose seats in Congress in midterm elections—President Obama’s first midterm saw House Republicans gain 63 seats and regain control of the chamber. Meanwhile, the Senate results followed a different pattern this year, resulting in gains for the President’s party. The Senate map was not auspicious for Democrats— they had to defend 26 of the 35 seats up for election, 10 of them in states that had voted for President Trump in 2016.
These election outcomes will create divided government, with the expected results for governance come January: more oversight and less legislating. But until then, Congress has a few tasks for the lame duck session. First and foremost is funding the federal government. Our current appropriations cycle, given that five appropriations bills were passed in “minibus” form, has been more successful than in most recent years. But while some of the major appropriations bills (Defense and Labor-HHS in particular) have been completed, seven remain. The Continuing Resolution (CR) those seven are currently functioning under expires this Friday, December 7. As of this writing, the House and Senate were expected on Thursday to quickly pass an extension of funding to December 21, a new deadline surely to test the power of getting home for the holidays as a deal-making motivator.
Aside from appropriations, prospects for other legislative action are dimmer. An attempt to have a tax bill that included various tax extenders, as well as technical corrections to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, disaster aid, and more was pulled late last week, though certain provisions, particularly some tax expenditures, may yet pass. That is not to say that no other major legislation will pass; the farm bill is in the home stretch after weeks of negotiating chamber differences, with a conference report expected next week.
The lame duck session has also seen the failure of Congress’ latest attempt at budget process reform. Many were skeptical of this attempt from the start. The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, tasked with crafting legislative language for improving the appropriations process by November 30, has not succeeded in even reporting out its own recommendations, which involved a biennial schedule for budget resolutions.
Finally, the battle for party leadership positions that came out with a bang has ended with a whimper, with no challengers of significance to Nancy Pelosi’s anticipated Speakership or Kevin McCarthy’s position as Minority Leader. Still, Democratic factions look likely to constrain Pelosi’s rule once in power. Any Speaker in divided government would be constrained, however—the ambitious HR 1 legislative proposal the House Democrats are already advertising for the next Congress has no chance of passage with a Republican Senate and White House.
The political winds have shifted again, and many developments outside Congress may continue to shake up the first branch of government. Major policy change and reform may be elusive, but political developments and the news cycle look unlikely to slow down.