Editorial December 12, 2014

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

Media has reported recently on two provisions in HR 83 that seemed to appear out of nowhere; one would increase the limits of campaign-related donations wealthy supporters could make, the other rolled back some of the provisions prohibiting certain investment strategies by banks said to be the same activities that caused the economic meltdown of 2008 and brought forth Dodd-Frank, the bill aiming to protect the economy from such risk-taking.

These matters will of course be on the table and with what appears to be reasonable arguments; supporters of the Dodd-Frank rollback, for example, claim the provision would protect industries that use swaps to hedge against price increases such as jet fuel. And that is not new, it was the aim of a bill recently passed in the House. The problem is that nobody will admit to putting those provisions in the bill (a process called ‘air dropping’) and, unfortunately, that is not new.

We go back to December 2004 when the Foreign Operations appropriations bill, HR 4818, became an omnibus for nine appropriation bills passed at the very end of the year. The bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush. Two weeks later the public was made aware of a provision in the bill that was not in the bill text when it passed. The provision was Sec 222 and this is what it said:

13     Sec. 222 Notwithstanding any other provision of law

14  governing the disclosure of income tax returns or return

15  information, upon written request of the Chairman of the

16  House or Senate Committee on Appropriations, the Com-

17  missioner of the Internal Revenue Service shall (hereafter)

18  allow agents designated by such Chairman access to Inter-

19  nal Revenue Service facilities and any tax returns or re-

20  turn information contained therein.

 (Copy made from Omnibus Appropriations, Division H, Title II, Sec. 222)

The provision starkly contradicted tax return privacy put in place after similar hi jinx by the Nixon Administration. Once discovered, it was removed by a concurrent resolution made into law. Of course, no one owned up to that air drop either.

Publisher’s Letter

Out with the Old, In with the Old

McElroy

McElroy

It’s that time of the year when the prevailing party in the mid-terms begins to lay out its plans to get the country back on track and the party that did not prevail develops its strategy to be effective.  A new day, a tide of change, a fresh start brought on by voters concerned with issues the previous majority did not address or did not address to the voter’s satisfaction.

There is always the promise, then, that the Parties will get along, the new Minority will receive its comeuppance and accordingly go along with the new Majority’s ideas of running the country, and there is most certainly always that opportunity but it’s not likely to happen if history tells us anything.

We look back at a 2009 TWIC editorial when the voters had moved Democrats into the Majority.

Here’s how it went;

Making Sausage

January 23, 2009

“Bill after bill defining the Democrat agenda was passed with relative ease in the House, but facing a minority-empowering legislative process and a fifty-fifty partisan split in the Senate, many were not even considered there.”

Referring to the influence of Members of Congress, lobbyist, and special interests on the content of bills, President Clinton once compared the legislative process to that of making sausage; a process you don’t want to watch. Indeed, crafting and passing a bill is sausage-making at its apex. Like sausage, the final product has its nutrition and its fat and sometimes other things that would irk you if you knew what they were or how they got into the product.

When the Majority forces too much of one ingredient into legislation it tends to make a product not palatable to those whose ingredients were left out. And that is where we have been since 1995 during which time the partisan divide became so distinct that American voters, over two elections, tipped the scales in the other direction.

When such a seismic shift occurs an interesting thing happens; the new minority shifts its identity to one of protecting Americans from the unrestrained will of the new majority even though American voters replaced the old majority with the new for that very reason.

The majority doesn’t always prevail, though, as the Democrats found out when they took control in the 110th Congress. Bill after bill defining the Democrat agenda was passed with relative ease in the House, but facing a minority-empowering legislative process and a fifty-fifty partisan split in the Senate, many were not even considered there. Those few that did make it through the Senate first faced more ingredients tampering from a White House armed with the threat of a presidential veto.

The 2008 elections changed that but partisan blocking of bills will continue, particularly in the Senate, and the political rhetoric of the Hill will tag those blocking the Majority’s legislation as obstructionists. Despite it being an accusation it is an accurate description because they do, in fact, obstruct passage of legislation. Whether minorities do it to gain political points in coming elections or sincerely believe the bills are not in the interest of the American people, they do it claiming that it is the will of their constituents, real people who elected them to support their views. It is a valid claim in a representative democracy.

As the meat grinder turns, the current Majority (Democrats) will push through numerous bills that didn’t get Senate attention in the 110th as well as others with constitutional significance in the wake of far too many liberties taken by the Bush administration. Once this unclogging of the legislative drain runs its course and Congress gets to work on appropriations, healthcare, education, foreign policy and a slew of economic initiatives there will be room for workable compromise.

Political gloating about a clear mandate with which to get things done is as common now (2009) as it was in 1995 and 2000 and while process dictates that the minority must bow to the all-powerful majority, the opinions and ideas of the minority, meaning those voters who sent Republicans to Congress, should be considered by the majority to see if it their ingredients improve the product. But that is not compromise; that is simple good governing.

The responsibility to compromise and be constructive lies with the current Minority to offer ideas and amendments that do more than assert an unyielding continuation of the politics that led to its defeat. Adding quality, appropriate ingredients to the legislative sausage will always makes for a better product. ##

The difference with this 114th Congress power shift is that Republicans now control both bodies and face resistance only from a presidential veto. Even that is familiar in recent history; President Clinton, in his second year found himself working with a Republican Capital Hill. The outcome was pretty good if moving the country to a budget surplus in six years was any indication. But Republicans had to work with a popular president through the last two years of his first term who could be and was reelected for a second four years. In 2015 the Republicans would be working with an unpopular president during the last two years of his second term. Republicans have a choice; try to muster enough votes to override presidential vetoes and push their agenda without compromise (which they think is good for the country), or include provisions palatable to the Democrats and the President (which, in the past, has shown to be good for the country.)

Hamilton on Congress

What Lies Ahead

“…divided government does not have to be dysfunctional.”

By Lee H. Hamilton

Hamilton

Hamilton

Given all the words and images devoted to the midterm elections over the past few weeks, you’d think the results had told us something vital about the future of the country. In reality, they were just a curtain-raiser. It’s the next few weeks and months that really matter.

The big question, as the old Congress reconvenes and prepares to make way for next year’s version, is whether the two parties will work more closely together to move the country forward or instead lapse back into confrontation and deadlock. I suspect the answer will be a mix: modest progress on a few issues, but no major reforms.
Overall, the deep frustration Americans feel toward Washington will likely continue. Especially since, despite the urgent problems confronting us, the House leadership has announced an astoundingly relaxed 2015 agenda that includes not a single five-day work week, 18 weeks with no votes scheduled, and just one full month in session: January.
Still, there is hope for at least a modicum of progress. The President wants to enhance his legacy. More politicians these days seem to prefer governing to posturing. The Republican Party may have won big in the elections, but it still cannot govern alone: it will need Democratic votes in the Senate and the cooperation of the President. And both parties want to demonstrate that they recognize they’re responsible for governing.
Congress faces plenty of issues that need addressing, which means that skillful legislators who want to show progress have an extensive menu from which to choose. Trade, health care, terrorism, responsible budgeting, rules on greenhouse gas emissions… All of these are amenable to incremental progress.
Which is not to say that progress is inevitable. President Obama acted to halt deportations of millions of illegal immigrants, though he did so without Congress. His action could unleash unpredictable consequences. Meanwhile, the new Republican Senate is almost certain to give the President’s nominees a hard time; while GOP senators are unlikely to want to appear too tough on Loretta Lynch, the nominee for attorney general, the gloves will almost certainly come off for nominees who must negotiate hearings after her.
Yet indications of what next year may be like have already begun to emerge. Bills with a relatively narrow focus that enjoy bipartisan support — boosting agricultural development aid overseas, funding research into traumatic brain injuries, giving parents with disabled children a tax break on savings for long-term expenses — either have passed the “lame-duck” Congress or stand a good chance of doing so.
In the end, 2015 will see a mix of small steps forward and backward. There’s little chance of a minimum wage increase and it’s unlikely the budget will be passed in an orderly and traditional manner. Similarly, significant and difficult issues like major entitlement and tax reform will prove hard to budge, and comprehensive immigration reform is a near impossibility. There will be no knockdown punch on Obamacare, but we’ll see plenty of efforts to chip away at it.
On the other hand, Congress can probably manage to avoid a government shutdown, and it faces decent prospects of expanding and protecting our energy boom, promoting fast-track trade authority, and funding key infrastructure needs. Defense spending will not be further reduced.
The parties on Capitol Hill are highly suspicious of one another. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the right things about wanting more openness, a more traditional process, and more ability on the minority’s part to offer amendments, but he’ll be under great pressure from members of his caucus to make life hard for Democrats. Similarly, Democrats in the Senate, still fuming over what they view as obstructionism from the Republicans over the last several years, will face pressure to make life as hard as possible for the new majority.
Yet here’s the basic truth: divided government does not have to be dysfunctional. It can be made to work, and if incremental progress on small issues is the way to get started, then let’s hope Congress and the President pursue that course.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.