Washington Update: A Review of 2015 and a Preview of 2016

At the beginning of 2015, for the first time in a decade, Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress. For the past several years, Sen. Harry Reid and the Democratic majority in the Senate had essentially blocked all substantive legislative activity, including basic Congressional necessities like passing a federal budget.   When Sen. Mitch McConnell became the Senate Majority Leader in January 2015, he promised to return to regular order in the Senate and he joined with House Speaker John Boehner in an aggressive agenda of Republican lawmaking: Pass the Keystone pipeline, repeal Obamacare, shrink government, balance the budget, and so forth.

President Obama had different plans. In 2014, President Obama signaled that he didn’t really need Congress; all the President really needs is “a phone and a pen” to govern, he said.  And that attitude didn’t change when Republicans were swept into power in 2015.

The President had already used his “phone and pen” to unilaterally issue an executive order on immigration, effectively ignoring Congress and nullifying the law by refusing to enforce immigration laws that Congress had passed. The new Republican-controlled Congress was livid and battle lines began to form right after the 2014 elections on legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  The Republican goal was to force Democrats to support a DHS funding bill that blocked the President’s executive order.  But the Democrats remained unified behind President Obama and it was Senator McConnell and Speaker Boehner who finally blinked.  They didn’t want to shut down the DHS due to lack of funding.  The measure that would have blocked the President’s executive action was removed.  Democrats supported the DHS funding bill, while a majority of House and Senate Republicans opposed it.  The President gladly signed it into law.

The lost battle over DHS funding and immigration policy basically set the stage for the Republican-controlled Congress in 2015. While Democrats united behind President Obama and Sen. Harry Reid, vote after vote saw many rank-and-file Republicans voting against their leaders — budget deals, appropriations bills, doc-fix legislation, education policy, transportation funding and so on.  Also, many GOP priorities were delayed or postponed because of inaction in the Senate, or until after the next presidential election.  Even the Republicans’ top priority — to repeal Obamacare — suffered delays and indecision throughout 2015 as Republican leaders tried to navigate a complicated budget reconciliation process that would avoid a Senate filibuster.

Nevertheless, Republican leaders felt pressure to pass legislation and to demonstrate to the American public that Republicans can govern.   This would help build the case for a Republican president in 2017, they said.  To get the votes he needed to pass legislation, House Speaker John Boehner would often negotiate with Rep. Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats.  After a deal was cut with the Democrats, Speaker Boehner would bring the done deal to House conservative members.  Of course, this only served to infuriate House conservatives.  They had been elected to take Congress in a different direction, they said, not to go along with deals made with Democrats.  Before the end of the year, House conservatives forced Speaker Boehner to retire after Rep. Mark Meadows introduced a motion to vacate the chair, which is basically a vote of no confidence.   In the end, there weren’t enough votes to support Speaker Boehner.

After Speaker Boehner stepped down, the old conventional wisdom went with him. Rep. Kevin McCarthy was expected to ascend from his post as Majority Leader to become the new Speaker, but he quickly discovered that he didn’t have enough votes to win.  In fact, none of the declared candidates for Speaker had enough votes.  An intense effort to recruit Rep. Paul Ryan lasted several weeks until, finally, he relented and agreed to become the new Speaker of the House of Representatives.

As with all new leaders, Speaker Ryan started his new job with a certain amount of good will and benefit of the doubt. In Washington, it is sometimes called political capital.  New leaders can spend their political capital on almost anything they want.  Speaker Ryan chose to spend all of his political capital at once on a 2000-page, $1.1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill.  The list of crimes against free-market principles in the massive spending bill is too long to mention here.  Suffice it to say that the bill spends much more than the federal government was already planning to spend, exactly the opposite of what Republicans had promised they would do back in January.  That fact alone drew widespread criticism from conservatives and, again, conservative lawmakers voted against the legislation while Democrats largely supported it.  President Obama happily signed the legislation.  Congress adjourned.  Everyone in Washington left town for Christmas vacation.  And so ended 2015.

With Speaker Ryan’s benefit of the doubt already exhausted and President Obama’s lame duck presidency quickly coming to an end, the year 2016 will be interesting. The House of Representatives will take up the Obamacare repeal vote first thing in January 2016.  The President will almost certainly veto it and Congress won’t be able to override the veto.  But that symbolic vote is an important promise left over from 2015 that Congress needs to keep.  After that, they’re back to budget and appropriations.  We’ll see whether Speaker Ryan governs the same way John Boehner did.

As the year 2016 progresses, legislative activity will give way to political activity as the state primaries and caucuses narrow down the choices for the presidential election. Contrary to their predictions, the Congressional leadership’s effort to “prove they can govern” in 2015 has not yet translated into a clear Republican establishment candidate for president so far.  Instead, voters are flocking to “outsider” candidates that repudiate the Republican leadership’s actions.

We are optimists at NCPA and we see many opportunities in 2016 and beyond to educate the President, Congress, and other policymakers on issues vital to our economic security, energy security and national security. The 2016 presidential elections afford us a great opportunity to educate the public about free-market ideas that will strengthen the economy and create jobs.  And we still have high hopes that Congress will start leading in that direction.  Happy New Year!

Brian Williams is the Legislative Director at the National Center for Policy Analysis. 

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