Lee Hamilton: What lies ahead for Congress

Lee H. Hamilton
Lee H. Hamilton

By Lee H. 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 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 Barack 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.

Posted Nov. 26, 2014

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