More Singles and Doubles, Fewer Home Runs Expected of 118th Congress
WASHINGTON — Thanks to its ability to pass sweeping pieces of legislation, ranging from the bipartisan infrastructure law and CHIPS and Science Act to the American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction Act, the 117th Congress will be remembered for its ability to time and again successfully swing for the fences.
But if 2022 was about home runs, one longtime political observer told The Well News recently, this week’s prolonged vote for House speaker and return of a divided government to Washington suggest 2023 will be more about singles and doubles.
“By its nature split government means bipartisan deals will have to be struck,” said Michele Stockwell, senior vice president and executive director of BPC Action, the advocacy arm of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“Clearly the budget battle will be most contentious and both chambers have extremely narrow margins to maneuver, but there are a number of issues that bring both sides together, such as supply chains, workforce, mental health and others.
“There will also be interesting and experienced hands at the helm of key committees,” Stockwell said. “There are four women running Appropriations, and Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, have a strong history of pragmatic dealmaking.
“And Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who has been selected as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Patrick McHenry, [R-N.C.], selected as chair of the House Financial Services Committee, are well-regarded and have worked across the line,” Stockwell said.
Like everyone else interested in politics, Stockwell and her colleagues have been watching the ongoing speaker vote on the House floor “with great interest.”
“Whether [the next speaker] is Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., or someone else, managing the conference will be a significant challenge and it may be the most decentralized power structure in the House we’ve seen, certainly in modern times,” she said.
“In the end, committee chairs and other influential members may play greater roles than they have played in the past,” she added.
Asked about changes the new Republican majority in Congress have proposed to the chamber’s rules, Stockwell said there are few surprises among them and that many are provisions the House GOP has espoused.
“For example, there’s ‘CUTGO,’ which means mandatory spending increases must be offset by cuts, but not revenue changes,” she said. “Of course, House rules do not apply to the Senate, and should legislation make it to conference, negotiations will likely mean a waiver of these rules in the House in a bipartisan vote.
“Other efforts aim to meet their campaign promises, for example, the establishment of select committees to focus on China and COVID,” Stockwell continued. “Still other changes reflect the struggle within the Republican Party to drive a budgetary process that is more focused on reining in spending while still allowing leadership to have the maneuverability to get things done.
“For instance, there is an allowance in the House for a point of order against appropriations that are unauthorized (technically, this point of order is already existing policy),” she said. “Typically points of order are waived by simple majority, so it’s unclear if this will have a real impact beyond eating up floor time.
“There are also more demands on the independent Congressional Budget Office to do things like dynamic scoring, which may be more informative, but are unlikely to really change the vote outcome on issues. At a minimum, we will see more forced debate on spending coming out of the House.”
Stockwell believes that because the U.S. has a divided Congress for the first time in two years, much of its energy will be focused on “must-do” items such as dealing with the budget and debt limit, both of which, she said, “will require extensive political capital.”
“Other must-do items, like the Pandemic All Hazards Preparedness Act and farm bill have more of a bipartisan history and key chairs and ranking members who want to get these measures done,” she continued.
“Outside of these must-do measures, we don’t expect to see the massive, multitrillion-dollar packages that dominated the 117th Congress, but there is a lot of optimism for narrow, single-issue measures, especially those dealing with behavioral health, workforce and competitiveness, permitting reform and data privacy.”
Though the new Congress is both younger — with an average age of 49, down from 58 in the last Congress — and composed of more women than ever before, Stockwell said the continued rise of populism on both sides of the aisle will likely have a bigger influence on the character of the 118th Congress.
“That shift, along with more members coming in with young families, is also driving more focus on issues impacting struggling families, especially the cost of living,” she said. “Of course, the two parties still have differing viewpoints on the role of government in solving that challenge.
“Last Congress ushered in many Republican women in the House, who are rising in the ranks and will be key members to watch over the coming years,” she said. “This includes women like Reps. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., and Julia Letlow, R-La., who are working with members across the aisle, including Rep. [Chrissy] Houlahan, D-Pa., to find common ground on issues like paid family leave.
“In terms of the operations of Congress, the House GOP is getting rid of proxy voting,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how members respond to that and the loss of flexibility that allowed many to spend more time back in their districts and naturally made it easier for them to be closer to their families. But there is also more time built into the schedule for district work weeks.”
Though controversies, like this week’s speaker vote, are sure to dominate headlines, Stockwell was philosophical when it came to looking ahead with a longer view at the potential of the 118th Congress.
“Meaningful bipartisan policy takes time,” she said. “This is true for many of the measures that were included in the end of year package — from retirement security to electoral reform to pregnant worker protections.
“Of course, there are changes at the top of committees, and we just don’t know how it will all play out, particularly regarding the Finance and Ways and Means Committee,” she said. “The debates these committees have now will greatly inform legislation down the road.”
Stockwell went on to say she believes the next two years will be a testing ground for tax policy, and suggested the nation may well see new ideas blossom into bipartisan agreement as provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expire in 2025.
“It will also be important to determine if the Trump legacy of ‘America First’ continues to resonate in the 118th Congress, with its implication for continued support for Ukraine and Taiwan, or if geopolitics expands the U.S. role in foreign affairs.”