December 20, 2019

Which Congress Were You Watching this Year?

In a year when former Republican presidential candidate and now-Utah Senator Mitt Romney revealed a secret twitter account named “Pierre Delecto,” and the nation debated the legitimacy of Democratic Presidential front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden’s 1960s interaction with a local Delaware gangster reportedly referred to as “Corn Pop,” anything seemed possible. Let’s dive in.

The persistent uncertainty clouding our 21st-century Congress might be reflected in no better way than comparing the way 2019 began (in a shutdown) and the way it now ends, with only the third impeachment of an American President. Even from the perspective of a historic December, January’s federal government funding lapse was historic as well, lasting 35 days and clocking in as the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

The shutdown was nominally kicked off by a disagreement over immigration policy and the border wall but may have served even more strongly as an opportunity for President Trump and a newly re-sworn-in Speaker Pelosi to flex their muscles and highlight their contrasting approaches. Add in the fact that Speaker Pelosi took the gavel for House Democrats for the first time since 2011 and was sworn in during the shutdown – another historic first – and one could begin to sense what the 116th Congress was going to look like.

The stalemate ending on January 25 with enactment of a three-week Continuing Resolution (CR) was billed by many as a Democratic victory for its absence of additional wall funding. However, after the CR expired on February 15, the President signed an Omnibus FY19 spending package, promptly declared a national emergency, and began shifting Department of Defense funding toward wall construction – a controversial move that has received mixed scrutiny among federal courts. District courts in California (in June) and Texas (in December) have ruled against the move, while the Supreme Court (as of July) has allowed construction to proceed pending appeal to the Circuit Courts.

Although it didn’t ultimately resolve any debates over immigration policy and Department of Homeland Security funding, that February Omnibus was otherwise a modest success – a package including the remaining seven appropriations bills that ensured a shutdown could next hit no sooner than September. House Democrats used the runway through the end of the fiscal year to fire off a busy spring and summer of hearings and markups where committees like Energy & Commerce and Ways & Means advanced the conversation on topics including prescription drugs, retirement policy, extenders and refundable credits, energy and environmental issues, and transportation financing.

Even as many in Congress laid the groundwork for longer-term policymaking rather than immediate gains, the body was hard at work in the background on what may be its most significant legislation of the year: the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Negotiators from the office of the US Trade Representative, Congress, and Canada and Mexico spent arduous months grinding toward an agreement. After countless re-examinations of the well-documented hurdles on labor, environment, enforcement, and health care, the negotiators’ relentlessness paid off with a Thanksgiving agreement and the implementing legislation sailed through the House at a record-breaking pace for a trade agreement –after some last-minute drama about labor enforcement in Mexico, of course.

As finalized, the deal is simultaneously one of President Trump’s two most significant efforts in office even as it represents what Congressional Democrats have called a “model” for trade agreements in the 21st century. It’s not often Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi, Kevin Brady, and Sherrod Brown agree on legislation; the fact that they managed to do so in this case means net positive things for Americans of all stripes, and we salute them.

But USMCA wasn’t the only example of the 116th Congress confounding low expectations through bipartisan achievements. Enter the FY2020 appropriations process! Notwithstanding the success of appropriations in February, the increased allocations of July’s budget caps agreement were frustrated throughout the fall by Continuing Resolutions and near-shutdowns in September and November. By breaking that logjam with two long-term minibus bills that included all 12 appropriations packages as well as permanent repeal of the Medical Device Tax (and other Affordable Care Act tax relief) and a small-scale tax deal, Congress demonstrated – all in the same week it advanced USMCA – that when the chips are down, it really still can govern responsibly.

But you wouldn’t really know it, all because so much oxygen was soaked up by the third separate major legislative effort occurring in the same week: the articles of impeachment advanced against Donald Trump. The contemporary Congress is a paradox; it almost looks like it’s trying to hide the achievement of its bipartisan successes while shifting voters’ focus to its most salacious theatrics. Or is it the other way around?

We understand the challenges for voters and businesses in trying to resolve that question, but we hope you’ll forgive us if we express our preference and admiration for the Congress you sometimes have to read between the lines to see; the one that CNN and FOX seem less interested in. This is the Congress that has repeatedly shown that even under the most contentious circumstances, it has the capacity to advance meaningful and constructive policy on a bipartisan basis.

We hope to see more of that Congress in 2020, when the body looks toward a surface transportation reauthorization; Senate Commerce Chairman Wicker and Ranking Member Cantwell’s privacy legislation; and continued efforts on surprise billing and drug pricing. Oh, and hopefully another crack at a broader tax bill in the fall. Don’t get us wrong, we’ll be watching and heavily engaged in the 2020 elections. We just hope it’s not all we’ll be watching.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and best wishes to all heading into 2020,

John Sandell & Mike Goodman