As members of Congress return Monday from their week-long President’s Day recess, their work is done. In the last two months, Congress has cleared the annual budget and debt ceiling hurdles. They’ve finally passed a farm bill and a defense reauthorization bill. There is no reason to expect anything more that is substantive until elections this November.
Instead, this already famously unproductive Congress will spend the less than 80 days they plan to be in session until Election Day debating purely political measures designed to have more impact on the ballot box than actual policy. Welcome to the 2014 midterm campaign season. As with any other campaign season, wedge issues rule. Most House and Senate floor speeches are delivered to be featured in campaign videos or advertisements. “Shocking” and “outrageous” behavior is escalated so as to gain earned media, primary street credibility and successful Internet money bombs. We have entered the “silly season” of politics, a term coined in Britain in 1861 to define the frivolous news written when Parliament was not in session—or in the American case, in session but not working on anything substantive.
Barring new developments and October surprises, here’s a guide to the rhetorical debates, show-vote bills and political issues that will fill the legislative calendar—such as it is—in the coming months:
The House has voted 48 times to repeal or amend part or all of the Affordable Care Act. The last time was on Jan. 16 with the Exchange Information Disclosure Act, which would require the Department of Health and Human Services to produce weekly reports on the state of enrollment in the health exchanges both online and by phone. Of course, the Democrat-controlled Senate has no plans to take up the measure. Given that the GOP is betting that Obamacare will hang around Democrats’ necks like an albatross, votes 49 and 50 are already in the works. Earlier this month, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised a vote eliminating the Administration’s definition of a “full time employee” as anyone who works at least 30 hours a week, a classification which includes tens of thousands more employees than businesses like. And, last week, Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise introduced a bill that would retroactively delay the employer mandate by a year. Both measures have little chance of passing the Senate.
This is one of those rare wedge issues that cuts both ways. House Republicans passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act on Jan. 28. The bill cuts off taxpayer funding for abortions. To be fair, taxpayers don’t actually directly fund abortions. But Republicans get two hits out of this. First, they drum up support with social conservatives. Second, they highlight a Jan. 24 Suprme Court decision to exempt some groups from an Obamacare requirement that all insurance plans cover contraception. The court’s action came after Catholic nuns sued the Administration, arguing that such health care coverage goes against their religious beliefs. So, it’s a two-for-one: abortion and Obamacare.
That said, bills like this give Democrats fodder to accuse Republicans of waging a war on women. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is focusing on women’s issues like family planning, equal pay and childcare, betting that the only way for her to win back the House is by turning out the women’s vote, which trends Democratic but also falls off enormously in non-presidential years. The issue proved a winner for Democrats in 2012 after two Republican senatorial candidates made extreme remarks on rape and abortion that helped propel their Democratic opponents to victory.
These days it seems like both sides of the aisle are obsessed with poverty. With the economy still struggling and the lower middle class feeling especially pinched these days—as Cantor pointed out in a recent op-ed, median household income is lower today than it was in 2000—saying you’re going to help is a popular populist sentiment for both parties. Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, laid out a poverty agenda in a speech marking the 50th anniversary Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Republican Study Committee formed an anti-poverty task force. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, laid out his vision in a Detroit speech. And House Republicans, led by Cantor, have “An America That Works” platform, which would reform job training, the tax code, energy and education policy. While much of this will probably pass the House, little of it is likely to pass the Senate. But the debate will give them endless C-SPAN hours to talk about their efforts.
While Republicans are working hard to make this an issue that cuts both ways, Democrats have the historical advantage on poverty and have made it the centerpiece of their 2014 strategy. Democrats argue that Republicans can’t be taken seriously on poverty when they don’t want to spend money to help the poor (most of the GOP agenda comes in the form of things like tax credits and school vouchers). Democrats, meanwhile, have their own agenda: raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance and equal pay for women. Dems tried to force a vote on minimum wage in the House earlier this month, but to no avail. And the Senate is unlikely to garner the 60 votes to pass much of their agenda. So the plans will remain just that: plans to campaign on.
This week, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York came out in favor of a discharge petition in the House for the Senate-passed immigration reform bill. While the bill would almost certainly pass the House with majority Democratic support along with a few centrist Republicans, such a vote would outrage the vast majority of the Republican conference. “This scheme has zero chance of success—a clear majority in the House understands that the massive Senate-passed bill is deeply flawed,” says Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. “That’s why we will continue to work on step-by-step, common-sense reform.” Boehner laid out GOP principles on immigration last month, hoping to inoculate his members from at least some Latino wrath at their inaction, but his conference had little appetite to act before the elections.
Remember that scandal where the Internal Revenue Service was supposedly auditing or dragging their feet to give tax-exempt status to Tea Party groups to extract political revenge for the groups’ work against President Obama? Even though it turns out that Democratic groups were also targeted, there was no chance that teapot tempest was going to go away ahead of the midterms. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, last week called for a special investigator to be appointed on the issue. And the House Ways & Means Committee earlier this year month passed a bill addressing this issue. The bill, which is going nowhere in the Senate, is almost pure politics. It requires the IRS to keep doing what they’re doing from the day the bill passes for the period of one year. Why? It’s essentially a freeze order to allow congressional investigators time to explore the “standards and definitions” the IRS has been using. In other words: don’t change anything, don’t shred anything and don’t leave town. The Congressional Budget Office found on Feb. 14 that the bill—not unsurprisingly since the order is to keep doing what you’re doing—wouldn’t have an impact on the budget. The measure now moves to the full House floor for a vote. Surely, during the floor debate of that bill, dozens of Republicans will go to the floor to lambast the IRS and the Administration for partisan collusion and abuse of big government—speeches readymade for television ads.
For Republicans this is a popular issue with their base, so they will keep attempting to extract documents, testimony and embarrassment over the attack from the Obama Administration. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are leading the attack, demanding further investigations and placing holds on presidential nominees to extract action. For defense Republicans—especially those like South Carolina’s Graham who are up for reelection in military-heavy states—the more they talk about the Obama Administration’s foreign policy weaknesses, the better they do at the polls.
Keystone XL Pipeline
For years, Republicans have tried to force Obama to approve this pipeline from Canada. For years, the President has resisted citing a pending environmental impact study. Republicans say the pipeline will create thousands of jobs. Environmental groups say those jobs are short-term and would come at the cost of the environment. The study finally came through last month, showing the pipeline would have little environmental impact and clearing the way for the Obama Administration to approve it. If that happens in the next nine months, it takes away the issue for Republicans. At the same time, the Obama Administration isn’t keen to anger a powerful constituency like the environmental lobby right before an election.