GOP-controlled Congress

Prospects for Bipartisanship in an Election Year

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said 2018 should be a year of bipartisan compromise, but that may be easier said than done after the GOP-controlled Congress shoved through a massive tax cut at the end of 2017 and ideological differences in the House threaten to blunt deals with Senate Democrats. [Photo Credit: AP/Susan Walsh]

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said 2018 should be a year of bipartisan compromise, but that may be easier said than done after the GOP-controlled Congress shoved through a massive tax cut at the end of 2017 and ideological differences in the House threaten to blunt deals with Senate Democrats. [Photo Credit: AP/Susan Walsh]

Will 2018 be the year of congressional bipartisanship or a retreat to political trenches before the November general election? It is a critical question that could determine the shape of spending, immigration, pension protection, defense, foreign policy and border security legislation.

It is also a question of time as the Senate returns to work this week and the House comes back next week.

The next Waterloo date for Congress is January 19 when the current short-term spending measure expires. Reconciliation rules don’t apply, which means whatever legislation emerges must pass the 60-vote cloture hurdle in the Senate. Christmas has passed, so GOP congressional leaders can’t rely on Democratic reluctance to allow a holiday federal government shutdown.

Before the holiday break, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled a need to seek bipartisan approaches in 2018. House Speaker Paul Ryan has focused more on trimming spending on so-called entitlement programs, which is unlikely to attract much bipartisan support. Congressional Democrats can be expected to weigh compromise against electoral advantage.

There is no better example of the political watershed than Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Democrats want a clean bill to secure their place in America and a path to citizenship. President Trump plopped the issue in the lap of Congress with a March 5 deadline as leverage to gain Democratic support for his promised border wall. Congressional Republicans may stop short of the Trump wall, but want fortified border security as part of any deal.

Trump gave Congress until March to reach a compromise. Latino interest groups expressed displeasure at Democratic failure to force the DACA issue in the pre-Christmas spending showdown, which foreshadows a more aggressive stance by Democrats in January negotiations. Conservative Republicans equate protection for children brought to America by their parents illegally as amnesty, which they have pledged to oppose.

There aren’t any obvious silver-bullet issues to inspire bipartisanship. The closest no-brainer issue is continued funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Before heading home for Christmas, Congress ponied up $3 billion to sustain CHIP for three months. Democrats want CHIP to continue while House Republicans appear to view it as a vehicle to dismantle additional parts of the Affordable Care Act.

During the holiday break, Democrats floated a new issue that could be a wrench in the works or a possible bargaining chip. On “Face the Nation,” Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell and New York Congressman Joe Crowley called for government-backed private pension protection. Even though the recent run-up in the stock markets have boosted retirement accounts, Dingell and Crowley argued many Americans remains under water because of the Great Recession and pressure on private pensions continues to mount. The proposed solution involves government securitization of pension benefits, much like protection for savings accounts in banks, through some form of bonding. Democrats figure this issue would especially appeal to middle-class Americans.

Republicans, supported by Trump, want to boost military spending. The price for Democrats is increased social spending – or avoiding cuts in Medicaid. There eventually will be a deal on spending and an increase on the debt ceiling, but the deal that Senate Democrats would support may splinter the GOP majority in the House.

How forceful each side remains could depend on public reaction to the GOP-passed tax-cut legislation. Backers of the $1.5 trillion tax cut are counting on bolstered take-home pay as early as February to start changing American opinion about the legislation, which Democrats branded as heavily benefitting corporations and wealthier taxpayers.

If fatter paychecks turn heads, it may embolden Republicans. If the tax cuts seem insignificant, then Democrats may become more obstinate.

The congressional agenda is chocked full of other issues, including an extension of FISA court orders required to conduct domestic surveillance and additional disaster relief for states and territories hit hard by hurricanes, flooding and wildfires. Both offer some glimmer of hope for bipartisan cooperation.

Another possible bipartisan topic is stabilization of health insurance markets. Maine GOP Senator Susan Collins voted for tax-cut legislation on promises by here Republican colleagues to address the issue by agreeing to give insurers as much as $10.5 billion to compensate for coverage for high-cost and poor people. The conservative wing in the House has given that idea a cool reception as it warns about more spending driving up the federal deficit.

On philosophical grounds, the most likely bipartisan target is increased funding on infrastructure. Trump has promised to submit his plan to Congress this month and congressional leaders also have been working on proposals. Again, the pain point may be more spending and a higher deficit. That argument inevitably will revive the debate over the GOP-backed tax cut and whether it starts paying off in 2018.

The Federal Fiscal Sudoku Game

Keeping up with a pending federal budget, a growing federal deficit, a looming massive federal tax cut and a surging stock market is a lot like playing fiscal Sudoku.

Keeping up with a pending federal budget, a growing federal deficit, a looming massive federal tax cut and a surging stock market is a lot like playing fiscal Sudoku.

For fiscal junkies, these are the best of times. The GOP-controlled House and Senate passed versions of a $4 trillion Fiscal Year 2018 budget, the United States logged last year the sixth largest budget deficit in history and the stock market reached record highs last week in anticipation of a major corporate tax cut, which the budget makes easier to pass.

In many ways, the fiscal news is like a jig-saw puzzle with pieces that don’t exactly fit together:

  • The Senate-passed FY 2018 budget measure leaves federal spending at current levels and provides for a major tax cut, which Republicans concede will increase the federal deficit in the short-term.
  • US Treasury announced the federal government finished FY 2017 with a $666 billion budget deficit, $80 billion more than the previous year, as spending grew by 3 percent, but revenues only increased by 1 percent.
  • Even though tax legislation hasn’t been finalized, Wall Street became giddy over a congressional budget with a reconciliation process that makes it politically easier to pass a tax cut without any Democratic support. The Dow Jones industrial average on Friday surged more than 165 points to a record 23,328. Shares of JP Morgan Chase hit an all-time high.

Republicans have campaigned for decades on fiscal discipline and shrinking the federal government. The recent news about tax cuts and budget deficits run contrary to that ideology, though House Speaker Paul Ryan assured in a media interview that deficits were still concerning to his political party.

Not concerning enough to blunt the drive to enact a tax cut by the end of the year that no one denies will increase the federal deficit. GOP supporters say tax cuts will stimulate the economy and eventually economic growth will erase the red ink. Democrats disagree, claiming supply-side, trickle-down economics hasn’t produced the bonanza of benefits promised by its supporters, just widened income inequality at the expense of the US middle class.

The FY 2018 budget, which retiring GOP Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee called a “hoax,” seems designed to enact a tax cut, not implement a spending strategy. The tax cut is viewed by GOP leaders – and their wealthier supporters – as must-pass legislation to overshadow congressional failure to repeal Obamacare before the 2018 mid-term elections.

In addition to the impact of a tax cut, there will be pressure on the federal budget over the next year as Congress approves substantial funding to pay for severe hurricane and wildfire relief. Trump administration efforts to undermine Obamacare may have unpredictable negative economic consequences. The prospect of military conflict with North Korea along with accelerated modernization of the US nuclear arsenal also could dramatically push up spending levels.

To counter higher deficits, the FY 2018 budget points to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts on Medicare and Medicaid over the next decade. Higher outlays for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and payments on the national debt were blamed for pushing up the deficit last year, which now equals 3.5 percent of US gross domestic product. The national debt now exceeds $20 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the national debt will rise to 91 percent of the US economy as early as 2027 absent any fiscal policy changes.

Keeping up with all this US fiscal activity is a little like playing a 3D Sudoku puzzle:

  • The House and Senate still need to agree on a final budget, which might come as early as this week if the House decides to accept the Senate version and skip a conference committee to iron out differences.
  • President Trump has dangled some tantalizing numbers about his dream tax-cut legislation, but there isn’t an official tax bill to review.
  • The budget reconciliation process might make it theoretically easier to pass tax legislation, but only three Senate Republican defections could doom the plan, a la Obamacare repeal. Given Trump’s testy relationships with a number of senators, a political roadblock isn’t inconceivable.
  • The budget reconciliation process isn’t a free ride. There are limits on how much the tax cut can raise the deficit, which could stoke a ferocious intra-GOP debate over what taxes cut.
  • While Democrats haven’t been consulted so far, they have been courted to support the tax cut. There are a lot of side issues that could come into play in the attempt to earn some level of bipartisan support.
  • Ryan has threatened to keep House members in session through Christmas to pass a tax bill. It may not be an idle threat.