Roy Moore

The Wonder and Worry Surrounding Washington, DC

The nation’s capital is preparing for Christmas, but there isn’t much cheer on Capitol Hill as lawmakers narrowly avert a government shutdown, try to unsnarl problems in tax-cut legislation and muddle through sexual misconduct scandals

The nation’s capital is preparing for Christmas, but there isn’t much cheer on Capitol Hill as lawmakers narrowly avert a government shutdown, try to unsnarl problems in tax-cut legislation and muddle through sexual misconduct scandals

Congress temporarily averted a pre-Christmas federal government shutdown by approving a two-week spending resolutionHouse and Senate conferees are trying to work out differences, including an apparent $287 billion math error, in a $1.4 trillion tax-cut measure. House Speaker Paul Ryan foreshadowed entitlement spending cuts next year to curb a ballooning federal budget deficit.

A prominent Democratic House member and senator have resigned amid sexual misconduct scandals. An Arizona GOP congressman is quitting after discussing surrogacy with two staff members. Alabama is likely to send a new senator to Washington, DC who has been accused of dating teenage girls, denies any wrongdoing and says he would bring Alabama values to Capitol Hill.

President Trump announced he will send his long-promised infrastructure funding package to Congress in January without mentioning that private activity bonds, a key financing tool for transportation and affordable housing projects, may be eviscerated beforehand in tax legislation he has championed.

Trump efforts to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement are faltering amid concerns by many business sectors that what Trump wants in a new deal would hurt existing trade and endanger US manufacturing jobs. The United States has walked away from a trade deal with its Pacific Rim neighbors, but the deal is not dead. Japan is leading continuing talks, which could lead to provisions less favorable to the United States and, eventually a seat at the table for China.

Ignoring warnings by top Cabinet officials, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while urging progress on stalled peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Two days later, Palestinian leaders refused to meet with Vice President Mike Pence.

Revelations in the Russian election meddling investigation continue to roll out, inflamed by a Trump tweet, a whistleblower’s account and Donald Trump Jr. who said what he told his dad after the infamous meeting with Russians last summer was protected by attorney-client privilege.

People abroad might be excused for wondering and worrying what is happening in the United States. People who live in the United States are wondering and worrying, too.

The President goes out of his way to stir the pot – retweeting inflammatory videos, pulling the rug out from under his GOP Capitol Hill colleagues and amping up rhetoric aimed at North Korea. Congress has failed to deliver a major legislative victory to Trump in his first year in office and is still fumbling with the last-chance tax bill. A late addition to the Senate version that would retain the corporate alternative minimum tax has caused corporate leaders – putatively the biggest winners in the measure – to voice concern. Polling indicates the tax bill is unpopular, including with many Republicans.

Democrats and Republicans are growing even more polarized. After a Trump tweet, the House and Senate Democratic leaders refused to join a White House pow-wow on spending and debt ceiling legislation. Their GOP counterparts called the snub rude. Trump said Democrats were putting border security at risk.

The parties have been split over cultural issues for a long time, but sexual misconduct scandals have turned litmus tests into flash points. The resignations of Democratic Congressman John Conyers and Senator Al Franken, which were accelerated by a collective shove in their backs by fellow Democrats, put the party on presumably higher moral ground to denounce Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore and Trump, each of whom has been accused by multiple women for sexual misconduct. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks apparently got the message.

Ryan’s prediction that action will be needed next year to stem the budget deficit could push Congress onto third-rail political issues such as Social Security and Medicare, as well as Medicaid. Conservative GOP members want to boost military spending while trimming spending and the deficit. Democrats are pressing for more domestic spending and to keep hands off Social Security and Medicare.

It is not a pretty picture, with a bruising holiday mash-up looming between now and December 22 over a longer spending measure and an increase in the debt ceiling.

 

So Much Work, So Little Time

The congressional agenda is chock-full. The congressional calendar is rapidly dwindling. Tax cuts, a spending measure and a debt ceiling increase are pending priorities, with a government shutdown looming as a possibility.

The congressional agenda is chock-full. The congressional calendar is rapidly dwindling. Tax cuts, a spending measure and a debt ceiling increase are pending priorities, with a government shutdown looming as a possibility.

With only a dozen or so working days before the holiday break and the end of the year, Congress faces a daunting agenda that keeps growing longer and more challenging.

Based on published schedules, the Senate has 15 and the House 12 working days left in 2017. In that time, GOP congressional leaders want to pass tax-cut legislation and need to take action on a spending and debt ceiling bill to prevent a government shutdown.

Mixed in the politics of all that is the Dreamer’s Act and extension of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that expired September 30, which has created a budgetary challenge for states trying to keep the popular insurance in place until Congress acts.

Then there are the series of subplots that fill headlines and color the policies and politics on Capitol Hill:

  • The intensifying investigation into Russian election meddling;
  • The Roy Moore scandal and Senate race in Alabama;
  • Unfolding disclosures about sexual behavior by Members of Congress;
  • An attempt by the Senate to repeal the Obamacare individual health care mandate as part of tax legislation; and
  • The Federal Communication Commission’s decision to end net neutrality.

Lurking in the wings are stalled talks over revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), continuing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and the hope for an infrastructure investment package.

Dealing with all that is more like a year’s agenda, not one for a short month.

Egged on by President Trump, Republicans want to deliver tax legislation to the White House before heading home for Christmas. While GOP leaders continue to sell the tax cut as a boon for the middle class, the push to pass it quickly is aimed at satisfying the expectations of Republican donors.

When the Senate returns to work this week, it will try to pass its version of tax legislation under special rules that prevent a Democratic filibuster. It can only lose two Republican votes. It also will vote on the bill under a cloud of criticism from economists across the ideological spectrum who say it will do little for the middle class and compromise the nation’s ability to deal with an economic downturn by sharply increasing the federal budget deficit.

If the Senate passes a tax measure, it then faces a House-Senate conference committee to iron out differences, which could highlight contentious and regionally divisive issues such as home mortgage and state and local tax deductibility.

Even though Republicans are trying to pass their tax legislation without any Democratic support, they need Democratic votes to pass a spending measure and increase the debt ceiling. The tight time frames before the holiday break amplify Democratic leverage. CHIP funding, which provides coverage for 9 million children, is one enticement the GOP is trying to use. The Dreamer’s Act could be another, but it could backfire and drive away some conservative GOP votes.

The troubled Moore Senate campaign to fill the seat formerly held by Jeff Sessions comes at an especially awkward political moment on December 12. If Moore, who faces accusations of sexual misconduct with minors, loses to Democrat Doug Jones, it will make GOP control of the Senate razor thin, which could be a factor if tax legislation gets pushed into next year.

Congress is also getting some pushback on the tax plan from corporations that have become more concerned about Trump objectives in NAFTA negotiations. A fifth round of talks among Canada, Mexico and the United States failed to produce agreement, which leaves open the possibility that Trump may unilaterally pull out of the trade deal. A business coalition led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has lobbied Capitol Hill in opposition to radical changes to NAFTA, warning they could lead to US job losses and ironically lead to more US manufacturing moved offshore.

The special prosecutor investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion by the Trump campaign has taken another ominous turn. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has broken off contact with the Trump defense team, signaling a possible plea deal that involves cooperating with the special prosecutor on other targets. There have been signs Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and his team have expanded their scope to include financial dealings by the Trump Organization with Russian oligarchs associated with money laundering.

The FCC decision to end net neutrality has stirred up a wide range of opponents who fear it will hand too much power to telecommunications companies. Supporters downplay that concern, saying it will lead to more investment in digital technology. But this isn’t just a garden-variety policy issue. Net neutrality supporters have taken to social media to voice their concerns, galvanizing many people who ordinarily shun politics. Those activated voters could make a difference in the looming 2018 mid-term election.