Getting the Message Across to the 112th Congress

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

The voting public has spoken and the House of Representatives rests firmly in the control of the Republicans; the Senate remains a Democrat-dominated chamber, but with a significantly narrower majority. What does all this mean for the 112th Congress?

Keeping in mind that as I write this four House races are still undecided and the powers that be in Alaska are feverishly counting write-in votes, but the net effect is the same. The balance of power has shifted, and come January 2011, all eyes will be on the new House leadership, the 83 new Republicans joining the House, and President Barack Obama to see just how far the public calls for bipartisanship and shared goals will go.

By the time you read this, much of the drama of reorganizing the House should be over. Representative John Boehner (R-OH) will be the 61st Speaker of the House, and Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will be the Democrat minority leader. Committee membership percentages will be hammered out, chairs should be named, and the final assignment of committee members should be completed.

Make no mistake – Boehner and his party understand exactly what happened on November 2nd. Rather than America declaring a new-found love for the GOP, it sent a very clear collective message to all incumbents and the White House: you’ve got two-years; deliver on our priorities or we’ll bounce you out as quickly as we bounced your predecessors.

Boehner created a 22-member transition team to handle the logistics of getting his party from minority to majority. That team wisely includes several of the incoming freshmen members to maintain the continuity of inclusion touted so strongly during the election campaigns. This is Boehner’s biggest challenge, riding herd on a number of maverick newbies, some of whom will be coming to Washington, DC, with the notion that they – either single-handedly or in a bloc – will change how this city operates, put Congress back on the right track – pun intended – and right all perceived wrongs. The informal transition work began within days of the election. Serious doses of political and Washington reality are being administered to the incoming members, not so much to try and drive notions of reform out of their heads, but to ensure they understand it still takes 218 votes to pass a bill in the House. Majorities of one are lone voices in a political wilderness.

Contrary to media reports, the freshman class of the 112th Congress is not a passel of inexperienced, slogan-shouting cave dwellers. More than 85 percent of the new House members have city, county, or state legislative experience. Four are former House members, and most come from professional backgrounds. Conservative? Absolutely. Reactionary? Not so much.

Working to his advantage is Boehner’s leadership style. Pelosi operated as a despot of the “my way or the highway” school of political leadership, and was unabashed about her willingness to reward those most loyal while punishing those who resisted her. Boehner is a smart, laid-back master of consensus. While not shy about yanking up his caucus when it appears it’s lost its way or afraid to go totally partisan when he has to, Boehner prefers finding the points of agreement – whether his allies are GOP or Democrat – and crafting a consensus end product.

The hallmarks of a Republican-controlled House, Boehner and his party pledge, will be deficit reduction/spending control and smaller federal government. His party stalwarts and the incoming class have both been told in uncertain terms there are no sacred cows, no special favors. To get back to controlled spending – the GOP target is to return to fiscal year 2008 spending levels – and to shrink the federal bureaucracy means everything is on the table.

To achieve those goals, the GOP House strategy for the 112th Congress begins with “oversight.” This means every House committee is charged with holding hearings for the next several months to review all legislation passed under Democrat control, as well as Obama administration rulemakings both proposed and on the books. At the same time, every action by the federal government is a candidate for cost-cutting or elimination. From this oversight process, the Republicans will fashion a list of targets for amendment, revision, or outright repeal.

First up will be repeal of federal health care reform, a major plank in the GOP national election platform. While several members of both parties campaigned on full repeal of the controversial law, that won’t happen. The GOP acknowledges certain aspects of the new law are workable and can be refined to make them more user- and cost-friendly. However, several sections of the new law are deemed by opponents as not only unworkable, but in several cases illegal or unconstitutional. The poster child for this latter category would be mandatory health care coverage and the fines that go with refusing to buy insurance.

Another major battleground will be the 2012 farm bill. Current House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) held nearly three dozen hearings in 2009-2010 in Washington, DC, and across the country to convince beneficiaries of farm programs the golden days of federal check-writing are over. While all agreed there’s need for an income safety net, Peterson’s warning is clear: the money simply won’t be there. The expected baseline from which the farm bill is formulated is shrinking as the deficit increases. Peterson advised groups that rely upon farm program payments to bring to him reinvented programs. For his part, Peterson has pushed a revision of federal crop insurance from an individual crop protection device to a whole-farm program.

Incoming committee chair Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK) will be at ground zero in this fight. Lucas is a traditional farm program champion, but he’s also a realist. There are several realities that farm and ranch groups should take note. First, federal farm program payments – or “subsidies” – are consistently identified by deficit/spending reduction hawks as prime candidates for elimination, and when he was a member of the House Agriculture Committee, House Speaker-presumptive Boehner strongly opposed most federal farm program payments, and there’s little evidence that thinking has changed. And don’t forget, that means cooperator programs designed to enhance exports are at risk as well.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson will continue to be in the crosshairs of most GOP and several Democrat members. Her agency is the poster child for regulation deemed out of control, in some cases illegal, and in all cases cited, just plain badly done. Critics say EPA works in a vacuum, ignoring the social and/or economic impact of its actions. Dust regulation, farm runoff, dioxin, stormwater runoff, and several other agency actions are up for oversight and review.

Energy policy will get close scrutiny as well. Anything resembling cap and trade to control greenhouse gas emissions is dead; incentives for industry to adopt “green” technologies may get better traction. However, this is where the rubber hits the road. How do you provide federal incentives – traditionally tax credits and/or tax forgiveness – and still control spending? Biofuels will continue to get attention, but perhaps not the kind of attention they desire. Ethanol will continue to be controversial – how mature does an industry have to be before federal tax credits and import tariffs are unnecessary? But advanced biofuels will be viewed more positively, say biodiesel and renewable diesel advocates.

How does the House strategy play out in the Senate? The very narrow majority enjoyed by the Democrats should signal clearly to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that the days of political sniping and partisan gamesmanship are over. However, based on the public exchanges between the two since the election, they didn’t get the message.

View from Washington – December 2010 RENDER | back