America will become a campaign state in the next two years, as the presidential contest quickly becomes the prism through which all Washington decisions are made. Optics will trump action (so to speak). Posturing will beat out productivity.
What will that—and the results of last week’s elections—mean for trade associations, advocacy groups, unions, corporate interests and other organizations that exist to influence the government?
Every industry is different, but here are some safe bets.
- Legislative gridlock is likely. There will be many bills in the next two years, but only a fraction of those will become law. The House will pass legislation to highlight Democratic priorities, attempt to take the high ground on productivity and give Democratic legislators a chance to vote on policies they support. When lawmakers campaign, it’s handy to be able to say “I voted in favor of…” Of course, few of these bills will get taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate, and Democratic leaders know it. Just as House Republicans repeatedly cast votes on doomed efforts to repeal Obamacare when they controlled the chamber, Democrats will use the platform to gain as much leverage as they can.
- Landmark bills are unlikely. In December of last year, Congressional Republicans approved a tax bill that made the largest changes to U.S. tax code in 30 years. The bill impacted every single tax-paying American citizen and every single U.S. company—and it passed without a single Democratic vote. In a divided Congress, such a bill would require compromise, and that is in short supply. Lawmakers may come together on less-divisive issues, as they did with an opioid bill earlier this year, but they are unlikely to take on anything thorny.
- Infrastructure could be the exception. Both President Trump and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, likely the next House Speaker, mentioned in their post-election speeches a willingness to take on infrastructure. I was in the room when Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer expressed similar sentiments earlier this year. Improving roads, bridges and other systems has long been seen as a potential avenue for cooperation in Washington, and so infrastructure may have a shot. An infrastructure bill would direct projects, funding and jobs to congressional districts, and many lawmakers in both parties want those things. But there’s no guarantee they will be able to compromise on a bill. Republicans and Democrats sometimes approach this issue very differently.
- Oversight will mean investigations and hearings. The election returns were not even finished yet on Election Night when MSNBC reported that a staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee was promising to go after the president’s tax returns. Rep. Adam Schiff, the likely incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has vowed to step up oversight. The Democratic House will exercise its oversight authority. That means investigations, which often come with high-profile hearings and headline-grabbing leaks. Each can dominate the conversation in Washington for weeks.
- Senate confirmations will be smoother. The expanded Republican margin will make it easier for Trump to get judicial nominees and cabinet secretaries confirmed. Support from moderate Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have held great influence thanks to the tight margin in the Senate, may no longer be necessary to secure a confirmation vote.
- Regulatory action will continue, but not unimpeded. Government agencies that regulate everything from internet policy to environmental rules will continue to advance the administration’s policies. But they will not operate unimpeded, as they largely have for the last two years, when Republicans controlled Congress. Now, they will have to contend with Democratic committee chairs in the House, who can exercise varying degrees of oversight.
Whatever happens next year—the new Congress takes office in January—advocacy work is likely to increase throughout the rest of 2018, as organizations get to know incoming members of Congress, adjust to the power shifts within congressional committees, and try to shape any action to come from a lame-duck Congress. Remember, the current crop of lawmakers is still here for another seven weeks. It could be a busy holiday.
Glen Justice is the former Editor of Congress Daily and a former Washington reporter for The New York Times.