Don’t let the political season fool you; 2018 will be a year for policymaking
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The traditional game in Washington during an election year – especially one where the balance of power could be in play – is “all politics, no policy.” This year, however, could be a dramatic departure from the traditional light legislative agenda an election year brings.

Of course, some measure congressional “activity” by days in session, bills introduced, or bills passed – a metric that largely misses the point.  It’s unclear how this year will compare to other election years through that lens and I am not sure that it really matters.

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For those that view Congress based on progress around advancing major legislation – a standard to which voters hold their own elected officials accountable – this could be an interesting year. 

In many election years, Congress would usually dance awkwardly between moving legislation that could be a political win and avoiding legislation that could be a political risk, all while trying to spend as much time back home campaigning. In some cases, the minority had limited ability to impact the debate. That will not be the case in the coming months, given the need for support from Democrats to move legislation in the Senate.

Those who are overly focused on the generic ballot, fundraising numbers, and the endless stream of looming campaign advertisements may miss what could be a major year for advancing policy.

The start of the year’s agenda is, itself, significant – it contains an $81 billion disaster relief supplemental spending bill, funding the federal government, DACA, extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program, raising the debt ceiling, and extending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Program. These are all “must pass” bills that will occupy the early days of this second session of the 115th Congress.

Some are speculating that the congressional agenda will end after the initial onslaught of these critical bills. They believe Congress will pivot to the 2018 campaign and leverage the months to come only to advance their broader messaging agenda. They are wrong.

Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanGOP leaders pitch children's health funding in plan to avert shutdown Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Fix what we’ve got and make Medicare right this year MORE (R-Wis.) has already highlighted that his priority this year will be to advance entitlement reform – he controls the House agenda, so it’s probably a good bet that the discussion will, at a minimum, move forward. Both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have prioritized moving the Farm Bill, which they have been working on for months. The president has said he will prioritize an infrastructure package and even labeled it an “easy” bill. It’s safe to say that transportation policy more broadly (including the FAA reauthorization and policy related to funding the Highway Trust Fund) will see some congressional attention as well. An intelligence reauthorization and the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) will also likely be on the agenda.  

Will these priorities all be signed into law? Unlikely. But, these major legislative priorities will be defined by discussion, debate and, in some cases, a vote in 2018.

A traditional thought pattern would look at an aggressive agenda this year and say: “they have no chance of passing any of this in an election year.” The nuance that is missed – even if that scenario is accurate (and I don’t believe it is) – is that the policies behind these issues will be written in 2018. Those who get active around these issues in 2019 in hopes to impact the discussion at that point will be either too late to the game or have to fight against a year of policy discussions that have already taken place.

It’s sort of the battle between those who plan and those who panic. In 2018, you want to be a planner, especially if you want to be successful in 2019.   

The political spotlight and the noise that comes with an election may provide a quiet opening for congressional committees and leaders to work behind the scenes to have a major impact on the policy landscape going forward. The distraction of the election – for both the 24-hour news cycle and for many outside groups positioning around the election – may help both sides of the political aisle develop policy solutions that greatly impact the policy landscape, but won’t necessarily be the top news item of the day. And, that is ok. 

Those that allow themselves to be distracted by the political season will miss out on policy opportunities that will be shaped in 2018. This year won’t only be about politics, it surprisingly could become a year for policymaking.  

Charles Cooper is an Executive Vice President at Signal Group. He formerly served in several roles within House Republican leadership in addition to serving as Chief of Staff to Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.).