Next year’s legislative agenda

What will Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) do to show voters that their party can deliver results before the election? How will this affect different constituencies on K Street?

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Many politicians, pollsters, pundits and strategists believe the 2010 election will boil down to whether or not there are more American jobs. Therefore, the real question is what measures the Democratic leadership will put forward if the monthly unemployment figures do not turn around in a positive direction.

The media has spent much of the year reporting a myriad of crises and then noting plans by the Obama administration and Capitol Hill Democrats to solve them. Issues like healthcare, Afghanistan, financial regulatory reform and cap-and-trade have dominated the headlines on Capitol Hill.

Out of all of these, it is obvious that most of the energy is being spent on getting healthcare reform to President Barack Obama’s desk. But, in doing so, the Democratic majority has so far failed to set up its accomplishment list or next year’s agenda for political success in 2010.

When I worked in the House and Senate Republican leadership during our time in the majority, we would coordinate to develop a common legislative agenda in mid-November for the following year. That agenda would then be presented to the December leadership retreat and then adjusted and ratified during the full membership retreat in January. Then it was off to the races: putting forward politically popular proposals to try and convince voters Republicans were solving their problems.

It doesn’t look like the other side is following the same organizational pattern since it has too many balls in the air and not enough time to get everything done. This means that next year’s agenda is likely going to be thrown together rather quickly, with plenty of legislative holdovers from this year.

So what will the top priorities be next year, and how will they address creating jobs? This is a short list, but representative of what we might expect the large fights to be over:

Healthcare reform — Doubts are growing in every corner of our nation’s capital that this will get done by the end of the year. Congress will probably remain very engaged with healthcare reform until next January or even into early February. If there is a bill that passes, members who voted for it will have to waste time explaining and defending themselves from potentially confused and hostile constituents about what is actually in it.

Cap-and-trade — Members of Congress openly admit that this bill is not going to see the light of day until next year. If jobs numbers don’t turn around during the first quarter of 2010, it will be hard to imagine members from manufacturing states voting for cap-and-trade. Republicans will also frame the measure as an anti-jobs bill.

Financial regulatory reform — Because of the attention paid to healthcare reform this year, this could still slip into 2010. The administration will try to use this as a communications tool, i.e., protecting Main Street from Wall Street.

Taxes — Most of the tax relief passed by the Republicans in 2001 and 2003 will expire by the end of 2010. Obama has only promised to keep middle-class tax relief, setting up a strong play for Republicans to connect the themes of increasing taxes with destroying jobs.

Card-check — The Employee Free Choice Act would change how unions are allowed to organize workers in the United States. Opponents argue that it will have a devastating impact on businesses at a time of economic uncertainty and high unemployment.

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Immigration — Democratic leaders believe that they will be able to force Republicans who may be in tough primaries to waver on immigration due to ethnic political pressures. If the past is a mirror to the future, this will be another distracting, high-profile election-year fight. But what will it accomplish to reinforce job creation?

Another stimulus package — With little they can do to affect jobs, the administration is setting up a communications plan to frame the issue to the voters. But when members of Congress begin to hear anger and frustration from voters, watch out for the panic button. That means the most likely political vehicle for the Democrats to use next year will be more billions of dollars in spending on projects.

The media coverage, combined with the political arguments that the administration and Congress took on too much this year, will give way to a theme that this is a do-nothing Congress. This year’s agenda will become much of next year’s agenda without real promise for results. And if unemployment does not turn around in time, it may force additional spending measures to be introduced along with another stimulus package as the alarm bells grow louder.

Bonjean is a partner with Singer Bonjean Strategies, a full-service public-affairs firm. He was chief of staff for the Senate Republican Conference under Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and the top spokesman for then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), -Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), -U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans and other House members. Contact him at ron@singerbonjean.com .