Working with an unpredictable Congress

For many of us, trying to figure out the remainder of this Congress feels a lot like picking your NCAA brackets. You know the players and teams and strategize based on known facts, but there’s always an element of surprise, whether it’s a top seed’s unexpected loss or the upset win of a senator in Massachusetts.

Congress is always somewhat unpredictable, but the 111th seems particularly complicated. First healthcare was on, then it was off, then it was on again — all because of the election of one senator. 

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The fate of the healthcare bill will likely be decided this week, and then what? Campaign finance reform because of the January Supreme Court decision seems likely. Financial regulatory reform also looks good. Is a comprehensive energy and climate bill dead this year? Most likely. Will Congress turn to a jobs package to reassure a skeptical public that it cares about its economic woes? It should, but what could pass? It’s anyone’s guess.

The only thing people seem to agree on is that it will be extremely difficult to get much of anything accomplished during the time left. A senior House Democratic leadership aide told me that with so many Democrats feeling vulnerable right now, unless legislation is bipartisan or viewed as virtually risk-free, you won’t see it this year. And, given the midterm elections, Congress will likely grind to a halt by the summer, so the next few months may be the only window.

The partisan gridlock is frustrating to the general public — just look at Congress’s abysmal approval ratings. It’s also frustrating to clients who are looking for guidance and strategy on what to expect and when. It’s difficult to provide valuable counsel when something is true one day and then completely wrong the next. You throw in the upcoming midterm elections, concerns over the economy and an eye-popping budget deficit and you have a recipe for pure gridlock. 

So in this frenetic environment, how can you best advise your clients? 

•Be prepared and nimble. A well-planned strategy must allow for tactical changes along the way. Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) upset victory changed the healthcare debate, but it didn’t mean legislation was dead — there was just a different path forward. It’s generally not a secret what legislation may be on the horizon. Timing is usually the wildcard. So if you think an issue may be coming, even lacking specifics, you can develop a nimble plan to accomplish your strategic imperatives. 

• Manage expectations. The ways of Washington can be confusing at best, especially to those outside the Beltway. I experienced this firsthand when I told a client that an opinion piece on the healthcare bill had been accepted Monday, only to have Sen. Brown elected Tuesday, making the piece moot by Wednesday. And given that we’re getting closer to the midterm elections, clients should understand that many issues are now off the table, so best to start preparing for next year.

• Be imaginative. This is not the year to do things the old way. For example, adding student loan reform to healthcare reform and passing both by reconciliation is a clever way to get both done. 

• Be issue-driven, not party-driven. We all understand Congress is partisan, but over the past decade or more, it has become even more so. Moderates in both parties have retired or lost, making members more entrenched and less open to compromise. Redistricting has also limited the number of competitive races. This has significantly narrowed the number of swing votes on any given issue, making it all the more critical to reach these members. 

Offering solutions that both sides can agree on will be critical for the remainder of the 111th Congress and probably even more so in the 112th. While projections vary, most political observers believe that Democrats will lose seats in November. This should move the Congress even more to the center, making it more difficult to pass “controversial” legislation. In this climate, no client can afford to burn bridges over partisanship. The successful clients, and the successful firms that counsel them, will be the ones who can navigate this difficult terrain by finding common-sense, nonpartisan solutions that resonate with both sides. 

Bottom line is do your homework and prepare for the unexpected. You may make a few wrong calls along the way but, unlike your NCAA pool, you can change your brackets and adapt on the fly.

Paxton is a vice president at Hill & Knowlton, a leading international communications firm with 74 offices worldwide, including Washington. She has more than a decade of communications experience on political campaigns, Capitol Hill and in the national media, including work for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), the John Kerry presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. She can be reached at stacie.paxton@hillandknowlton.com.