Will Congress score headlines or legislative wins in next session?

Greg Nash

The 116th Congress may be doomed before it even begins. Less than one month before the new session gavels in for the first time, members of both the House and Senate already face pressures to continue the cycle of using their legislative power to do everything they can but legislate.

In the House, a young and diverse Democratic freshman class has arrived following a successful campaign message that focused more on health care than on the president. But such policy goals highlighted on the campaign trail face substantial roadblocks. Like Republicans in past years, Democrats are facing leadership challenges and frustrations with the old guard of the party. With this new freshman class comes differing views on both the political future of the party and how to find success despite working with the  Senate and White House under Republican control.

{mosads}Appreciating the challenges ahead, members will be tempted to aim for wins in the new headlines rather than on the chamber floor, especially for those with presidential ambitions. Consequently, rather than focusing on shepherding legislation through the Senate and White House, House Democrats are likely to toy with focusing their attention on their newly assumed oversight powers with the Trump administration.

Unfortunately, this potential for stalemate is not unique to one chamber. Lamenting Republican losses in the House, many members of the Senate are also abandoning any lawmaking goals in the new Congress. Instead of legislating, some Republicans have expressed intent to focus their next two years on continuing to confirm judicial nominees, an effort some have called the greatest achievement of Donald Trump in his presidency so far.

Committee hearings and confirmations may become the routine for the next Congress, but it was not why most voters turned out at the polls in November. According to Gallup Poll, the major policy issues for voters included health care, the economy, and immigration. Pew Research found that a majority of voters were concerned that if Democrats gained power in Congress, they would fail to “strike the right balance in overseeing the Trump administration” by focusing far too heavily on investigations.

This is not to discount oversight or Senate duty to provide advice and consent. Indeed, the oversight power of Congress is one of its greatest checks against the executive branch, albeit one that has atrophied and needs reinvigoration. The Senate should aspire to fill the 140 vacancies and more in our federal courts by moving forward with confirmations. But after decades of the legislative branch willingly deferring its lawmaking powers to the administrative state in pursuit of shinier prizes, Congress has weakened itself. Members of the next Congress face a similar fate.

But perhaps there is hope. The 116th Congress will possess every tool it needs to not only strengthen its legislative capabilities, but to fulfill its oversight and confirmation goals, if it chooses to do so. One invaluable means to this end is to promote bipartisanship, the path through which legislative goals can be realized. In the realm of rules and procedures, former and possibly soon to be Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently reached a deal with the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus to eliminate some procedural roadblocks that have stifled past bipartisan measures.

Contrary to the convenient narrative, members from across the aisle have already identified potential areas of cooperation, including infrastructure, criminal justice reform, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Bipartisanship has certainly a role to play in the oversight space as well. While overly partisan oversight could upend any legislative goodwill, as Elizabeth Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the Project On Government Oversight, pointed out, “Politically motivated oversight is not necessarily a bad thing, if there are merits there.”

This requires committee leaders to strike a balance between legitimate inquiry and political opportunism. Representative Elijah Cummings has worked to establish this tone already, recently stating, “I am not going to be handing out subpoenas like somebody is handing out candy on Halloween.” He then added, “If I have to use them, they will be used in a methodical way” with the public interest in mind. Other committee leaders should take note, or risk having the oversight role of Congress take all of the oxygen out of the room and leave little time for legislating.

The cynical story of the next Congress is what many expect from our lawmakers. Senate Republicans will rev up the confirmation mill, while House Democrats will dust off their magnifying glasses, all at the expense of getting much else done. But neither of these activities serve the main purpose here. The 116th Congress should forge a new path forward on crossing the aisle, aligning with voters, and getting back to legislating.

Aubrey Neal is the federal affairs manager for the American Institutions Network of the R Street Institute in Washington. Anthony Marcum is a research associate for the Governance Project at the R Street Institute.

Tags Congress Donald Trump Election Elijah Cummings Nancy Pelosi Politics

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