Why Congress Had to Punt So Many Fights Into 2018

The tax bill ate up too much time and attention for lawmakers to resolve disputes over spending, immigration, and surveillance.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
Dec. 21, 2017, 8 p.m.

Love him or hate him, Speaker John Boehner knew how to close out the year. The former Republican leader had a penchant for “clearing the barn,” as he would put it, rather than let the stench from a pile of the session’s unfinished business waft into the new year.

Not least among the reasons for this tactic was the theory that it may be better to force members to eat a barn-cleaning sandwich in December, only to go home and flush it through the system with some home-cooked Christmas ham and turkey, and plenty of wine. Members could come back to Washington well rested, well fed, and not quite as angry about what they voted on the month prior.

Not so under Speaker Paul Ryan, whose single-minded devotion to delivering tax cuts this year has left a logjam of must-pass issues that, thanks to a recent tight vote to extend them in the short term, will have to be taken up in January and beyond.

“We just had an inordinate amount of time, which was important, dealing with the tax issue. It just sucked up a lot of oxygen out of the room,” Rep. Scott Tipton said. “You’d like to be able to close out every issue. The nature of the institution sometimes doesn’t always seem to allow that to be able to happen.”

Among the issues still seeking legislative solutions are not just some of the most contentious issues separating Republicans from Democrats, such as the legal status of undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors, Obamacare-stabilization efforts, and funding children’s health care. Republicans will also have to tackle issues that are flash points for internal conflict, such as a warrantless-wiretapping program, tax extenders, and government spending.

Close to no House Republicans question the decision to focus on taxes, since the overhaul bill passed. But there is a recognition that starting 2018 with a schedule of contentious items amounts to getting off on the wrong foot.

Rep. Steve Womack said the GOP’s do-or-die approach to tax legislation paid off, but that it did come at a cost to other congressional items.

“You have now created for yourself some cliffs coming up in the new year that creates a certain amount of leverage for specific groups, and they’ll play those cards. They’ll use that leverage, and I think that will show some divisions within our conference,” he said. “There will be fights, and it won’t be pretty, and it’s going to be unpleasant at times because we do cede leverage to certain groups, but that’s the price you pay.”

Among those groups, of course, is Democrats. Their refusal to vote for short-term funding measures this week forced Republicans to cobble together the votes among their own members.

Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry said the fact that Republicans are still riding the high of passing tax legislation made them more amenable to working with leaders on the short-term measures, but that nonetheless it shows the GOP can pass these kinds of bills on their own.

“It is difficult for us to pass a plain vanilla item, [and] the most conservative has been a hell of a lift. For us to get two CRs on our own without the help of a single Democrat is historic in my time, in my 13 years in Congress,” he said.

Still, whether that is sustainable is another matter. Approving an omnibus spending bill that can also pass the Senate will almost certainly require Democratic votes. Democrats have made clear that unless Ryan includes measures helping the aforementioned immigrants, they will balk.

That is an issue so contentious for many in his conference that it could poison the well on issues yet to come. And in fact, conservatives are primed to lose out early next year.

“I’m not optimistic that there will be a whole lot of conservative wins in the month of January,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. “When you put a whole lot of decisions together at one time, normally what that means is you’re trying to build a coalition that would include almost all Democrats and very few Republicans, especially as it relates to spending.”

It cannot be overlooked, however, that another group that stands to gain from the pile-up of legislation is the Freedom Caucus itself. Meadows has been doing an unusual amount of deal-making at the end of this year, so it stands to reason that the group’s tendencies will even out.

“It’s a double-edged sword. The caucus has historically been built around fairly principled and ideological stands. If you become so pragmatic, so transactional that you’re just another flavor of all the other flavors that are in town, you may lost some of your power,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, a member of the conservative group. “You’d better watch out. You go too far in that regard and you could begin to lose some of the brand that has stood out for a lot of people.”

So it is certain that the group will flex its muscle when it comes to measures that have been nonstarters, like the immigration bill, Obamacare stabilization, and an extension of warrantless-wiretapping powers. On the latter issue, leadership already promised Freedom Caucus members a full debate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act’s Section 702 in exchange for their votes on the continuing resolution.

Then there is the matter of floor time. Already facing a truncated year because of the coming midterm elections, leaders will be forced to dedicate the first legislative quarter to clearing the work that piled up while they were passing tax legislation. That will make a challenge of finding time to work on their stated priorities of entitlement reform and infrastructure spending.

“It does slow us down on some things I’d like to get taken care of,” Rep. Bill Flores said. “The big challenge is, the amount of real estate we have on the calendar is not going to let us get things done as quickly.”

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