Recess Report: The Policy Agenda Of A Republican-Led Congress

Erin Carson, Lead Analyst Sunday October 5th 2014

Recess Report: The Policy Agenda of a Republican-Led Congress

As pundits continue to project the likelihood of a Republican takeover, the question becomes how much the shift in power would actually affect change: whether Republicans would be able to implement a legislative agenda, or whether partisan gridlock would create a lack-of-business as usual. 

Republicans already have control of the House, so winning the majority in the Senate could provide a chance for Republicans to advance their key priorities, including an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, a jobs bill, and energy legislation. However, Senate Democrats still maintain the power of the filibuster, a tool which Republicans used repeatedly over the last two years as the minority party. It is also unclear whether Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) – if he were to become the Majority Leader – would open up the amendment process that led to the downfall of so many bipartisan initiatives in the last year. As a result, many controversial issues could remain embroiled in partisan fighting – especially between 2014 and 2016.

In addition, for bills that did pass both Republican-led chambers, President Obama would still maintain his veto power. President Clinton vetoed thirty-five bills and issued a veto threat on over 140 bills during his second term acting in a divided government from 1995-2000.

This in itself might be the biggest change: that President Obama would have his hand forced to demonstrate the policies he is for and against, instead of allowing controversial bills to die in the Senate. The change would have ramifications for Republican-led bills that also have some level of Democrat backing, such as Keystone XL and a repeal of the Medical Device Tax. 

Either way, there are Republican agenda items that would clearly die, and some that might succeed. Here’s a rundown of what Republicans would aim to achieve:

Blocked Nominations

Republicans would have the power to block Obama’s nominations to federal courts and administration jobs that require confirmation. Under the Democrat-led Senate, Democrats confirmed executive-branch appointees and judges with only 51 votes, a result of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) filibuster reforms. Under a Republican Senate, this would change, which would be significant, particularly if there is a Supreme Court vacancy during this time.

Environmental Protection Agency: Regulatory Reform

A number of House committees have spent much of the year focusing on curbing EPA powers.  The House drafted and passed legislation that would take away the EPA’s ability to revoke mining permits, set strict standards for future standing source emissions, and further limit the EPA’s ability to set new Clean Air and Water Act rules. Should Republicans gain control of the Senate, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Environment and Public Works Committee; and Agriculture Committee would also be involved in curbing EPA regulatory authority. In particular, the next Chairman of Environment and Public Works could either be Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA), or senior member Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who  was the Committee’s Chairman for four years until the Democrat takeover in 2007 and who is known for arguing that climate change is not a man-made phenomenon. On the House side, key committees include Science, Space and Technology; Transportation and Infrastructure; and Energy and Commerce, which would be able to work with the Senate on many of their previously passed bills. The majority of these bills have aimed to curb EPA power, and some general reforms could gain bipartisan traction. Some analyst suspect, however, that under a Republican majority the bills could go farther and try to abolish the EPA altogether, which, together with bills that would dramatically affect pollution control, would be blocked by Senate Democrats or vetoed by the President.

Domestic Energy Production: Keystone XL, Oil and Gas Production, LNG Exports

If Republicans win control of the Senate they will gain power of two critical energy-related committees: Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works. Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) would most likely become Chairwoman of the Natural Resources Committee, and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA), or senior member Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) would take over Environment and Public Works. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has also been particularly partisan in the 113th Congress, and a Republican-led Congress would pave the way for the committee to advance priorities such as facilitating the Keystone XL Pipeline’s approval, opening up drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf, and expediting Liquid Natural Gas exports. Under Republican leadership, the pipeline would almost certainly win final approval in Congress, and possibly from the President. Republicans would also focus on the impact of EPA’s regulations on conventional and renewable energy and on nuclear power, as well as on regulations over air, water, and land pollution. 

Finance: Balanced Budget, Spending Cuts, and Tax Reform

Republicans have long held the mantra of spending cuts, budget cuts, and lower taxes, and control of critical spending committees would further this agenda. Republicans would continue to push for a balanced budget amendment and spending and budget cuts in the next Congress, as well as tax reform provisions that aim for a simpler tax code with lower rates.

Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) or Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) would be the likely be next Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Ranking Member Sessions is a social and fiscal conservative aligned with the Tea Party, and he has been a staunch opponent to the Obama Administration’s tax and spending policies. He led the 2013 Senate filibuster of the 2013 Ryan-Murray Budget deal because discretionary spending would rise over sequestration levels, and he would likely push for further spending and budget cuts in the next Congress. In the Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-UT) would likely take the helm, and he would focus on matters related to taxation and revenue, including corporate taxes, tariffs, customs, and revenue sharing, as well as health programs under the Social Security Act that are financed by taxes or trust funds. In the Senate, Republicans could likely push for a comprehensive tax overhaul. 

In the House, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has used the Republican budget as a platform for expressing core Republican values and economic policies, but moving forward House Republicans might be more likely to push specific line item text code changes. Much of the internal debate within the Republican Party will depend on the Republican leadership in critical committees. Rep. Ryan is also vying for the Chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) is could either return to lead Financial Services in 2015 but has also been reported as potentially running against John Boehner for the House speakership after the midterm elections. 

Government Affairs: Oversight of the Obama Administration

Strict and at times all-consuming oversight of the Obama administration has been a key tenant of the House Republican Leadership plan during the 113thCongress. Nearly every House Committee has worked to curb federal powers. Their reforms, however, have thus far been stalled in the Senate.   If Republicans gain control of both chambers, House Committee leaders will be able to work with their Senate counterparts on some of their past reform efforts.  For example, the House Ways and Means Committee would be able to work with the Senate on Affordable Care Act reform; and the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Science, Space and Technology Committee would work with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation on EPA reform, the Administration’s climate policy and spending, and the Obama Administration’s work on certain urban transportation incentives. 

More specifically, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has been one of the most historically partisan panels in the House and has emphasized oversight of the Obama Administration. Despite the partisanship, Republican and Democratic committee members have been united in their criticism of the Secret Service this fall after a series of security breaches – culminating in an armed intruder running through the White House in September – came to light. The panel already has held one hearing on the issue, after which Secret Service Director Julia Pierson resigned, and likely will continue its focus on the agency during the lame-duck session and into next year. Still, the current Chair, Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-CA), has been a particularly active and aggressive chairman, holding multiple hearings on topics ranging from the management controversy at the IRS to hiring and firing civil servants, all the while making liberal use of the panel’s subpoena power. Chairman Issa and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings of Maryland have worked together on some issues, notably on postal service reform and greater autonomy for the District of Columbia, but they have a fractious relationship and clash much more often than not. Issa is term-limited as chairman, so unless he seeks a waiver and it’s approved, the gavel will go to someone else – most likely Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who was especially vocal after the Secret Service security breaches were publicized. Other possible Republican contenders for chairman include Jim Jordan (R-OH), and John Mica (R-FL). Either way, a new Republican chairman would have a similar focus.

Defense and Foreign Policy: Defense Spending and Authorization for War

Republicans will have the opportunity to reverse the Obama Administration's reduction of arms policy under a Republican-controlled Congress. In addition, both the House and Senate will will focus on how to deal with ISIS. Committee leaders will liekly lead the debate in the chamber over whether to go to war with the terrorist group. 

 When Congress returns after the mid-term elections, priority number one for the House Armed Services Committee – regardless of who leads the panel -- will be figuring out a legislative strategy for a vote on whether to go to war with ISIS. President Obama and U.S. allies already are carrying out air strikes in Iraq and Syria against ISIS; Obama is using the authority Congress granted the commander-in-chief in 2001 to go to war with Al-Qaeda as justification for the force. But many Republicans and Democrats believe the president must seek new authority to use force against the latest terrorist threat.

There is some debate between parties, as well as within parties, on whether the current military actions against ISIS require an authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) from Congress. The White House position is that the prior authorization on the use of force against Al-Quaida and its offshoots sufficiently covers current actions against ISIS. Senate Democrats are eager to vote on the authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) as a way to limit the Administration's actions by removing a "boots on the ground" and "blank check" policy. However, Senate Republicans are split between those, like Sens. McCain (R-AZ) and Graham (R-SC), that are more eager to press forward in the fight against ISIS, and those like Sens. Paul (R-KY) and McConnell (R-KY) that emphasize authorization from Congress specific to this military action. However, a vote on AUMF is less likely to occur anytime soon if there is a Republican takeover of the Senate. 

Such a vote before the 114th Congress convenes in January is highly unlikely unless something dramatic happens; House Speaker John Boehner has said he favors a vote next year when the new legislative session begins. In addition, current House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA), is retiring from Congress, so the historically bipartisan committee will have a new leader in January.

In addition, during the 113th Congress, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees held several closed briefings on the security situation in Iraq and extensively debated how to prevent and prosecute sexual assaults in the military. Those debates likely will continue into the next Congress regardless of who controls the committee

Education and Social Welfare: Charter Schools and Enforcing Cuts to Food Stamps

If Republicans win the Senate majority, a Republican Congress would seek to put forth an alternative to the divisive No Child Left Behind policy and would move to create more school voucher programs and deregulate higher education. For example, Republicans would reauthorize the Charter School Program to promote state efforts to expand charter schools, encourage charter schools to reach out to special populations, including low-income students and students with disabilities, and expand school choice options by supporting options to enroll children in local magnet and charter schools. Republicans have also pushed for federal education research through funding for the Institute of Education Sciences, direct funding for public and nonprofit school grants, and for scholarships for low-income or disabled children to use toward public or private schools. 

 In addition, a Republican majority would impact some legislation coming out of the traditionally bipartisan Agriculture committees. Both the Senate and House Ag Committees typically focus on matters relating to bipartisan issues like  agricultural economics, production, commodities, crop insurance and soil conservation, but they also have jurisdiction over matters related to food stamp programs and regulations that impact agriculture and rural economies.  Food stamps are a critical issue with diverging partisan views. Whereas Democratic committee leadership has fought to maintain food stamp programs, Republicans have aimed to cut back on the spending for the program. The 2014 Farm Bill including an $8.7 billion cut to food stamps, and Republicans are calling for a tight enforcement of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rule changes across all states.

Health and Workforce Issues: Repealing Obamacare 

Republicans will try to repeal major pieces of the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," in a budget bill, as well as make major changes in Medicare. The tax on medical devices might gain enough Democratic support to make a presidential veto difficult.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is considered a "close ally" of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), would take over the leadership under a Republican Senate. The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee has jurisdiction over matters related to health care, education policy, and public welfare, including child labor, labor standards, and equal employment, among other areas. Sen. Alexander has been an outspoken opponent of the Obama Administration’s contraception mandate and has called for Republicans to start over from Obamacare to find a way to reduce the cost of health insurance.  

Homeland Security: Border Security and Agency Management 

Members of Congress involved in midterm elections are not likely to move on the highly charged immigration and border issues. However, President Obama is expected to move forward on immigration issues after the election, which will likely call for some response by the Republican leadership in the lame duck Congress and the new Congress.

Under a Republican majority, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs chair would go to Ranking Member Tom Coburn of Oklahoma; however, Coburn has announced he won’t seek re-election in 2016. The current Chairman, Tom Carper of Delaware, and Coburn have a strong working relationship; they both have a keen interest in government management and operations. Because of the committee’s broad jurisdiction, the two have worked on issues ranging from cybersecurity and border protection to postal reform and federal employee compensation. Still, the panel will be busy this fall and into the 114th Congress, as immigration reform simmers and Washington tries to figure out how to deal with the influx of refugees from Central American countries.