Politics Getting in the Way

DC Dialogue

Primaries and preparation for general election likely will prevent legislative advancements in D.C.

Published on: June 27, 2014

I often say I enjoy writing about policy, not politics. And for the next few months, I fear there’s going to be more politics getting in the way of good policy.

“GOOD policy finds many places to crawl up and die in this town,” said Jared Hill, director of legislative affairs at the National Grain and Feed Association.

An election year has only complicated matters, as seen in recent weeks with hold ups on votes for tax extenders and appropriations bills in the Senate. Hill noted that Democrats have a lot of seats to defend this fall, which has created a big part of the challenge in allowing any bills to come up for an open debate.

From a legislative standpoint, Congress is about done legislating for the year, explained Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Congress could try to get some tax extenders passed through, but it’s going to be hard. “I think life got more complicated on that front when we lost [former Senate Finance Committee chairman] Max Baucus to China,” she said. On the House side, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp is also not seeking reelection.

The House approved its reauthorization package for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and despite Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., releasing a statement sharing there are some ideas shared and different between the two chambers, it is unlikely Senate Democrats as a whole will have the appetite to take up its own bill this year.

The culmination of the farm bill as well as the waterways bill were two of the first major authorization bills that got through Congress in the new budget-constrained, politically-polarized environment, explained Brad Lubben, policy specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “It shows that something can still get done, even against all kinds of debate,” he said.

Political holdup

Thatcher added that concerns from members of staying alive in primary elections have also halted any recent progress.

After the primary loss of the Republican’s No. 2 – Eric Cantor – many wondered if the Tea Party was making a comeback. However, this week’s run-off win by Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran in Mississippi to a Tea Party-backed candidate state Sen. Chris McDaniel showed that might not be the case. Although a Republican being able to win by saying he’ll bring more money back to the state would not work with most other states’ Republican constituents, Thatcher stated.

The Senate is very much in play this fall in switching from Democrat-controlled to Republican, and the National Republican party took notice of the important role Cochran could play in the final outcome. The 76-year-old Cochran has served for 36 years in the U.S. Senate.

Thatcher noted many political pundits say the Senate could go Republican, but that won’t resolve any of the political impasse issues facing Congress. In the Senate, if the majority is 52-48 or 51-49 as it currently is, obtaining the 60 votes remains a high hurdle.

Thatcher warned that Tea Party members continue to be a force to reckon with, and have continually complicated matters for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Democrats too are being challenged in primaries as to whether or not they’re “liberal enough.”

“We have so few swing districts left in this country, that most are more concerned about running to the right or left, rather than reaching across the aisle,” Thatcher said.

If Republicans do take over control of the Senate, Cochran could assume the role of chairman of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., could become the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Last year Roberts stepped down from the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee in order to allow for Cochran to take over the helm due to seniority. Roberts previously served as the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee but Democrats have been in control of the Senate over the past decade, limiting him from assuming the top position.

Meanwhile, Lucas easily secured his name as the Republican on the House’s 3rd Congressional District ticket this fall, obtaining 83% of the vote. He’s been in office since 1994 and often seen as the Job of this year’s approved farm bill after years of work.

Lame lameduck

Hill shared he’s hearing from many members that it’s unlikely much will get done during the remainder of the year. “I’m not sure the lameduck is going to be the panacea of activity that some people expect it to be,” he said.

Thatcher added the lame duck session after the elections will be “truly lame if Republicans take over the Senate,” as they’ll no longer look to work across party lines in hopes of passing something more in line with their liking.