Congress Returns to a Full Plate… and Huge Uncertainty

I learned long ago that it’s a fool’s game to make predictions about an upcoming session of Congress. That’s because, even during the decades when it functioned according to rules and tradition, the best-laid plans could be knocked askew by world or national events, shifting politics, the whims of an individual senator, or the demands of a powerful House committee chair. These days, all those things are still true—only rules and tradition have generally gone out the window, so there’s even less predictability than there used to be.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll see our first example of this. You probably remember that back in November, Congress avoided shutting down the government by kicking the decision down the road—but only by a little bit. Continued funding for government departments and agencies faces deadlines on January 19 and February 2. The idea in November was to give Congress some breathing room to set priorities for government spending for the coming year—only now, there’s very little time in which to act. With pressure in both chambers to avoid yet another continuing resolution that puts off hard decision-making and leaves government employees uncertain about the future of their programs, it’s possible Congress could get its act together in time—but if it does, it’ll be a nail-biter.

That’s in part because, to make matters even more uncertain, House Republicans have moved forward with an impeachment inquiry focused on President Biden. Their reasoning is ambiguous and the move is likely to put moderate Republicans facing re-election in swing districts in an uncomfortable position. Meanwhile, the House GOP caucus has resolved none of the internal divisions that bedeviled it last year—only this time around, it has an even narrower majority, after members expelled New York Republican George Santos, and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy relinquished his seat at the end of the year. With another Republican due to depart Jan. 21 (Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson will become president of Youngstown State University), just six seats will separate the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House until special elections can take place.

All of this comes against a backdrop of an election year with majorities in both the House and the Senate in play, as well as a high-consequence presidential election. The conventional wisdom holds that very little can get done on Capitol Hill during election years like this one, as legislators stake out positions aimed at garnering votes, rather than racking up legislative accomplishments.

But it’s conceivable that this year could be different. Though President Biden has a number of accomplishments to point to as he runs for re-election, including an overall healthy economy and a variety of bills that passed in the early years of his time in office, he will likely be eager to point to recent legislation, as well. Similarly, members of both the House and the Senate will be anxious to spend as much time as possible at home campaigning, which could put them in a mood to cut substantive deals quickly so that they can focus on re-election in the latter half of the year.

All those calculations will come into play not just on government funding and House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry, but on several burning issues facing Congress. For one thing, among legislators’ must-pass agenda items is a new farm bill, which they didn’t manage to renew last fall, and instead extended until September in hopes—this may sound familiar—of buying more time to come to an agreement. And of even more immediate import, Republicans have tied the Biden administration’s request for aid to both Ukraine and Israel to their demands on stricter immigration laws and border policy; both sides have shown willingness to work toward an agreement, but the issues are knotty and a deal is far from a sure thing.

All of these issues face Congress in the next few months. And all of them are up in the air. Will House and Senate members manage to set aside their differences and be productive? Will they tie themselves up in knots? It will all be worth watching.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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