Washington Report: Key Questions for 2019

by Craig Piercy, ACPA Washington Advocate

The 2018 election came and went largely according to polling predictions. Democrats gained enough seats to earn a majority in the U.S. House, adding 40 seats to their membership to accumulate 235 Democratic members. By comparison, Republicans are expected to have 199 members in the new session.

The Democrats were also able to flip seven governors’ offices and several state legislatures along the way, while the GOP retained control of the Senate, actually picking up a seat in the process.

There are a few standout takeaways here. First, educated white women abandoned the GOP in large numbers. While most demographic groups’ votes skewed towards the Democratic Party this year, the biggest swing came from white women with a college degree, who trended 15 points more Democratic than in 2016. Second, turnout was amazingly high. This year, roughly 60 million people voted for Democrats. By contrast, Republicans took back both the House and Senate in 2010 with only 45 million votes. Finally, the Midwest has largely reverted. Democrats made significant gains in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states that were pivotal in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. It will clearly be more difficult for him to repeat his 2016 path to victory in the Electoral College in 2020.

So, with Election Day behind us and a new Democratic majority taking control of the U.S. House, what can we expect in the next two years?

At the date of writing this column, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has not released his final report, and while I find it difficult to imagine a scenario where 20 GOP Senators vote to convict President Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, on articles of impeachment drafted by a Democratic House, it is impossible to know for sure.

So let’s start with what we do know for sure. On March 2, the federal government will reach its borrowing limit. Without the authority to issue additional debt, the Treasury needs to take “extraordinary measures” to meet its creditor obligations. Within a few months, a Democratic House and Republican Senate will have to pass legislation to raise the debt limit; otherwise the U.S. government will be in default of its obligations.

The last time there was a debt limit fight was in 2011, which went all the way to the wire. In that case, congressional Republicans were insisting on significant spending cuts from a Democratic president.

President Obama and Congress resolved the impasse by agreeing to a steep, automatic, across-the-board spending cut, known as a “sequester,” that would kick in if the President and Congress could not identify additional savings elsewhere. Of course, every year since, Congress has overridden its own policy and added additional spending back into the budget.

This time around, what will the Democrats demand in exchange for their votes? How will Trump and the Republicans respond? More importantly, how will the financial markets react? After all, we are currently in the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth the U.S. has ever experienced in peacetime. Extended political gridlock could spook the financial markets and tip the economy toward recession. Expect a period of high drama.

As for the ACPA, we will continue to be focused on the prospects of a transportation and infrastructure package. The current federal highway bill expires in 2020, and its inevitable reauthorization provides a clear opportunity to obtain fuel tax relief for the pumping industry.

The President and House Democratic leadership are talking about working closely together to forge workable legislation for improving surface transportation infrastructure across the country. Working out a deal on legislation that can directly benefit so many constituents (aka voters) in advance of the big campaign is a good motivator. And one of the keys to success is to work out an agreement about how to pay for the many needed—but expensive—highway, bridge and transit projects.

Both the incoming chair and ranking member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are strong supporters of VMT—using vehicle miles traveled as the basis for levying a user fee to finance the Highway Trust Fund. While there are many details to sort out, having strong bipartisan leadership for VMT bodes well for a fix to ACPA members’ problem of paying fuel tax for fuel used off-road. Your team in D.C. is already working with congressional offices to secure a place for pumpers in a potential pilot program.