Washington Report: Policymaking Admidst a Firestorm

by Craig Piercy, ACPA Washington Advocate

Unless you are just returning from a one-month expedition to Antarctica, you know that Washington is in a Category 5 political firestorm over President Trump’s withholding of military assistance to Ukraine in exchange for acquiring damaging political information on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Events are moving fast. What I write now will probably be overtaken by events before you read it. Without rehashing the facts of the case, it certainly seems at this juncture that we are headed for impeachment proceedings in the House and some form of trial in the Senate.

Trump’s strategy is pretty clear: Run out the clock. By stonewalling the House impeachment investigation using executive privilege and fighting protracted legal challenges in federal court, he can probably still survive the remainder of his first term—and possibly win a second term in a no-holds-barred reelection campaign. Actually, It is a reasonable approach, provided: 1) no other corruption-related “shoes” drop; 2) he maintains his GOP “firewall” in the Senate against conviction; 3) the Democrats nominate a leftward candidate whose positions and/or demeanor are off-putting to the political middle; and 4) the economy doesn’t tip into recession before election day.

Judging by the media coverage, you might think Washington has been brought to a complete standstill by the impeachment process, but you would be wrong. There is still significant bipartisan cooperation on issues like reining in pharmaceutical price increases and completion of the FY2020 budget process, and while a protracted impeachment battle could bring legislative progress to a screeching halt, it hasn’t happened yet. A look at the weekly congressional schedule provides ample evidence of serious policy discussion. There were more than 30 congressional hearings on non-impeachment topics last week. To name a few: a hearing in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee examining the future of the U.S. transportation network; a Senate Foreign Relations Committee session on U.S.-Iran policy; a Senate Armed Services Committee session on the “Resiliency of Military Installations to Emerging Threats.”

Will substantive policymaking survive in the face of high political drama? It’s too early to tell, but here’s what to watch. First, in the short term, Congress has to finalize the FY2020 appropriations process, which includes funding for all sorts of federal infrastructure programs—highways, waterways, dams, airports, etc. If it can reach bipartisan agreement and send the president a package he is willing to sign by the beginning of the year, it will be the best indicator that the business of government can continue despite an ongoing impeachment storm. Progress on comprehensive surface transportation legislation is another. The current highway bill expires at the end of September 2020 and so far, there seems to be good bipartisan cooperation on the issue, especially in the Senate. What’s more, I am seeing significant cross-party support to “go big” on funding mileage-based user fee demonstration programs. It may be that we finally fix the concrete pumping industry’s fuel excise tax issue through a nationwide demonstration program administered by the Department of Transportation, rather than changing the Internal Revenue Code.

Having spoken with a number of congressional Republicans and Democrats in the last few weeks, I do sense a growing bipartisan weariness over impeachment. Conservatives and progressives may vehemently disagree on issues like health care or tax policy, but they generally share an earnest desire to help their constituents. At the rank and file level, neither side wants to run with for reelection with impeachment as the defining issue of their campaign. They want to make progress on the pocketbook issues that actually affect people’s daily lives. That drive to “do good” is our best friend right now.