Despite the non-stop chaos, the 118th Congress was able to briefly hold itself together just long enough to avoid a self-inflicted financial crisis and side-step a potentially painful government shutdown this year.
Our Canvass community wasn’t exactly hopeful, but respondents were right on two key counts. The first: Congress would do what it needed to before calamity struck, and that’s about it.
In May, a good majority (57%) of our K Street respondents said they were confident President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy would come to some sort of deal to raise the debt limit. The Fiscal Responsibility Act was passed by Congress and signed by the president in June, just in time to avoid a financial catastrophe.
The Fiscal Responsibility Act capped federal spending levels for two years. This was arguably McCarthy’s first major legislative test as speaker. His ability to bring Biden to the negotiating table and deftly navigate Republicans’ tiny House majority were accomplishments alone.
Those good times did not last. McCarthy’s final test as speaker was funding the government before the end of September. After repeated clashes with his far-right flank, McCarthy ultimately turned to Democrats to help pass a short-term spending package. That prompted a small group of Republicans to oust him.
The House has been a mess ever since, even with the subsequent election of Speaker Mike Johnson. (On some counts, Johnson’s approach has arguably added to the chaos.)
That brings us to the second correct call from our Canvass respondents: 86% of K Street leaders believed this Congress would be ineffective at passing meaningful legislation. Probably not the toughest prediction we’ve asked our readers to make, but a win’s a win.
A lot of reform legislation has fallen victim to congressional dysfunction this year. For instance, after the mini-banking crisis over the spring, the Senate Banking Committee introduced a bipartisan package with new accountability standards for bank executives. It won’t see a floor vote until next year at the earliest.
Lawmakers also spent a lot of time this year trying to craft aviation reforms as part of a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, including pilot training procedures. So far, Congress has had to settle for short-term extensions as negotiations drag on in the Senate.
Suffice it to say that split control of Congress was not a productive environment for lawmakers to address the nation’s problems.
But there’s at least one twist to keep in mind as we limp into the New Year. What would normally be a year-end spending battle to fund the government has been pushed to January and February.
Lawmakers have already told us they see opportunities to attach financial reform proposals to those packages, assuming Congress manages to fund the government in the first quarter and not punt further into 2024.
So maybe 2023 is a bit of a bust for legislation. But we’ll know soon whether 2024 is shaping up to break that mold or sink further into it. Heading into an election year – and thus, historically, pretty unproductive – we’re not holding our breath.
— Brendan Pedersen