Democrats Gain Power: Now What?

by Henry Hensley

After the mid-term elections, you would have been hard pressed to find a Democrat whose mood was anything but euphoric.  But as Democrats across Washington and throughout the nation toasted victory in the House and Senate, Republicans looking to play killjoy had one ace in the hole through a simple question: Will the Democrats actually be able to change anything?

With weeks to go before the new leadership takes power, the question remains unanswered.  There are some excellent reasons for many Democrats to remain cautious about predicting major change.  Namely, President Bush remains commander-in-chief and the Senate majority is slim.  However, the men and women selected as leaders of the major congressional committees are sending strong signals that the Democrats intend to erase the memory of the second coming of the “Do-Nothing Congress.”

The most crucial power Democrats gained on Election Day is the ability to set the agenda.  Regardless of whether legislation is actually enacted, President Bush and congressional Republicans will now have to deal with a number of touchy issues.

Speaking at a post-election event hosted by the Brooking Institute, senior fellow Thomas Mann said, “We will also see a lot of agenda setting rather than legislating in this coming two years.”

Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will lead the charge.  Pelosi has promised action in the first 100 legislative hours (which could last weeks) as part of the “Six for ‘06” agenda.  The media and political pundits have called Pelosi’s plan everything from un-ambitious to nearly impossible.  Democrats hope to: Institute lobbying and earmark reform; raise the minimum wage; cut the interest rate on student loans; federally finance stem cell research; pass the remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations; and negotiate lower Medicare prescription drug prices.

Before addressing each point, it should be noted that Pelosi has already garnered some general support for her plans.  Incoming Senate Majority LeaderHarry Reid (D-NV) has pledged to take on the same issues in his chamber.  After an encouraging post-election meeting with Pelosi, Bush vowed to “work together with the Democrats and independents on the great issues facing this country.”

However, talk is easier than action.  Much of the burden of shepherding these reforms through the legislative process will fall upon the members chosen to lead the major congressional committees.

In choosing their leadership, the Democrats rewarded one trait above all – experience.  On the House side, incoming Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY), Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-MI), and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) have a combined 119 years of congressional service.

Experience brings both pluses and minuses.  The new Democratic leaders know how the system works and are experienced compromisers.  On the other hand, those with the most experience also tend to have the most vested interests in maintaining the status quo in the way business gets done.

Take, for example, 14-year veteran Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who is set to become Chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Sub-Committee.  A supporter of Sen. Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) infamous “Bridge to Nowhere,” Murray figures to be a major hurdle to proposed earmark reform.  She recently told the New York Times, “I tell my colleagues, if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next.”

Of the same mindset is 82-year-old Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who will take over the Defense Appropriations Sub-Committee from Stevens.  He told the New York Times that he plans to continue his subcommittee’s approach to earmarks, adding, “I don’t see any monumental changes.”

While any earmark reform may ultimately prove more symbolic than meaningful, the raising of the minimum wage appears to be the slam-dunk on the agenda.  Most congressional leaders and the general public believe that this is a long overdue measure.  With their heavy backing from the business community, Republican leadership had little vested interest in bringing the issue to the agenda.  However, they are unlikely to offer much resistance to this issue, which has widespread public support.

Another reason for the comparative ease of raising the minimum wage is that business bears the initial cost of the reform.  On the other hand, government is faced with a hefty price tag in lowering student interest rates, financing stem cell research, and completing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.  Democratic leaders have vowed to restore Pay-Go, a provision of the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act that requires any new legislative spending to be offset by reductions in other programs or new sources of revenue.   Finding money for these programs while also continuing to appropriate money for the War in Iraq could prove nearly impossible.

The remaining issue among the “Six for ’06,” the renegotiation of prescription drug prices, will likely face a Bush veto if it makes it through Congress. Joseph Antos, a healthcare expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington told Forbes magazine that Bush is “certainly not going to abide government negotiating on prescription drugs.”  Democrats contend the current system amounts to a subsidy to the pharmaceutical industry.  Republicans hold that price controls would lead to restrictions on access to certain drugs.

Outside of “Six for ’06,” three areas that may come into focus over the next two years are the environment, the judicial nomination process, and a rebirth of congressional oversight.

Former South Dakota Senator and Georgetown Public Policy Institute visiting professor Tom Daschle predicts that by 2010, climate change could be so important that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will be battling to be viewed as stronger on the environment due to increased public concern over the issue.

Mann sees the judicial nomination and confirmation process changing in fundamental ways, mainly due to increased oversight.  “It may be the biggest impact of this election is that President Bush will be forced, as President Clinton was, into genuine negotiations with the opposition party on his nominees to the courts that may end up along with the whole oversight investigation dimension being the most important implication.”  Mann expects that judges will be chosen more carefully with Democrats in power.

The leadership success of the Democrats mostly depends on one’s perspective.  Daschle noted that only two provisions of the Contract with America, although generally viewed as a major Republican triumph, were actually enacted.

Like most political agendas, the success or failure of “Six for ‘06” will likely come down to how one spins it.  If one is looking for major legislative reform, there will likely be disappointment.  As a lame duck president, Bush will not hesitate to exercise his veto power, despite his unwillingness to veto bills during the first six years of his presidency.  Nevertheless, if one is looking to stick a thorn in the side of Bush and the congressional Republicans, let the good times roll.

Email Henry Hensley at hvh@georgetown.edu

 

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