Federal policy is frozen but winter doesn’t last forever

Washington, D.C. is in a policy winter, a deep freeze with little significant legislation likely.

Even after the longest federal shutdown in U.S. history is over, it’s unlikely that major legislation will be enacted over the next two years.

Right now the states are where the policy action is, particularly in the six states where Democrats gained the trifecta of the governorship and both houses of the state legislature. Maine is one of those.

Legislative movement at the federal level will be pretty much nil.

The US Capitol on Jan. 18 as the negotiations to end the month-long partial government shutdown remain stalled in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

But there is good news. Just as farmers and gardeners pore over seed catalogs and start planning for the coming growing season, this is the time to start planning what comes next.

That’s why policy wonks are thinking about what could happen after 2021, with the notion that a president who has never broken 50 percent in job approval will have a hard time being re-elected.

Donald Trump’s only real legislative success was signing a deeply unpopular tax law that fulfilled a driving motivation of former Speaker Paul Ryan. Those cuts have led to a very unusual outcome — declining tax revenues and increasing deficits and debt during a time of economic growth.

Trump’s team is full of neophytes and he hasn’t developed much in the way of governing skill or knowledge. Trump also faces what’s likely a difficult legal terrain ahead as well as enhanced oversight by the House of Representatives.

Health care will remain a key issue, with Democrats looking for another wave of reforms.

Here the past is instructive.

Bill Clinton didn’t get his major health care bill passed, although there were important steps forward, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program. One reason why his proposal failed was the lengthy process developing it involving people outside of Congress. This took valuable time and there wasn’t sufficient congressional involvement to create buy-in.

Barack Obama made health care an early priority and was helped by previous actions in Congress.
In fact, the Obama-era health reform process within Congress was kicked off by a white paper issued shortly after the 2008 election by Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana. The Baucus plan included both a public option and a mandate. Even earlier, after Democrats’ gains after the 2006 midterm elections, internal congressional discussions and negotiations began with health care stakeholders such as hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies, as well as activists and consumer groups.

Of course, after Obama won, a lot more had to happen to develop and pass the Affordable Care Act. During the summer of 2009, Sen. Baucus tried to entice Republican colleagues, including Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, to participate in negotiations, but they dropped out of the process. Democrats stayed united.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives’ health care work benefited from the deep policy knowledge and skills of Rep. Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California.

Despite the rise of the Tea Party and transformation brought about by the election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate, earlier congressional groundwork and persistent congressional leadership helped Obama get health reform passed.

Efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act were hobbled by Republicans not having developed a credible alternative. Before the 2016 election, Trump never made any proposal, and congressional Republicans put out outlines with magic asterisks. Ultimately they introduced legislation that the Congressional Budget Office found would reduce coverage by tens of millions.

Of course not all details for post-2020 legislation on health care, climate change and other issues can be developed beforehand.

But this is a time for serious policy work to be done in congressional committees and working groups, in conjunction with stakeholders and policy experts.

We know Maine’s winter will give way to spring and then summer, with many producing an ample crop. Depending on what people do to make political change and how well they work with others on policy ideas, our federal policy winter can also thaw and good ideas will flourish.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.