First Impressions: The 114th Congress

by: Michael Shields

The newly-elected, Republican dominated Congress wasted little time in making their presence felt…..

Freshman Photo

On January 6th of this blossoming new year, the 114th Congress installed itself beneath the scaffolding of the under-repair, soaring Capitol dome. For the first time since Obama took office, Republicans have grabbed the reins of power in both houses of Congress. Fifty-four seats are now in the Grand Ole Party’s domain in the Senate (as opposed to forty-six for the Democrats), along with a whopping two hundred and forty-seven seats in the House of Representatives (as opposed to one hundred and eighty-eight for the Democrats). And now, with the Republican Party in full command of the Legislative Branch, they appear hellbent on change. But the question we must ask ourselves is: what sort of change?

Just yesterday, the House of Representatives, with its newly installed Republican majority, passed a measure to force the approval of the controversial XL Keystone Pipeline. This pipeline has the capacity to run crude oil from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast, crossing numerous protected wildlife and forestry habitats on its thousands mile long journey to the warm waters of the south. This Republican-championed measure heads next to the Senate, where it is expected to pass with ease. The Executive Branch, with its power of veto, has already stated that President Obama, in the name of environmentally concerned citizens everywhere, will refuse to sign the bill into law.

Meanwhile, a bill aimed at curbing a provision in ObamaCare that right-wing legislators believe may be detrimental to the job market as a whole, righteously labeled the Save America’s Workers Act, aims to change the definition of a full-time worker who is eligible for health care under ObamaCare. Currently, workers who log thirty hours in a work week are eligible for healthcare benefits. But this new Affordable Care Act-related legislation desires to increase this threshold to a forty-hour minimum. The goal of this change, according to Republican leaders, is to protect workers by defining full-time employees as those working at least 30 hours per week. This would combat the presumption that Obamacare, as composed presently, pressures firms to save money by cutting workers’ hours and thus diminishing the number of full-time jobs. Opponents wittingly acknowledge that this is merely the opening salvo in a Republican-held Congress’s assault upon a healthcare system they have vehemently opposed since its inception. Viewpoints notwithstanding, The House voted 252-172, mostly along party lines (which is short of the 290 needed to accumulate a ⅔ majority vote to override a veto) in favor of this minor, yet profoundly impactful tweak to ObamaCare. But as was the case with the bill proposed to force the approval of the XL oil pipeline, the White House has vowed to exercise its veto power.

The new, and extremely active Congress, in a unique burst of bipartisan cooperation, also approved a bill constituents from both parties generally favor. A day after passing through the House with ease, the Senate, in a 93-4 vote, approved legislation renewing the federal program that props up the private market for insurance against terrorist attacks. On top of that this past Tuesday, Congress also passed The Hire More Heroes Act with overwhelming bipartisan support (412 – 0) in the House of Representatives. This bill grants businesses who employ veterans that have their own military healthcare plans the right to not count them towards the employee limits under the Affordable Care Act reforms. The idea behind this alteration is that if employers are not obligated to count military vets (the law’s “employer mandate” calls for firms with 50 or more full-time employees to offer health insurance or pay a tax penalty), they will be more likely to hire them.

And finally within this active legislative week, the House voted to enable the Congressional Budget Office to use something known as “dynamic scoring,” a Washingtonian term used to describe imposing Conservative ideology upon the task of measuring the budgetary impact of legislation. Opponents, and those who understand the fundamentals of mathematics, view this change as part of the incessant struggle by Republicans on behalf of low taxes for the rich, and the bookkeeping procedures that have previously stood in their way.

Not to be outdone, next week the Republicans have a vote planned in the House of Representatives in an attempt to block Obama’s immigration policy that will shield thousands of immigrants in the country illegally from deportation. This is a hot-button issue, so much so that many of the Congressional Republicans now in office owe their election to their stance against this policy.

All this activity in such a short amount of time is a dramatic example of how fast things can move. The 114th Congress appears hungry. In an effort to combat the Obama administration’s bolder moves, and to prove that they differ from the previous Congress’ ineptitudes (the government shutdown, the near sovereign default, etc.), they are eager and ready to act. This week functions as a fervent reminder that paying attention is critical1. That legislation, both positive and damaging, can be enacted with zest. Good can be undone. Dangerous and impactful acts can become law within a moment’s notice. If these first few days are any indication, the Republicans have not taken lightly their newfound numerical advantage, and plan to make some noise within the vaulted chambers of the Capitol.

Many believe that Congress works best while wholly under control by any one party, as it is now. A divided congress, they reason, ultimately results in little action, a notion confirmed by the unproductiveness of the previous Congress. But while the ‘less is more’ argument hardly seems applicable, as there is copious amounts of work still to be done, those on the left are beginning to long for those far more fruitless days. As no change will always be preferred to change that leads us as a nation down the wrong path. It is no secret that the President and the Republicans do not agree on much, and the House and Senate leaders now find themselves in partisan accord, and able to impose their mark upon proposed legislation. While many of the bills and legislative amendments that we have discussed here will not be passed into law due to the presidential veto powers, they are a telling sign of what lies in wait down the road. And this aggressive first week in session has made it clear what the Republicans’ priorities are, and the lengths they are willing to go to achieve their goals. The butting of heads between the 114th Congress and the President of The Unites States has just begun. And the question is, will these two parties ever be able to see eye to eye, to reach across the aisle and produce meaningful change? We’re only one week in, and this already appears extraordinarily unlikely.

  1. I am still reeling from the fact that I only came to know this week of the passage of Bill H.R. 1422, also known as the Science Advisory Board Reform Act, which essentially prevents scientists who are peer-reviewed experts in their field from providing advice to the EPA, while at the same time allowing industry representatives with financial interests in fossil fuels to provide their “findings.” []

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