2020 Will be a Marriage of Politics and Policy

Charles Cooper

Despite the conventional thinking around an election year, there are five key signs that indicate policy will be taking center stage in 2020.

Many DC observers view this year’s election and the hyper-partisan atmosphere that comes with it as hurdles to the policymaking process and have essentially shut the door on policy for the year. However, now is the time to abandon the traditional thinking that suggests policy and politics cannot happen concurrently. This year will prove that policymaking and politicking can happen simultaneously, just like 2019 proved that oversight and policymaking can happen simultaneously.

Last year, many highlighted the oversight agenda by House Democrats as a major obstacle to getting needed legislation across the finish line. As rumors of a potential impeachment proceeding spread through the Capitol, hopes of bipartisan and bill signings quickly went away.

But the opposite happened.

Ironically, the week of the impeachment vote also included the passage of all Fiscal Year 2020 funding bills, the National Defense Authorization Act, comprehensive retirement security reform, tax extenders, the repeal of major healthcare-related tax provisions including the “Cadillac tax” and the medical device tax, extensions of the National Flood Insurance Program and the Export-Import Bank, and even an increase in the legal age to purchase tobacco.  It was an odd turn of events to close out the year and certainly conflicted with the narrative that policy would not move, but 2019 will not be the last we see of progress on the policy front.

Despite the conventional thinking around an election year, there are five key signs that indicate policy will be taking center stage in 2020, at least for the next six months and the “lame-duck” session:

  1. Bipartisanship is Driving Policy: The partisan messaging and harsh political rhetoric on network television is not the reality behind the scenes in Congress. Work across the aisle is producing meaningful legislation. The most obvious examples are simply looking at the long list of accomplishments made at the end of 2019 – all of which had strong, bipartisan support.  More bipartisanship is expected this year.
  2. Looming Deadlines Require Action: Nothing incentivizes movement in Congress more than a deadline. Among others, the Transportation Authorization Bill (FAST Act) and FY 2020 funding bills expire on September 30th, and the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and tax extenders expire at the end of December. Not only will Congress be forced to act on these deadlines, but these major bills can certainly become vehicles for other legislation as well. Committee leaders are focused on sending these bills to the President’s desk this year and avoiding extensions into 2021, if possible.
  3. Much of the Work Has Been Done: For several key policy priorities, 2019 was dedicated to working on legislative solutions, engaging with stakeholders, and doing the difficult work of drafting provisions. The U.S. – Canada – Mexico Agreement (USMCA) has already passed the House and is expected to be ratified by the Senate in the near-term. Policy around autonomous vehicles, surprise medical billing, and an outdoor recreation package all have bipartisan and bicameral legislation in the works and momentum behind them to get completed this year. Other legislation, including consumer data privacy and technical corrections to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA), have already had significant work from both sides of the aisle, contain issues that have some urgency, and are well-positioned to advance.
  4. The White House is Engaged: While the White House has often had an awkward relationship with Congress, senior White House staff continues to have significant influence in Congress around the president’s policy priorities. Legislation focused on paid family leave and lowering the cost of prescription drugs, for example, are issues that the White House has prioritized and is working closely with bipartisan champions on Capitol Hill to finish this year.
  5. Election Years Need “Wins”: Elections are a time when policymakers need to remind their states and districts of the value they bring to their constituents, especially in the post-earmark era. Majorities on both sides of the Capitol are also sensitive to criticism from their political opponents that they are not fulfilling key campaign promises. Both sides of the aisle need victories to tout on the campaign trail, and the first six months of this year will be the best opportunity to solidify those victories. The issues that perform well in polls, including reducing the cost of healthcare, will have momentum to get finished prior to the election.

Much of the legislation on key issues are well-advanced in the drafting and policymaking process, and policymakers are working across the aisle and behind the scenes to position bills to move through both chambers of Congress.

The challenge during an election year will simply be keeping these issues out of the political debate, which would almost certainly hamstring its ability to move prior to the election. The “above the fold” issues may be a focus for voters from a messaging standpoint, but the priorities that cross the finish line this year will be those outside the election spotlight that have benefited from quiet, bipartisan work.