Archive for category Politics

Advancing a Legislative Agenda in the Face of Historic Congressional Gridlock

Posted by on Wednesday, 10 October, 2012

Stop me if you’ve heard this before:  What’s the opposite of progress?  Congress.

Whether your reaction is a groan or a quiet chuckle, we react to that joke because we all know there is an element of truth to it, especially these days. 

The 112th Congress stands to be the least productive Congress since World War II.  Of the approximately 11,000 bills introduced so far in the 112th Congress, only 169, or 1.5%, have been enacted into law*.  This enactment rate is just over half of that of the previous Congress, and less than half that of the 110th Congress. To get a sense of the historical magnitude of the gridlock, consider the fact the 80th Congress, dubbed the “do nothing” Congress by President Harry S Truman, enacted 7.5% of the bills introduced.  Since then, Congress has generally enacted between 3% and 6% of the bills introduced; the exceptions have been the Congresses in which the number of bills introduced has been substantially more than the norm.

Taking a closer look at the number of bills actually enacted, the gridlock in the 112th Congress is further magnified in comparison to its modern predecessors, which, on average, enacted 609 bills into law.

This is not to suggest that the 112th Congress is sitting idly by doing nothing.  Each chamber has passed its share of bills (613 have passed the House; 519 have passed the Senate), but few are getting to the finish line.  Throughout the Congress, the House has engaged in a practice of sending bills to the Senate that have no chance of being considered by, much less passing, the upper chamber.  While the Senate’s quantity of bills seems on par with its counterpart, most of these bills are honorifics; substantive lawmaking has been the exception not the rule.  Between April 2011 and August 2011, the Senate did not pass a single bill “regular order,” meaning it was brought to the floor, debated, opened to amendment and passed.  Digging deeper and looking at the committee level, the Senate Banking Committee, the committee to which the Credit Union Small Business Jobs Act has been referred, has reported out only four pieces of legislation – the Export-Import Bank Reauthorization, an Iran Sanctions bill, the Flood Insurance bill and a resolution establishing the committee’s budget. 

Congress’s ability to get even the most routine legislation enacted has been severely curtailed.  Legislation that historically receives broad bi-partisan support, like the farm bill, the surface transportation bill and the defense authorization bill, has encountered significant resistance and delay.  Congress enacted none of the appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year.  Hyper-partisanship rules on Capitol Hill; consensus is elusive; gridlock is the result.

Now, there is a strong argument to be made that the best Congress is the Congress that does the least, but that’s not the case when you’re advocating an agenda that requires Congressional action.  The current legislative and political environment has made it extraordinarily challenging for credit unions – or any other group for that matter – to move its legislative agenda.

With Congress recessed until after the election, the focus now turns to the post-election – lame duck – session.  While Congress has already punted the appropriation process into the next Congress by enacting a continuing resolution which funds the government until March 2013, there is no shortage of issues which need to be addressed before the end of the year.  The failure of the Super Committee to produce a recommendation to reduce the deficit has set up a sequestration process which will result in significant spending cuts to defense and non-defense programs, unless Congress acts to reduce the deficit before the end of the year.  There are several tax provisions, including the Bush tax cuts, which will expire unless Congress acts.  The farm bill and the highway bill remain on the table.

Assuming the election produces the status quo – that is, that the president wins reelection, the House remains in Republican control and the Democrats retain their majority in the Senate – one could foresee the potential for a robust post-election session.  It is reasonable to assume that some of the acrimony dissipates post-election; defeated or retired members may feel a bit more freedom to participate in compromise approaches to the outstanding issues; and the leadership may have greater incentive to get issues off the table so they don’t hang over the next Congress.  However, even if those assumptions play out, there is no guarantee that it will produce solutions to problems that have divided Congress and the nation for so long. 

The clock provides significant leverage to those who seek to keep things from happening.  When Congress returns on November 14th, they will face a short week before Thanksgiving.  When they return after Thanksgiving, there will be just four weeks until Christmas.  After Christmas, the Congress has only a week until it expires and the new Congress convenes.  It’s a remarkably short period of time for a Congress which heretofore has demonstrated almost no ability to enact even the most routine pieces of legislation much less solve the nation’s greatest problems of the day.  Frankly, the fact that the chambers haven’t even been able to agree when to recess speaks volumes about the potential for the lame duck.

Prospects for a robust lame duck session, complicated under the best of circumstances, may completely evaporate if the elections result in a change in control of the presidency or either chamber of Congress.  If the president fails to win reelection, Congressional Republicans have little incentive to work with him after election; if Republicans gain a majority in the Senate, the Senate Republicans could effectively block all action until their numbers improve after January 3.  Likewise, if the Democrats were to hold the presidency and the Senate and pick up the House, it is not outside the realm of possibility that they would punt big decisions into the 113th Congress.

So, where does that leave groups, like us, who have common sense, job creating legislation ripe for consideration before Congress?  We’ve been promised a vote on the Credit Union Small Business Jobs Act before the end of the year.  Will we get the vote?  Will we win the vote?  Can we get this done? 

The answer to all of these questions can be “yes.”  Congress will be here for several weeks after the election and they will have measures on the floor.  While nothing is certain, the promise of a vote seems as firm as possible at this stage.  Winning the vote depends on our ability to solidify and expand on the support we have in the Senate.  We’ll need the people most invested in the success of this legislation to speak out and speak loudly.  The deck is stacked against us:  while the bankers who oppose us are formidable, our greatest challenge to getting this done is the fact that the Congressional process has essentially collapsed.  We’re fighting not just the banks, but also historical Congressional gridlock.


*All statistics are as of August 28, 2012, unless otherwise noted.


Credit Unions Turning Conventional Political Wisdom on Its Head

Posted by on Tuesday, 17 August, 2010

Lost amid all the hubbub of higher profile Senate and Gubernatorial primary races last week was a come-from-behind victory in a little-noticed Southern Congressional race that illustrates an important trend—and opportunity—in the realm of credit union political action.

In Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, the Republican primary in July to replace retiring U.S. Rep. John Linder (R) was a crowded affair featuring eight candidates.  Conventional wisdom had it that the clear frontrunner was State Representative Clay Cox.

Conventional wisdom was proved wrong.

Georgia credit unions quickly turned to Linder’s Chief of Staff and first-time candidate, Rob Woodall.  As Linder’s aide, Woodall had been instrumental in working with Linder to support credit unions in Congress. Still, no one else gave Woodall a chance of even making the runoff:  indeed, CULAC was one of only two PACs nationwide that stepped out and backed Woodall in the primary.

Well, you can guess what happened: Woodall ran first among all candidates, securing a spot in the August 10th runoff against another upstart, Tea Party-backed candidate.

That’s when credit unions really doubled down for Woodall and went all in.

Gwinnett Federal Credit Union, working with CUNA and the Georgia League, sent two mailers to over 8,000 of its members in the district.  Setting aside partisan politics, the mail pieces pointed out that among the candidates, Woodall was the better choice for credit unions.

Tuesday night, August 10th, Woodall won easily by 8,500 votes, and given the heavily Republican nature of the district, he should win the general election in November.

Similar efforts, in which credit unions are directly encouraging members to vote for pro-credit union candidates, are underway in races in Arizona and North Carolina.  There may be more before the November election.

The clear lesson from Georgia is this: when credit unions advise their members of the pro-credit union, that candidate can win.

Put another way: we can make the difference in these close races, but only if we choose to do so.


Two Conflicting Worldviews on the 2010 Elections

Posted by on Monday, 19 July, 2010

What are this year’s Midterm Elections about? Well, it depends on whom you ask.

Ask Republican Congressional candidate John Doe, and the answer will be something like this:

“I’m running against Congresswoman Mary Smith, who has been lockstep with President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats.  In the middle of a recession and rising unemployment, they are only making matters worse by increasing government spending, raising taxes, and expanding government control of the economy.  Vote Republican to fire Mary Smith and Nancy Pelosi and send a message to Obama.”

If you ask his opponent, Democratic incumbent Rep. Mary Smith, she might answer:

“The election is about helping the people here in {YOUR STATE} who are struggling with unemployment, rising health care costs and a shaky economy.  That’s why I fought for extended unemployment benefits, health insurance reform, and federal funds to create jobs here in {YOUR TOWN}.  We can go backwards by electing John Doe and the Republicans who got us into this mess, or we can keep moving forward. By the way, did I mention that John Doe is a right-wing extremist Tea Partier who wants to take away your Social Security?”

Okay, so these are exaggerations, but the point is this: elections are always about choices, and he who frames the choice to his advantage often wins.

Republicans will win big in every competitive district where the election is “nationalized.”  Even Democrats agree the economy, which polls consistently rate as voters’ number one concern, is in the pits.  If the choice is between a nameless Democratic incumbent who is a front for the national Democratic Party (Obama, Pelosi, etc.), and an alternative, then independent voters will default to the (Republican) alternative.

Unless…Democrats can localize the race and frame it as a choice between a Congressman fighting for the local community and an extremist who cares more about partisan name calling/is corrupt/is too extreme/fill in the blank.  Some Democrats in conservative districts may also be able to differentiate themselves from the national Democratic party by pointing to key votes against Obama initiatives such as health care reform and cap-and-trade (both of which passed despite opposition from dozens of conservative Democrats).

Campaigns matter: the candidate that wins in many swing districts will be the one with the campaign best able to frame the election choice according to their “worldview.”  Communicating that message effectively takes financial resources, a smart campaign team, a well-crafted message, and the discipline to stick with it.  Democratic campaigns that run smart campaigns may well be able to withstand a coming Republican wave; conversely, well-organized Republican challengers may be able to capitalize on a pro-Republican (or at least anti-Democratic) national environment.

How this choice is framed, district-by-district, will ultimately determine who controls the House and Senate come January, 2011.


Incumbents Beware

Posted by on Thursday, 20 May, 2010

Primary election season is in full swing, and for those of us who follow politics for a living, 2010 is shaping up to be an odd year indeed.  There are a lot of fascinating story lines, but one trend is apparent across states and districts so far:  the voters are angry.  And not just at one party or the other – voters are angry with Washington in general, and longtime incumbents in particular.

Consider the three casualties among incumbents thus far:

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) lost his bid for a fourth six-year term at the Utah Republican Convention despite his nearly perfect ratings from virtually every major conservative organization.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), a 14 term incumbent whose father held his seat before him, was defeated by a virtually unknown Democratic state senator.

Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA)’s fifth term in the Senate will be his last, as he lost to Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) despite the support of virtually the entire Democratic establishment, from the White House on down.

Each of these major defeats has its own unique story – Bennett lost in a convention process that magnifies angry activists; Mollohan was dragged down by repeated ethics questions; Specter faced questions about his integrity following his party switch – but the one common thread in each of these stories was incumbency.  And we’re talking longtime incumbency:  in just three races, voters turned their backs on 76 years of combined service in Congress.

If there is a take-away from these shocks to the political landscape, it is this – incumbents, no matter how long they have held office—should be running scared.  And maybe those who have been in office the longest should be worried the most.

So what does this have to do with credit unions?  We can’t take for granted that our friends in Congress will be there next January just because they already have been.  We owe it to those incumbents who have supported credit unions to do all we can to help return to office.

If we don’t, we may wake up Wednesday, November 3rd to find that some of our best friends in Congress are no longer there to help us.


Congressional Democrats Are Tied to Obama – Even More Than You Think

Posted by on Monday, 26 April, 2010

With the power Congress holds over our industry’s future, it is no wonder that credit unions across the country are paying close attention to this fall’s midterm elections, in which all 435 U.S. House seats and 36 U.S. Senate seats will be up for grabs. Indeed, the political junkies among us are salivating over the prospects of a close, contested election.  Here in Washington, the latest parlor game has become guessing how many seats Democrats will lose this fall.

Yet with 24-hour cable television, talk radio, newspapers and online news all focusing on the latest political rhetoric, it can be hard to cut through the clutter and figure out what really matters.  Just what can the astute observer look for in his attempt to predict the future?

So as a service to all the armchair Roves and Axelrods out there, this is the first in an occasional series of modest attempts at analyzing the trends and factors driving the political landscape this year.

For the first installment, a little American political history.  It turns out one of the biggest predictors of midterm election results hinges on the fate of a public official not even on the ballot: the President.

The President’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections.  With just two exceptions in the House (1998 and 2002), and four in the Senate (1962, 1970, 1998, and 2002), this holds true for every midterm going back to Franklin Roosevelt’s second term in 1938.

Thus, the question is not whether Democrats lose seats this fall, but how many. And that’s where the President’s approval rating comes in.

When the President’s approval rating on election day is at or below 50%, the President’s party loses seats.  Only if the President’s approval is above 50% is there any hope for his party at all – and then only if it is way above 50%.

In fact, according to a recent analysis by Bill Schneider, distinguished senior fellow at the centrist think tank Third Way and senior political analyst at CNN, the average loss of seats in midterms going back to 1970 numbers 10 lost House seats and 1.5 lost Senate seats in years when the President’s approval rating is greater than 50%.  And when the President’s approval is below 50%? His party lost an average of 31 House seats and 4 Senate seats.

In fact the correlation is so strong, an approval rating in the 50s is not even enough to save the President’s party.  Presidents Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush all lost seats even though their approval ratings were each north of 58%.Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush had to attain approval ratings of 66% and 63% respectively to break the trend and pick up seats for their parties (a mere five House seats for Clinton in 1998 and eight House seats for Bush in 2002). (source)

So those Democrats in Congress worried about their majorities would do well to pay attention to President Obama’s approval rating.  And just how is the President doing these days?  Pollster.com‘s average of major national polls taken in April shows the President at 47% approve, with 48% disapproving of his job performance.  Time will tell if the Democrats—and from their vantage point, the White House—can turn things around before November.