By Andy Cohen
(Editor’s note: Since this edition of Congressional Watch was written, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-49) announced on Jan. 10 that he will not seek re-election in November. Issa barely won in 2016 in a district that is turning increasingly blue.)
Congress can be a fickle beast, particularly when one political party controls both chambers and shows little to no interest in working with their counterparts from across the aisle. This is what happened throughout 2017. Republicans finally had the unified government they craved and promised big things would come. Those promises, for the most part, fell flat.
Despite their majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, Republicans failed to accomplish much of anything. Their promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act died embarrassingly (and let’s be honest: There was never any real intent to replace it). They failed to even consider one of President Trump’s stated priorities, infrastructure. They took no action on the DREAM Act, beginning the process of deporting DACA (deferred action on childhood arrivals) recipients, most of whom have never known any other country and are productive members of American society.
Their only real accomplishment, if you can call it that, is the tax cut bill that was signed into law just before legislators left for the holiday break in December. It was a hastily cobbled together bill relying heavily on lobbyist input, which explicitly excluded Democrats from the process. It is a law that cuts taxes on the rich and corporations, but according to both the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, leaves middle class and poor taxpayers worse off in the long run. The law also adds $1.5 trillion to the debt and deficit.
Scott Peters (D-52), Susan Davis (D-53), Juan Vargas (D-51) and Darrell Issa (R-49) all voted against the tax bill, with Duncan Hunter (R-50) being the lone “yes” vote among the San Diego delegation. Issa was one of only two of California’s 14 Republican members of Congress to vote “no.”
So this was the Republican Congress’ major accomplishment in 2017. It also sets up some important battles in the months to come.
By mid-January, Congress must pass a government spending bill in order to keep the government open and operational, otherwise we will see another government shutdown.
This bill will need to address everything from military spending to health care spending. Critical among the needs is CHIP (child healthcare insurance program), which provides health insurance for 9 million children nationwide. Federal funding for CHIP ended on Sept. 30, and states have been scrambling ever since to stretch their budgets and ensure coverage for eligible children. Most states are or have already run out of funds, which means those children will be without health care.
Also at issue is what should be done about DACA recipients: Democrats are adamant that they continue to receive protections and be allowed to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation, and many Republicans agree.
The spending bill cannot be passed without Democratic support, and Democrats will likely not support a bill that does not adequately address CHIP and DACA. The current continuing resolution that was passed on Dec. 22 expires on Jan. 19, meaning Congress has to act before then to keep the government open.
Also at issue is President Trump’s border wall, funding for which House Republicans, at least, are expected to attempt to include in any extended funding measure.
So how will San Diego’s five representatives in Congress likely vote on this important measure?
Juan Vargas is unlikely to vote for anything that does not include strong protections for DACA recipients. Representing a border district, immigration reform is his bailiwick.
Susan Davis and Scott Peters, are also unlikely to vote for anything that does not address DACA and offer full funding for CHIP, though they are both pragmatists and will likely compromise where possible — assuming the Republicans who control the process are willing to compromise.
Duncan Hunter is likely to vote against anything that funds CHIP or creates protections for DACA, and will insist on funding for the border wall, which is extremely unlikely to happen.
Which leaves Darrell Issa as the wild card. Issa is in trouble, and is fighting for his electoral life. He has expressed support for protecting DACA recipients in some form, and wants to be viewed as sympathetic to their cause. But how far will he be willing to go? In the past, Issa has voted “no” on CHIP funding, but given his current electoral challenges, opposing insurance for 9 million poor kids is unlikely to play well in his rapidly changing district. My guess is he’ll find some way to tepidly support a funding bill.
CHIP funding, by the way, is relatively inexpensive in the grand scheme of things: Leading up to the tax vote, Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch insisted that the government simply could not afford to fund CHIP (and he was one of the original authors of the first CHIP program!). Full funding of the program for five years will cost $8 billion. But compare that to the $1.5 trillion deficit the tax bill creates, and CHIP is but a pittance, relatively speaking.
The biggest challenge coming in 2018, however, will be whether or not Republicans decide to slash funding for Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in order to pay for their tax cut bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan has already signaled that this is coming. Eliminating “entitlement programs” has long been a dream of Ryan’s, and he sees this as his golden opportunity to take significant steps toward that end. The way he sees it, the budget hole the tax cut bill creates justifies decimating “entitlements.”
Look for Peters, Davis, and Vargas to adamantly oppose any and all efforts to slash what they view as programs essential to maintaining a decent quality of life for all Americans. Hunter will, of course, support such measures.
Which again leaves Issa as the wild card. In the past, he might have supported efforts to slash Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. But again, his precarious electoral prospects will come into play. Efforts to curtail these programs will inflame his constituents and all but ensure his retirement from Congress in November.
— Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.