Financial Crisis Will Limit Options of New President and Congress
By Don Wolfensberger, Director, The Congress Project
Both presidential candidates have begun planning for their first days in the White House, researching cabinet nominations and reviewing legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is instructing committees to prepare for the transition as well. But the current market meltdown will shuffle their plans, said panelists at a roundtable discussion by the Congress Project, called "Preparing Congress for a New President."
"This really is a new world. Nothing we counted on before is there," observed Christian Science Monitor congressional reporter Gail Russell Chaddock of the past week's financial meltdown. "The transition was already well underway with think tanks on both sides providing their presidential candidates with working papers on getting their administrations up and running," Chaddock said. "House Speaker Pelosi was enlisting her committees to help with the planning. Then came the bail-outs. It completely changes the picture. It's like I'm covering France again."
"It's a sea change. We now are Fannie and Freddie." The big question, Chaddock said, is whether China will continue to buy our bonds.
Former Clinton White House senior adviser John Hilley, assigned the task of commenting on the potential course of an Obama administration, said Obama "will either go for a long double to the outfield" with a manageable agenda that he can get through with Democratic majority support in both houses, or "he might hit a home run with a larger and more difficult agenda that will require bipartisan support." The latter is much less likely, Hilley said, given continued high partisanship in Congress.
Under the first scenario, Hilley predicted Obama would push for the bills that Democrats were unable to enact during the Bush years. They would probably use the congressional reconciliation process to bundle as many as possible since the process is filibuster-proof. The package would likely include an economic stimulus package with middle-income tax relief and infrastructure projects, regulatory reforms of financial services and the environment, energy legislation, and some expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).
A larger, "home run" package would include comprehensive health care reform, tax reform, and long-term deficit reduction, including entitlement reforms of Medicare and Social Security. For either scenario to work, Hilley said, "the President must get organized early by shifting immediately after the election from a campaign mode and mentality to one of governing." Hilley said he was optimistic about Obama being able to do so given his Senate experience. By contrast, presidents Carter and Clinton probably had the worst transitions because they were former governors who initially were overwhelmed by Washington, he said.
Lee Rawls, senior counsel to F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller, assigned the task of speculating on a possible McCain administration, predicted the Democratic Congress would try to preempt the new Republican president by moving early and fast on their priority bills—those they were unable to get through during the Bush years, and thereby put the new president on the defensive. Attention would shift in February, with both branches focusing on the economy. Rawls said he did not expect any bold policy changes under divided party government, but that it is still possible to have some incremental progress on such matters as children's health, energy, and climate change (though a cap-and-trade policy would not be enacted). "McCain has the Senate filibuster as his first line of defense against a Democratic offensive, and his veto as a second line of defense," Rawls said. "But that does not mean gridlock will result. It simply means the president will then be in a position to negotiate compromises with the Democratic Congress."
Rawls said the big issue (beyond the fallout from any bailout) will be the fate of Bush's expiring tax cuts in 2010. If they are all extended, they would present major deficit problems down the road if no new revenues are found elsewhere. Rawls agreed with Hilley, though, that no major inroads will be made in addressing the deficit and entitlement financing problems, at least during the first two years of the next administration. Rawls predicted that movement on those fronts will not come until public pressure for action on the deficit mounts. That should grow as the next presidential election approaches—not unlike 1992, when Ross Perot made deficits a major campaign issue.
Chaddock was skeptical as to whether Congress would regain any of the powers it lost to the president after 9/11. "People don't think about Congress as an institution anymore, with the one exception of Sen. Robert C. Byrd," she said. "Legislatures around the world are in sharp free-fall because they have so little independent authority for decision-making." Chaddock predicted that "the bailout will occupy D.C. over the next 76 days until the inauguration of the new president." Oversight activities will continue in committees even when Congress is not in formal session. The question is how vigorous it will be if a Democrat is elected president and we continue, as expected, to have a Democratic Congress. That will be the real test, said Chaddock, of whether Congress is both willing and able to reassert itself as a coequal branch of government.
Roundtable discussants raised additional issues not covered by the three lead-panelists, including the Iraq war; terrorism, Afghanistan and Pakistan; immigration; government secrecy; and foreign policy concerns like the Middle East and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As one roundtable participant put it, "Can you think of another time in our history when a new president was faced with so many major problems all at the same time?"