The “summer of Trump” has come to a close, so now we will see whether or not “the Donald” can continue his dominance of the GOP presidential field into the fall. He continues to poll well with a commanding lead over everyone else, but there are more debates coming and he has shown some difficulty in responding to questions of policy, especially on foreign affairs issues. Style-over-substance only carries a candidate so far before he or she must show some ability to tackle the issues. Look what happened to 2012 front-runner Rick Perry when he couldn’t remember the name of one federal agency. I suspect the mortar fire will increase on Mr. Trump during the next debate as the other candidates all recognize they have to bring him down to have any chance of winning. Also watch the performance of Carly Fiorina who was the winner of the first “happy hour” debate last month. Now that CNN has refined its selected process for the debates, Ms. Fiorina gets to participate in the prime time contest.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is in trouble as the email server scandal (pretty boring by D.C. standards, by the way) lingers. Mrs. Clinton cannot find the right tone to deal with this issue and her standing in the polls is going in the wrong direction. Moreover, too many people think she is untrustworthy. At the same time, Bernie Sanders continues to draw record crowds and poll very strongly with primary voters. The new x-factor is Vice President Joe Biden who is no stranger to Democratic Presidential primaries (1988, 2008), has a strong base of support among Democrats, but does not really seem excited about running. It has been a tough year for the Vice President and his family so one can understand the hurdle he must get over to commit to run.
In the House of Representatives the fall months will have more than the Presidential contest as backdrop. There is also the small matter of the attempt by a group of House Republicans to oust John Boehner (R-Ohio) as Speaker. Discontent with Mr. Boehner among the conservative ranks is not new as evidenced by the 25 House GOP members who voted against his election for Speaker back in January. What is different is taking the aggressive step of actually filing a motion to formally strip him of his rank. While that motion did not require a vote, the consensus is that a vote will take place at some point this fall. That vote will be impacted by what the Speaker does on pending legislative business, including the federal budget, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and his support for a government shutdown if it comes to that. As many Washington observers have pointed out, even if someone is elected to replace Boehner, the President will still have the veto pen for another 15 months. What will change in the calculus on these issues?
One of the biggest issues in front of Congress is the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by the President and several other western European countries. Congress argued quite strenuously months ago that they should have a say in whether that agreement goes forward so they passed the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 by a vote of 98 to 1 in the Senate and 400 to 25 in the House. Under the terms of this agreement, the Congress would be voting on legislation to disapprove the agreement rather than approving it. This process illustrates what some would call a cynical and others would characterize as a pragmatic way to govern. Here is how it works.
To pass legislation requires 218 votes in the House and effectively 60 votes in the Senate (see “cloture”). Using a vote to disapprove versus approve the Iran agreement is not relevant in the House where the majority rules but is very relevant in the Senate. That 60-vote threshold lowered the number of votes needed to defeat the disapproval legislation, kill the overall effort in Congress and protect the Iran deal to 41. Had the vote been to approval the agreement, supporters would have needed 60 votes. And, indeed that is what occurred with a 58 to 42 vote blocking consideration of the agreement and paving the way for its implementation. Even if the 60-vote threshold was met and the bill passed, the President would have vetoed it and the Senate would then have needed 67 votes to override or, put another way, supporters would have needed 34 votes to sustain the President’s veto and allow the agreement to go forward. In short, the process was arguably tilted to defeat efforts to stop the agreement from moving forward.
Again, Congress voted almost unanimously on setting up this process. Why? Obviously, no one is on the record stating that the fix was in but, according to Norm Ornstein, a long-time observer and scholar of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, once the Administration made the deal with the other nations and had the endorsement of the United Nation’s Security Council, opposing it would make Congress and the U.S look bad. More broadly, Ornstein noted, there is a long tradition in both Republican and Democrat Congresses of allowing members to vote no without affecting the ultimate policy outcome. Another example where this is used is with the federal debt ceiling. No one wants the nation to default on its debt so the process is set up to allow members of Congress to voice their opinion, vote against increasing the debt but not damage the country in the process.
As Otto Von Bismarck said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
As always, thanks for reading. Talk with you next month.