Many writers have tried to preview what a Republican-controlled Senate would try to do during Obama’s last two years in office. Defund Obamacare. Pass strict abortion restrictions. Maybe even leave a Supreme Court seat vacant, by refusing to confirm any nominees President Obama has the chance to put forward. But the GOP has other ideas in mind for its first 100 days as the Senate majority—and they reveal the diverging priorities of the two parties.
The Hill’s Alexander Bolton reported what current Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans hope to accomplish during the first few months if McConnell becomes majority leader. “Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline, approving “fast-track” trade authority, wiping out proposed environmental regulations and repealing the medical device tax top their list,” Bolton writes. These are all policies that would likely receive some Democratic support and could break a filibuster, assuming Democrats continue the Republican-created tradition of requiring 60 votes to pass any legislation.
But did you notice what those four policies all have in common? They would all significantly benefit big business and do very little for most Americans. Let’s look at each individually:
Keystone XL Pipeline
Oil companies have long pressured the Obama administration to approve the pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada’s tar sands to Texas. U.S. firms would profit considerably off that oil, possibly to the tune of billions of dollars a year.
Republicans argue that approving the pipeline would create a flood of new jobs, but that’s always been overstated. The State Department projects it would create 42,000 jobs, which may sound like a lot, but it isn’t. There are more than 140 million workers in the U.S. and the number of employed Americans fluctuates by hundreds of thousands every month. And those jobs would only be temporary. The State Department projects that the pipeline would create just 35 permanent positions.
“Fast-track” Trade Authority
Without “fast-track” authority, Congress would have to approve all parts of any trade agreement. It’s difficult for Obama to negotiate these agreements when other countries know that he’ll have to get approval from Congress afterwards. Instead, legislators often grant the president “fast-track” authority that only allows Congress a yea-or-nay vote on the final deal. They cannot veto individual provisions.
Many Democrats, led by Harry Reid, have resisted giving Obama this authority, because the trade agreements would strengthen intellectual property laws, particularly for drugs.This would be a boon for Big Pharma, but would drive up prices for the rest of us. And while intellectual property is only one part of the trade deal, the other parts aren’t that meaningful. The traditional rationale for free trade agreements—lowering barriers between nations—isn’t applicable here, because the U.S.already has low tariff rates with the other countries involved. Reid has successfully prevented Obama from jamming through these corporatist policies under the guise of “free trade.” Republicans want to remove that obstacle.
It’s difficult to know exactly what environmental regulations McConnell would target. One possibility is the EPA’s new greenhouse gas standards: McConnell might, for example, get behind Senator Joe Manchin’s legislation requiring that those standards, as Bolton writes, “be realistically achievable by coal-fired power plants.” The economic cost of the EPA’s new regulations isn’t very large, even by the Chamber of Commerce’s estimates, so weakening the rules just wouldn’t provide much relief—except, of course, for coal companies.
Medical Device Tax
Republicans aren’t alone in wanting to repeal this 2.3 percent excise tax. Some liberals, like Senator Elizabeth Warren, want to eliminate it as well. The industry says the tax will hurt the economy, because it will chill innovation and deter hiring. But that claim is shaky, at best. Paul Van de Water, of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, has persuasively argued that the tax won’t have a large effect on innovation and won’t shift jobs overseas.
The industry will feel it, though: Projections suggest it will have to spend around $30 billion on the tax over 10 years. And that explains why the idea keeps coming up. As my colleague Jonathan Cohn wrote a year ago, “the most likely explanation is that the device industry has a ton of influence, particularly in states where they have large operations.”
There are two ways to look at this. The first is as a statement of Republican priorities. It's hard to look at this agenda and see it anything as tailor-made for big business. Compare that with the Senate Democrats’ agenda: raising the minimum wage, reducing pay discrimination, extending unemployment insurance, and reforming our immigration system.1 Sometimes Democrats line up with industry—they’re fighting to preserve funding for the Export-Import bank, for example. But the key elements of their economic agenda aren’t designed to boost the bottom line for U.S. corporations. They are designed to help everyday Americans (even if Republicans believe they're flawed). It’s hard to see the same goals in the GOP’s plans.
The second way to view this is that Republicans want to pass conservative legislation during its first 100 days as the Senate majority. But that will likely require Democratic support. So, what policies do enough Democrats support to clear 60 votes? Ones like repealing the medical device tax, which liberal Democrats normally would oppose, but have been won over for political reasons. This may be a cynical way to view the Senate. But it also looks like it's true.
There are certainly parts of the Senate immigration bill that can considered corporate—after all the Chamber of Commerce has signed on to it. But much of it is also intended to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.