On Thursday and Friday this week, House and Senate Republicans are at a joint retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to listen to an array of speakers on different policy and political issues. This brief respite offers an opportunity to examine what the Republican priorities have been in the first 10 days of the 114th Congress, and it shows one clear winner: Big Business.
House Republicans began 2015 by immediately trying to roll back or delay a number of regulations in the Dodd-Frank regulatory reform law. Just a day into the new Congress, the House voted on a fast-track bill that would have watered down and rolled back a number of important regulations. In fact, the legislation, officially titled the Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act, was the combination of 11 bills that would, among other things, delay the Volcker Act for years and weaken derivative regulations. The bill was brought up under suspension of the rules and thus required a two-thirds majority to pass. It fell short of that goal, with 276 legislators voting for it and 146 against. It was an unexpected victory for progressives after 44 Democrats changed their votes, after voting for a similar bill in the 113th Congress.
But Republicans were not to be denied. They brought up the bill under the normal rules where a two-thirds majority was not required. On Wednesday, it passed, 271-154. It’s not clear if the Senate would take it up, or if Democrats would have enough votes to filibuster it. But Wall Street received another gift in the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which expired at the end of 2014 and allows the federal government to backstop commercial insurance companies in the case of a terrorist attack. Even if you think terrorism risk insurance should be the government’s prerogative, it undoubtedly benefits large corporations, insurers, and real estate companies. Wall Street’s real victory, though, was the inclusion of a provision to roll back another, albeit smaller, component of Dodd-Frank. President Barack Obama signed it on Monday.
In other words, Wall Street is a fan of the new Republican Congress. Other industries are, too. Republicans have also focused on energy regulations, most notably approving the Keystone XL pipeline. Last Friday, the House passed a bill to approve the pipeline. The Senate voted to allow debate on the bill and will likely take a final vote on it next week, when it is expected to receive more than the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster. The question is whether Congress has the two-thirds votes necessary to overturn Obama’s veto.
The House also took a whack at Obamacare by passing a bill that would change the definition of a full-time worker from 30 hours to 40 hours for purposes of the employer mandate. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would increase the deficit by $53.2 billion over the next decade, much of it from employers no longer having to pay a penalty for not offering health insurance for employees who work between 30-40 hours. The Senate is also readying a bill to repeal the medical device tax, which a new report this week estimated would cost 47-1,200 jobs, in total.
It wasn’t hard to predict that the new Republican Senate’s top priority would be helping Big Business. Partially, that’s because enough Democrats have been eager to support these bills and overcome filibusters in the Senate (such as on the Keystone pipeline or medical device tax). Utah Senator Mike Lee explained this in November in The Federalist:
[T]he easiest bipartisan measures to pass are almost always bills that directly benefit Big Business, and thus appeal to the corporatist establishments of both parties. In 2015, this “low-hanging fruit” we’ll hear about will be items like corporate tax reform, Obamacare’s medical device tax, patent reform, and perhaps the Keystone XL pipeline approval.
As it happens, these are all good ideas that I support. But if that’s as far as Republicans go, we will regret it. The GOP’s biggest branding problem is that Americans think we’re the party of Big Business and The Rich. If our “Show-We-Can-Govern” agenda can be fairly attacked as giving Big Business what it wants—while the rest of the country suffers—we will only reinforce that unpopular image.
Lee’s worries were prescient. The 114th Congress has only just begun, of course, so Republicans have plenty of time to put forward an agenda focused on the middle class. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could support other moderate Republicans in crafting a compromise to increase the minimum wage. The GOP could make an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit a priority. Lee and Florida Senator Marco Rubio have proposed a number of other policies that are focused on the middle class.
But right now, there are few signs that Republicans are going to do anything like that.