Ten Political Flash Points for 2011
Next year, expect the 112th Congress and the Obama White House to be locked in battles over spending rollbacks, budget limits, the deficit ceiling, entitlements, monetary policy, and the "de-funding" of federal programs. Expect a year of oversight hearings with striking revelations, subpoenas, and dramatic confrontations with the White House. The new incoming Tea Party class in the House and Senate understand they can claim a mandate from the November elections, and in the next year, Washington's political ground zero will be over money.
Here are ten flash points to expect in 2011:
Obama Governs by Executive Power
Having lost large majorities in both houses of Congress, expect Obama to deploy his considerable executive powers. A glimpse of what to expect occurred near Christmas as the administration unilaterally issued three new regulatory rulings governing the Internet, greenhouse emissions, and federal wilderness areas. These actions taken by the Federal Communications Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Interior Department exhibited raw regulatory power.
The FCC action defied a federal court. The EPA greenhouse ruling came even as the Senate voted last June to deny the agency power to issue rules over climate change. The Interior Department administratively reversed Bush-era rules on limiting wilderness protection.
This is exactly the strategy progressive activists want the president to pursue.
In November, following widespread Democratic election losses, John Podesta -- President Clinton’s chief of staff and the president of the leftist Center for American Progress -- released a 54-page post-election blueprint that urged Obama to use his executive powers to bypass Congress to continue their policy changes. Recalling his days in the Clinton White House, Podesta wrote in his introduction to the CAP report:
After his party lost control of Congress in 1994, President Clinton used executive authority and convening power to make significant progressive change. ... This administration has a similar opportunity to use available executive authorities while also working with Congress where possible.
Congressional Challenges to Executive Rulings
Expect Congress to reply to the president’s use of executive power by invoking the 1996 Congressional Review Act. This act allows the Senate and House to nullify Obama administrative actions by passing resolutions of disapproval. The procedure permits them to countermand specific department rules and regulations.
When the FCC voted to regulate the Internet, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) announced they would challenge it, invoking the CRA. The CRA can be passed with a simple 51-vote majority in the Senate; it does not require 60 votes.
The War on Federal Spending
Expect Republicans, joined by a few Democrat deficit hawks, to declare war on all federal spending. The conflict will culminate on March 4 when the congressional temporary spending resolution expires and Congress must pass a new federal budget for the entire government. In the House, watch Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), and in the Senate, Dr. Tom Coburn (R-OK).
Rep. Ryan is the chief author of the new Republican budget. Ryan’s new austere budget is expected to roll back spending to at least 2008 levels. Republicans also vow tough spending cuts to prevent America from becoming the next Greece. Last weekend on Fox News, Senator Coburn warned that the nation will face “apocalyptic pain” if it fails to dramatically curtail spending:
I think within 3-4 years, if we have not done the critical changes that we have to make, I think the confidence in our economy and our currency will be undermined significantly. And that may scare some folks -- it's intended to.
Entitlements also will be on the chopping block, as the presidential deficit commission released a report full of proposed cuts -- including the once sacred entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Will Obama Govern by Veto?
As the president faces unpalatable legislation reaching his desk, there is the distinct possibility he will invoke his power to veto. The use of the veto has dwindled over the years -- George W. Bush issued only eleven during his two terms. In contrast, Democrats who have faced hostile Congresses have governed heavily with the veto: Franklin D. Roosevelt invoked it 635 times, and Harry Truman 250.
What is attractive to the White House is that a veto override will force Senate Republicans to come up with 67 votes. Might Obama use the veto if besieged by unwanted legislation? Expect a classic and passionate constitutional confrontation.
Congress Defunds Obama Programs
One of the least reported last acts of the lame duck session was a vote to forbid spending to move enemy combatants from Guantanamo Bay -- dealing a final blow to the president’s effort to close down the facility or to try terrorists in civilian courts.
Defunding is a powerful weapon that Congress can use to stop unpopular programs. Early next year expect ObamaCare defunding to begin to work its way through the House. Look for Congress to try to defund other unpopular programs, such as EPA “cap and trade” regulations, Medicare rulings, and even the administration’s policy seeking to ban the sale of incandescent light bulbs.
The Debt Ceiling and a Government Shutdown
Federal spending continues to outpace government revenue by more than a trillion dollars a year.
Today the legal debt ceiling is $14 trillion, which is expected to be exceeded in the first half of 2011. House Republicans vow to repeal the “Gephardt Rule” that allows the House to raise the debt limit automatically without a specific vote of approval. If the Republicans prevail, there will be an up-and-down vote on raising the debt ceiling. The run-up to the vote is likely to intensify negotiations with the White House to use the debt ceiling as leverage to compel lower federal spending. If the debt ceiling is not passed, government programs will lack funds to operate.
Medicare, Social Security, even our military could be at a standstill. Obama and the Democrats will dare the Republicans to vote down the debt ceiling. It will be instructive to see who blinks first.
Ron Paul Challenges the Federal Reserve
Outspoken libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), a long-time critic of the Federal Reserve Board, will become the new chairman of the House Subcommittee of Domestic Monetary Policy -- which has congressional oversight of the Fed. Paul plans to challenge the central bank’s policy of secrecy by holding open hearings on the institution and its policies. He also will investigate the Fed’s bank examinations and its use of its emergency authority and audits. The new chairman also is expected to denounce the current Fed policy of “monetary easing,” which Paul worries will lead to hyper-inflation -- a concern expressed by many economists.
Transparency in Government
Secrecy in the executive branch has been a bipartisan sport ever since the growth of big government. Expect a House full-frontal attack on government secrecy and on the Obama administration's lack of transparency.
The president is vulnerable, as his first official presidential act was to issue an executive order promising an “unprecedented level of openness in government.”
Expect dramatic oversight hearings, particularly from the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). Issa and his allies are expected to seek new measures to force transparency in governmental actions and decision-making. Look for numerous House subpoenas of Obama administration records and the convening of many oversight hearings.
Bailouts of Bankrupt Democratic States
California’s soon-to-be Governor Jerry Brown has not spelled out exactly how he intends to bail out California from its record $28 billion budget gap. But he may ask President Obama to bail out the state, a plea once issued by his predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Other Democrat state governors from electorally rich New York and Illinois will be watching to see if they too can appeal to Washington for cash.
Expect the Republican House and vulnerable deficit hawk Democrats to reject any bailout of the states. Expect big state employee unions to lobby for it. And look to see it become a major issue in the 2012 presidential race.
More Scrutiny of Attorney General Holder
Expect the new House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith to aggressively subpoena the Department of Justice for internal documents on many of the controversial policies pursued by Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder perhaps is the weakest Obama administration member, and may be the first to resign.
He has come under fire from the left and right for his anti-terror policies. These include his hiring of attorneys who once defended terrorists, his inability to close Guantanamo Bay, the loss of his first anti-terror trial in New York, and his decision to try September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court. The House and Senate also are expected to continue their probes into the Justice Department’s dismissal of the 2008 voting rights violations by the New Black Panther Party. Late this year the U.S. Civil Rights Commission released a blistering report on the department’s handling of the case, charging Holder with politicizing its civil rights deliberations. The Department’s inspector general also is expected to release a report about whether political considerations led to the dismissal. Central to the case is whether the Obama Justice Department was treating civil rights cases in racially biased ways, favoring minorities over whites. If Holder resigns, expect Republicans to use confirmation hearings as a forum to further probe the Department's controversial decisions.
Expect a wild year.