THOUGHT LEADER: Public affairs pros will rejoice or reel after upcoming congressional elections

A mere one-seat change in the US Senate would dramatically transform the world of public affairs in Washington.

A mere one-seat change in the US Senate would dramatically transform the world of public affairs in Washington.

For the past year, divided government has blocked many major initiatives from passage. With Republicans running the House and Democrats enjoying a one-vote majority in the Senate, President Bush and Congress have failed this year to enact even the most necessary legislation.

They have, for instance, completed only two of the 13 annual spending bills (both for defense), putting domestic agencies on automatic pilot until mid-November, when lawmakers will return for a "lame duck" session. They also have failed to create a Department of Homeland Security; to rewrite the nation's energy policies; to offer prescription-drug coverage to the elderly; to enact a patients' bill of rights; to extend federal welfare programs; and to overhaul federal bankruptcy laws.

No matter what the elections bring, Congress will surely address at least a few items next year. Lawmakers will try to extend federal transportation and education programs. Transportation programs will not likely fall victim to partisan sniping; lawmakers of all stripes like to bring federal dollars to their districts for highways and bridges. Education, though, raises complex questions about the role of government as well as thorny technical issues, such as the necessary qualifications for teachers.

Economic realities will put healthcare on the agenda, but how Congress will respond depends on who's in control. Although Congress has focused heavily on drug costs for senior citizens, problems in healthcare extend far beyond that issue. After several years of moderate increases, healthcare premiums are again rising at double-digit rates, bankrupting employers and employees alike; the number of uninsured Americans is rising; states are cutting back on health coverage for the poor; and public dissatisfaction with HMOs is boiling over.

After President Clinton's 1993-94 failure to overhaul healthcare, and after a host of smaller-scale reforms since then, nobody really knows what to do next. But Republican control of Congress will focus the debate on market-oriented solutions, while Democratic control of the Senate will ensure a large voice for advocates of a bigger federal role. Public affairs professionals will have to react accordingly.

Beyond those items, the coming elections will determine not only what Congress passes, but what it even considers.

If they gain control of both chambers, Republicans will seek to permanently extend the President's big tax cuts, which are scheduled to expire in 2010. A big tax debate would enable corporate interests to push for their own tax breaks, such as incentives for investment. In addition, the Bush administration plans to propose a more fundamental overhaul of federal taxes. Thus, the next two years could create a free-for-all for tax-savvy public affairs pros.

Although Congress will likely return to energy legislation, especially if war with Iraq brings an increase in oil prices, the elections will have a dramatic effect on what that legislation looks like. Republicans want to drill more, while Democrats want to conserve more. Democrats have used their Senate control to block GOP efforts to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, but a clear majority of senators favor the idea, and a GOP-controlled Congress will be well-placed to push it to enactment.

The dynamics of environmental legislation would also change significantly under a GOP-controlled Congress. To date, Senate Democrats have stalled the President's plans to allow more logging and drilling on federal lands, to relax major federal environmental laws, and to transfer control of the Clean Water Act and Superfund clean-up to the states. A Republican-controlled Congress could break the logjam.

For public affairs professionals, the stakes are high. Next year's congressional lineup may create new opportunities, but it may impose just as many new obstacles. Whether that new lineup will prove more prosperous for the world of public affairs is, for now, anyone's guess.

  • Lawrence Haas is SVP and director of public affairs for MS&L.

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