What the budget deal means for Congress and the ‘16 elections

How well this lot can get along may depend most on the growing group of politicians hoping to sit in the president’s chair in two years. Reuters

Given the contentiousness of recent fiscal negotiations, the prelude to the budget passed by the Senate last month was surprisingly placid. Will a uniquely unproductive Congress be followed by a more conciliatory and pragmatic one, or is this merely the calm before the partisan storm that will culminate in the 2016 elections? It’s too soon to tell for sure, but presidential aspirants – both long shots and favorites – hold the key to our legislative future.

That a deal got done with less rancor than expected suggests that none of the most serious presidential aspirants in 2016 – both parties, both chambers – saw any personal or partisan advantage to a long budget fight, including another government shutdown. That doesn’t mean that the aspirants had to vote for the deal; some didn’t. It does mean, however, that none were willing to orient their candidacy around fiscal brinksmanship.

Still, conservative Republicans fumed about their party’s unwillingness to face down President Obama over his recent unilateralism on immigration. The more liberal Democrats complained about the Wall Street-friendly revisions to Dodd-Frank – a law intended to reform it – and the dramatic increase in contribution limits to political parties.

The apparently honest frustration voiced by members of both parties – particularly members from the ends of the ideological spectrum – suggests that this was a meaningful compromise. Whether this sort of pragmatism continues depends on the choices made by the politicians who want to be president.

Politics of the 2016 elections

In the third year of his second term, President Obama will no longer be the focal point of national politics. While he remains a central character in the political drama that will unfold over the next two years, other characters will become increasingly important.

To the extent there will be a single focus during the next Congress, it won’t be on a single person. It will be on the 2016 elections themselves. The strategic dynamics of a presidential election nearly two years away will play a key role in determining just what sort of legislative record the 114th Congress will produce.

In our highly partisan era, various presidential hopefuls – at least 16 so far, if you count both Democrats and Republicans – must figure out a way to win their party’s nomination without totally alienating moderates and independents. On the Republican side, there is an array of serious candidates in Congress and in the states (sitting governors or former governors). On the Democratic side, the list of candidates is shorter and includes the vice president and a clear front-runner.

Congressional ineptitude in the 114th Congress, which gaveled into session this week, will be a problem for senators and representatives who plan a presidential run in 2016. If support for Congress continues to wane – currently at 16% – Washington “outsiders” who are not intimately tied to federal policymaking are privileged. Sitting senators, representatives and the vice president will take the blame for dysfunction. Governors and former governors (even if his last name is “Bush”) will not.

Insiders vs outsiders

This creates a serious quandary for insiders: how to appear sufficiently ideological to separate themselves from fellow insiders without fostering the dysfunction that advantages outsiders who have shown they can manage diverse states such as Florida, New Jersey and Ohio from the governor’s mansion. The problem is particularly acute for Republicans since they will control both chambers in the next congress. And because Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is neither pure insider nor pure outsider.

So the question is, will “insiders” choose extremism and contentiousness to separate themselves from fellow legislators in the same party, or will they take a more moderate tack to limit the advantages of Washington “outsiders” within their party?

Assuming she avoids any serious missteps, Clinton’s opponents have little choice but to separate themselves with ideological rancor (whether in the Senate or in the states). Expect to see President Obama’s struggles with the liberal wing of his party continue.

On the Republican side, the strategic equation is more complicated and the outcome both more important (from the standpoint of legislative productivity) and less sure. Efforts to be the Tea Party candidate will likely foster greater conservatism on the part of some candidates. But Tea Party Republicans (and the legislators they support) are less monolithic than is often realized. So the ultimate impact of the specific policies promoted by candidates courting their favor is unclear.

The one thing that is for sure is that the next set of national elections will be expensive. Really expensive.