Even during normal political times, the internal operation of Congress gets much less than its rightful share of attention from the news media and public. With Donald Trump as president? Forget it. But amidst all the other drama of this eventful week, a few important clues emerged about the road ahead for Congress in 2018. They all seem to point in the same direction: to a relatively unproductive legislative year.
First, it's important to note that Congress has some major unfinished business left over from 2017, due to its failure to pass annual appropriations legislation by the end of the previous fiscal year on September 30. Instead, the government has been funded via a series of short-term continuing resolutions that periodically expire and require extension (allowing the Senate Democrats to engineer last week's temporary government shutdown simply by filibustering the latest iteration). Congressional leaders have signaled that they don't expect to reach a final agreement on domestic and military spending levels before March at the earliest, which means that another resolution will need to be passed next week to keep the government open until then.
When combined with an impending need to raise the federal debt ceiling in order to prevent default on the national debt, this means that a fair amount of legislative energy over the next two months will be devoted to what would normally be considered the basic necessities of government. Even next week's vote on a new continuing resolution is not free from complication; dissatisfied conservative purists threatened this week to join with Democrats to vote it down on the floor of the House and thus force another shutdown. Past experience suggests that Republican leaders will ultimately strike a deal with a sufficient number of party holdouts to push the bill through, but every day spent on negotiations over appropriations is a day lost to other priorities.
The decreasing probability that Congress approves a budget resolution this year also indicates that Republicans will not be able to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a major item on the party's legislative agenda by a simple majority in the Senate (as they did last year to enact tax reform). While some members of Congress express enthusiasm for taking another crack at repealing the Affordable Care Act, doing so would require not only passage of a budget resolution but also persuading two of last summer's three opposing Republican senators to change their minds (since the December election of Doug Jones in Alabama has narrowed the partisan margin in the chamber to 51–49).
President Trump's unusually policy-free State of the Union address also seemed to signal a lack of imminent congressional action. Trump's speech included a brief advance promotion of his infrastructure plan (the public release of which is, according to his aides, perpetually just around the corner) but did not leave the impression that he or his administration would devote much energy in the near future to pressuring reluctant conservatives or persuading opposition Democrats on the subject.
It's also an election year in which the current partisan majority, at least in the House, is vulnerable to defeat—which means that Republicans will be in no mood this summer or fall to spend long weeks legislating in Washington rather than attending to their home constituencies. Other leaders might have acted to build a longer list of legislative accomplishments prior to the midterms by finding topics with popular appeal that were well-situated for bipartisan dealmaking—anti-sexual harassment and assault measures? maybe something on opioids?—but it seems clear from this week's party retreat that Republicans have decided to focus their 2018 electoral message on taking credit for last year's tax cuts.
That leaves immigration as the most likely subject matter of any major non-budgetary legislative initiative enacted between now and November, though the chances still seem fairly modest from today's perspective. The approaching March expiration of DACA will compel the two parties to devote the next month to negotiations, but the probability of a comprehensive immigration agreement appears remote absent a significant concession by one or both sides. More likely, Trump will be faced with a choice between a narrow deal and no deal at all.
The decaying state of the legislative process in Congress is a subject that deserves much more public consideration than it has received. The decline of committee influence and expertise, the increasing power of party leaders at the expense of other members, the increasingly slapdash approach to major policy-making, and the fading institutional loyalty of incumbents to the legislative branch are all developments with wide-ranging implications for the workings of American government; they should rightfully concern members of both parties. Even in a period of electoral triumph, many Republicans have expressed dissatisfaction with the congressional experience—and are voting with their feet by retiring in record numbers.
Relegated to the minority, at least for now, Democrats aren't any happier. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia briefly threw a scare into his fellow members of the Democratic caucus late last month when he flirted with retirement—which would almost certainly have thrown his seat to the Republican opposition. Manchin was persuaded to seek another six-year term in the Senate this November, though not before he expressed his displeasure with the operation of the institution whose members once frequently pronounced themselves the "world's greatest deliberative body."
"This place sucks," said Manchin.