Everybody has an agenda this election year, but not one that will pass

March 1, 2012 By    

Last year’s policy fights might look like mere skirmishes compared to this year, an election year for the White House, the whole House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate, with control of the government at stake.

As an example of how this political brawl will play out in the energy arena, President Barack Obama pushed a decision over whether to build the controversial TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline until after the November election. Or did he?

Congress forced the president’s hand in December by including a 60-day decision time frame on the pipeline construction permitting issue in the bill that gave a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits that expired Jan. 1. The president responded by not giving in to the Republicans’ ultimatum and denied the permit, but allowing TransCanada to reapply.

However, the House Republicans included the pipeline issue in its surface transportation bill, the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act. They are keeping the issue alive and kicking. They’ve also added a provision for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the coasts.

This large bill, which passed the House of Representatives, is the current focus of the House Republican leadership’s job-creating agenda. But the leadership had a hard time even convincing some of its own Republican members to support the bill regarding issues tied to funding. Some Republicans didn’t buy into the revenue arguments assumed in the bill. And by tying the infrastructure spending to oil drilling, the measure attracted a lot of opposition from Democrats. The bill faces huge hurdles. The Senate is working on its own bipartisan surface transportation bill.

Another issue sure to resonate with the public this election year: the rising cost of gasoline. A recent report from the Energy Information Administration cites rising gasoline costs, predicted through the summer, and is being used by Republican candidates to blame the president for the increase. Adding to consumers’ inevitable concern about price is the ongoing unrest in the Middle East and sanctions against Iran, including its oil exports.

If gasoline prices do increase this summer, Republicans’ efforts to favorably tie pro-domestic drilling and energy production issues as the answer to increased prices is an easy sell to a fearful public in a slow economy.

In addition, there are few internal congressional deadlines that would force Congress to work together to pass legislation before the elections. Since January, the 10-month extension of the payroll tax cut has passed Congress. The government is already funded through October, and last summer’s deal has set the budget funding levels for the next fiscal year. Because funding issues are one of the biggest divides between the parties, expect to see stopgap funding bills this fall for fiscal year 2013 since it’s unlikely Congress will complete its regular annual appropriations bills before it leaves for elections.

What makes this even more intriguing is the fact that several major issues must be dealt with before the end of 2012, including the expiration of all Bush-era tax cuts. If they are not renewed, it will mean a significant increase in federal revenue and a return to higher tax rates for millions of Americans. Also, the debt ceiling agreement of August 2011 put in place across-the-board cuts for nearly all federal spending of about $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Half of this must come from the Defense Department.

Expect Congress to try to act on the Bush tax cuts as well as to try and reverse or change the automatic spending cuts, something the GOP and many Democrats have vowed to do.

Election-year agendas designed to exploit political advantage will be dead on arrival: Even if the House’s Republican majority passes legislation, it will face a presidential veto and/or not be able to pass the Democratic majority in the Senate.

Whether you call them skirmishes or political policy warfare, these important issues will continue to be difficult to resolve if ideologues frame the issues with scare tactics and hyperbole.

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