Thought Leader: Public affairs pros will rejoice or reel after upcoming congressional elections

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

For the last 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 re-write 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 surely will address at least a few items next year. Lawmakers, for instance, 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 health care on the congressional agenda, but Congress will respond dramatically differently depending on who’s in control. Although Congress has focused heavily on drug costs for senior citizens, problems in health care extend far beyond that issue. After several years of moderate increases, health care 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 health care, 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 professionals.

Although Congress likely will 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 line-up may create new opportunities, but it may impose just as many new obstacles. Whether that new line-up will prove a more prosperous one for the world of public affairs is, at this point, anyone’s guess.