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This Spring Break, maybe you and your family got away for a week at the beach or spent a few days running the kids around Disney World. Or perhaps, like my family, you stuck closer to home and took some fun day trips. However you spent this time, relaxation was likely the goal. But one group not pausing for a break this spring was Congressional lawmakers.
After wrapping up their first quarter, members of the U.S. House and Senate left Washington for constituent work in their home districts for two weeks. For most, this was a chance to do some of their most meaningful outreach - engaging in dialogue with constituents to understand the issues they want to see Washington act on.
The Chamber didn't take a break this spring either. We have state and local chamber partners in almost every district and a team of 18 lobbyists who fan out across the country to help facilitate forums between members of Congress and businesspeople. These past two weeks our lobbying team met with more than 40 members of Congress at gatherings ranging from large town halls to more intimate roundtables.
Here is what we learned:
Congress remains divided, but...
Because different parties control the two chambers, we’re seeing the two sides of the Capitol chasing very different priorities right now. The Democratically-controlled House is focusing on Executive Branch oversight while the GOP-controlled Senate is concentrating on judicial confirmations.
These contrasting objectives mean not only that the two chambers will be spending their time doing different things, but that any bills passed right now will require lots of bipartisan support to get through the partisan divide.
But as one freshman Democratic congresswoman from Pennsylvania told us, "Congress can and should walk and chew gum at the same time." Indeed, as a veteran Republican House member from Ohio added, "We can't push snooze on areas where we agree legislatively simply because there's an election in 20 months."
Deep bipartisan agreement will be key to legislative movement. The issues we heard discussed the most were those that had the longest bipartisan legs such as a need for a robust infrastructure investment. It’s a priority that many, including the Chamber, see as needing widespread support stretching across the aisle to produce long-needed action.
The consensus was that it’s important that the Chamber continue to lead on this issue, which means stressing the value of a gas tax increase to fund much needed improvements to the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, and dams.
This new 116th Congress is only one-eighth of the way through its term, but believe it or not, some are already back in election mode planning for 2020.
With 21 Republican seats up for election in the Senate next year compared to 12 Democrats, there is a lot at stake. Minority Leader Schumer will need to net either three or four seats to become Majority Leader next Congress, depending on who the Vice President will be. On the House side, 31 Democrats currently represent districts President Trump carried in 2016. The GOP will need to flip at least 18 to win back the Speakership.
With the elections on the horizon, we found many members of Congress do not want to rock the boat too much, especially since the President has a strong approval rating within his party and GDP is flying high. Democrats see the President as the key issue with the President’s approval rating at around 41% with the wider electorate, and the Democratic Presidential primary field expanding faster than the Night King's army after a particularly bloody battle.
Within this legislative landscape, there is still much that needs to be addressed. The Chamber has been working hard around the country, and here in D.C., our lobbying team is focused on keeping a bright spotlight on a variety of key business priorities.
Congress needs to act on the debt ceiling, FY20 appropriations, disaster relief, flood insurance and USMCA – the trade agreement successor to NAFTA between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada that was intended to replace NAFTA, but is not yet ratified.
In discussions around the country these last two weeks, we heard how much our members want to see a vote on USMCA as well as action to alleviate debilitating tariffs that raise prices on consumers and businesses alike, and invite retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exporters from abroad.
We heard from employers about their desperate workforce needs. While we enjoy near-record-low unemployment and wages continue rising, businesses of every size face over seven million unfilled jobs all along the skill spectrum. Congress also can help address the skills gap by reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, following on its bipartisan success last year in extending the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.
So while it’s clear most in Congress didn’t get a ‘break’ this spring, we are seeing that lawmakers were revitalized and that our conversations helped them refocus on the substance that sometimes gets lost amidst the partisan rancor in D.C. The Chamber will continue our legislative push now that lawmakers are back in D.C. to enact our top priorities -- passing a robust infrastructure bill, promoting policies that help adequately meet our workforce needs, and implementing trade agreements that work for American businesses and consumers.