The Thinker: Rich Galen


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Hostile Witness

Rich Galen

Thursday August 24, 2017

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  • What will happen when the Congress comes back from its August vacation? I think the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill will get worse.

  • Some background:

  • I was not involved with the Contract with America. I was running the Middle East for an IT company called EDS in 1994.d

  • For those who may be 23 years old or younger, the Contract with America was a document written by a team led Newt Gingrich which promised to bring 10 measures to the Floor for a vote - not that they would pass - but there would be an open, up-or-down vote.

  • I interviewed a number of staffers who were involved with the development and execution of the Contract and to a person they said the same thing:

  • It provided a roadmap for legislative activity for the first three or four months of the new Congress - the first time the GOP had controlled the House chamber in 40 years.

  • Bill Clinton, a Democrat, was President. Newt Gingrich, a Republican, was Speaker. And Bob Dole (R) was Senate Majority Leader. Their legislative approaches did not, in many cases match up.

  • Fast forward these 23 years and we have both Houses of Congress controlled by the GOP and a Republican in the White House. Just like in 1995, their legislative approaches do not, in many cases, match up.

  • With the Contract for America in hand, the Republican Congress marched forward. The national spotlight was on Capitol Hill. In April of that year, President Clinton grew so frustrated that he held the infamous "I am Relevant" press conference.

  • Of that presser, Time Magazine reported at the time:
    "Clinton downplayed the fact that his press conference was only picked up by one major network."

  • We know about the shouting match (or matches) between Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We have had no such reports about Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

  • Why does Ryan appear to be hanging back?

  • I can think of a couple of reasons.

  • First, keeping a line of communications open between the Hill and the White House is a good idea. If McConnell wants to be "bad cop" then Ryan can, and probably should, play the "good cop."

  • Second, Mitch McConnell has only eight Senators who are up for election next November. The Ds have to defend 25 seats.

  • Ryan has 240 GOP seats (with one vacancy) to defend. Nancy Pelosi needs to improve on her 194-seat minority.

  • With most of the current Congressional District maps likely to stay in place through the 2020 census and into the 2022 mid-terms, it is likely incumbent Members of the U.S. House will remain incumbent Members of the U.S. House.

  • What those GOP incumbents are desperately trying to avoid is a primary challenge between now and 2018.

  • By staying out of the news-cycle-by-news-cycle fray between Trump and the Congress, Speaker Ryan is, effectively, protecting his Members from having to choose sides - Pro-Trump or Anti-Trump.

  • We are coming to the end of the August recess. It will be very interesting to watch what happens when the Members of the House and Senate return from their annual dispersal and begin to chat in the Cloakrooms, at caucus Luncheons, in the Committee rooms, and in the hideaway offices distributed throughout the basement of the Capitol building.

  • The Members will compare notes. If necessary, they will begin to form informal or formal sub-caucuses to push legislation they need for their Districts.

  • In effect, they will be writing their own Contracts with America - a legislative roadmap that will get them through the end of the year.

  • They will do this with or without much positive input from the White House.

  • One of the most talented member of the WH senior staff - Marc Short - is the Legislative Liaison, but even someone of his standing and his relationships cannot speak for the President because he can't be sure if the President's position in the morning will be the same position in the afternoon.

  • To most likely approach will be to treat Donald Trump like a trial attorney treats someone who they thought was going to be an ally to his or her case, but turns out not to be: As a hostile witness.

  • Trump, for his part, may still dominate the cable chat shows, but the Congress will control the legislative agenda.

  • On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: Links to the Contract with America and to the Time Magazine report on the Clinton "relevance" presser.

    The Mullfoto is from Elevator #3 in my office building.

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