Deep polarization has pushed a turbulent Congress into chaos.
The U.S. government is also navigating the Israel-Hamas War, which was ignited after a sophisticated surprise attack mounted by Hamas on October 7. Americans are among the dead and Hamas’ hostages. President Joe Biden delivered remarks condemning the attacks and pledging support for Israel. As some members of Congress seek unity in support of Israel, Congress finds itself paralyzed without a Speaker of the House.
This edition of Policy Matters takes a look at the politics and policies in play, including around the ongoing government funding negotiations and Speaker election, as well as what remains on the 2023 agenda in D.C. We also round up the latest election news, including the 2024 presidential campaigns, several odd-year elections at the state level and the new Supreme Court term.
In 2024, 3.5 billion people around the world will vote in major national elections. In the U.S., the 2024 presidential election looks increasingly likely to be a rematch of President Joe Biden (D) and former President Donald Trump (R). According to the latest polling, Trump leads his next closest opponent in the Republican primary – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – by more than 40 points. The primary, which officially kicks off with the Iowa caucuses on January 15, 2024, may be pivoting to a race for a Cabinet role in a new Trump Administration or positioning for a wide-open field in 2028.
The economy, abortion rights and immigration dominate as priority issues for the presidential campaigns. Biden and his cabinet are touting “Bidenomics” – the administration’s economic policy and successes, including a return to low unemployment following the COVID-19 pandemic, receding inflation rates and historic investments in manufacturing, infrastructure and the green economy – versus Trump’s “MAGAnomics.” Voters remain concerned about the economy and voice pessimism about their individual economic situations.
The Trump campaign is trying to strike a contrast with Biden on age, the economy and the new House impeachment inquiry (more below). The Biden campaign is seeking to subtly contrast its more subdued governing style with the former president’s nationalist tone and upcoming court appearances as he faces 91 criminal counts across four indictments.
A number of states have odd-year elections this November, including three southern states with highly competitive gubernatorial races.
State Legislature Races & Constitutional Amendments
The politics within Congress – between the Republicans and Democrats, but also between the Senate and House and within the Republican party – have reached new levels of division and partisanship. These challenges are playing out across consequential issues and must-pass bills. Last week, the tensions within the Republican Caucus in the House boiled over, leading to the removal of Representative Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) as Speaker of the House.
Government Funding and Shutdown
Among Congress’s most urgent priorities: funding the government. When President Biden and then-Speaker McCarthy reached their deal to raise the debt limit in May, they set a “topline number” for all 12 FY2024 appropriations bills. These toplines were supposed to smooth the process of writing the annual bills and ensure there would not be a government shutdown. However, a full-on House Republican rebellion brought the process right to the brink. In recent weeks, McCarthy found himself caught in the middle of open warfare between conservative members who constantly threatened his gavel and more loyal Republicans, including moderates. (In January, McCarthy gave any member of his caucus the ability to call for a vote on his ouster in exchange for securing the speaker’s gavel.)
On September 30, after a frantic week and just hours before the deadline to avert a government shutdown, McCarthy broke with the far-right Freedom Caucus to work with House Democrats and the Senate to pass a 45-day stop-gap bill which funds the government until mid-November at FY2023 funding levels. There was no new funding for Ukraine in this legislation, border-security provisions or budget cuts – all points of contention between and within the parties and chambers.
Other must-pass legislation has been delayed by the debate over government funding, including the five-year Farm Bill to renew critical farm and nutrition policies and programs.
Office of Speaker of the House Declared Vacant
Just 24 hours after the stop-gap funding legislation passed, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) filed his motion to vacate the Speaker’s office. GOP leadership scheduled their vote for October 3, and the motion passed by a vote of 216-210 – officially ousting McCarthy as Speaker of the House. Representative Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) was appointed as Speaker Pro Tempore until the House elects a new Speaker. On October 11, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) secured the Republican Caucus’s nomination for Speaker over House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), 113-99. Trump had endorsed Jordan after some members – and the former president himself – suggested Trump for Speaker temporarily. The full House may hold floor votes for the Speakership on Thursday, October 12. Given Republicans’ narrow majority in the chamber, Scalise needs near-unanimous Republican support to secure the gavel – no sure thing. (In January, it took McCarthy 15 rounds of voting to become Speaker.)
Biden Impeachment Inquiry
On September 12, then-Speaker McCarthy unilaterally declared that the House would open an impeachment inquiry into President Biden, claiming that he benefited financially from his son Hunter’s alleged influence-peddling in business dealings. The inquiry is largely being driven by the House GOP’s internal dynamics: McCarthy launched the inquiry in a failed quest to appease the far right of his caucus and advance a deal on government funding to avert a shutdown. (In recent months, some on his party’s right flank threatened to remove him as speaker if he didn’t pursue an impeachment inquiry.)
Up to this point, Republicans investigating allegations of corruption and illegality around the Biden family have not been able to connect the dots to actions by Biden, including during his time as Vice President.
Several moderate House Republicans have been skeptical of an impeachment inquiry. Senate Republicans are largely dismissive, panning it as a questionable use of time amid other priorities and ahead of the 2024 elections. In the House Oversight Committee’s first impeachment hearing on September 28, witnesses suggested there was not yet adequate evidence for impeachment.
Against the wishes of many of his Republican colleagues, Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R) has instituted a blockade on the confirmation and approval of military nominations and promotions – currently totaling more than 300 – over a Pentagon policy that provides travel support for members of the military seeking abortion care. The Senate recently used a work-around to confirm several high-priority appointments, including a new chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. Tuberville has refused to back down, even amid the Israel-Hamas war.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
As covered in the latest edition of AI Policy Pulse, the Biden Administration and Congress are both engaged in a broad review of AI regulation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently hosted a private forum with top tech executives on AI. Numerous proposals are in play as Congress attempts to align around a bipartisan legislative framework by the end of 2023. In November, the United Kingdom will host a summit about international coordination on AI regulation, with Vice President Kamala Harris or Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo expected to attend. Several states are also pursuing AI regulation and legislation.
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) started its 2023-2024 term on Monday, October 2. The term appears set to be another consequential one, with cases addressing gun rights and firearms restrictions, including in cases of domestic violence; civil rights; voting rights and redistricting; social media regulation and federal agencies’ authority and funding, among other issues. Disputes related to abortion and gender-affirming care may yet be added to the docket. The Court continues to face scrutiny about its ethics and disclosure policies.