The 115th Session of Congress is taking a short recess on June 30. In light of Congress' first half of the 2017 year coming to a close, it's important to reflect on the decisions that have been made since Donald Trump took office. Needless to say, America has certainly changed since Inauguration Day. But reviewing a congressional "report card" of sorts will ensure that you don't skip a beat. Equipped with a synopsis of their actions, you'll be able to hold Congress accountable for both their successes and failures.
The 115th Congress is comprised of a Republican majority in both houses. The Senate currently has 52 Republican senators, two Independents, and 46 Democrats, with Republican Mitch McConnell serving as Senate majority leader. The House of Representatives has 239 Republican members of Congress and 193 Democrats, with Republican Paul Ryan serving as Speaker of the House.
Republican legislators seemed to have rather ambitious plans for the beginning of this congressional session. Because they hold a majority in both houses of Congress, the 115th congressional session is as an opportunistic time during which they can pass legislation that aligns with their party platform. According to a CNN article written in January, at the beginning the year, Republicans intended to focus their energies primarily around several issue areas: repealing Obamacare, reforming taxes, confirming Trump's nominees for various offices, addressing Russian hacking issues, and (possibly) reforming congressional rules.
But as anyone versed in politics knows, things rarely unfold as planned. Here's what Congress did and did not accomplish during this session:
- The House of Representatives passed the highly controversial American Health Care Act (AHCA) on May 4 with a vote of 217-213. The AHCA rolls back many key Obamacare provisions, including Medicaid expansion and premium subsidies. If the AHCA is enacted, millions of Americans will likely lose insurance over the next decade or have to pay more for their health care. The bill also contains a provision to defund Planned Parenthood for one year.
- The Senate version of the Obamacare repeal and replacement bill, the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA) of 2017, was unveiled on June 22. It is similar to the AHCA, though it proposes more substantial cuts to Medicaid in the long-term. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the legislation could cause 22 million Americans to lose their insurance. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had initially indicated that he wanted the Senate to vote on the BCRA prior to the upcoming congressional recess. However, on June 27, McConnell announced that the vote would be delayed until after the July 4 recess. As The Guardian reported, the delay was likely caused by a lack of support among Republican senators for the bill in its current form. According to CNN, McConnell told Republican senators that he wished to make changes to the bill and obtain a new CBO score before having the Senate vote on it sometime after the holiday.
- The Senate has approved Trump's entire cabinet, though, according to CNBC, it has taken Trump more time than any modern president to get his nominees through Congress. Furthermore, the nomination of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also set a record. It marked the first time that the vice-president has ever had to cast a tie-breaking vote for a cabinet appointment in U.S. history.
- In a highly controversial move on April 7, the Senate confirmed Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Gorsuch's nomination was so controversial because former President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland for Scalia's seat, but Garland was never granted a confirmation hearing. Furthermore, Republicans invoked the "nuclear option" to eventually confirm Gorsuch. As a result, Supreme Court nominees can be confirmed with only a simple majority vote in the U.S. Senate.
- In mid-June, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill (the vote was 97-2) to impose new sanctions on Russia as a "punishment" for the country's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Putin has denied that Kremlin-directed hacking of the election occurred; however, he did suggest that independent "patriotic" hackers could have potentially played a role in election hacking. The Senate bill strengthens current sanctions on Russia and imposes new ones on various industrial sectors. Notably, the bill also limits Trump's power to lift Russian sanctions without congressional approval.
- The House version of the sanctions bill is currently stalled, supposedly due to a procedural issue. According to Reuters, lawmakers are unsure of when it may come up for a vote.
- Congress has done little thus far in the way of tax reform. According to Politico, Speaker of the House Ryan has hinted that he thinks legislation will come out in September after the GOP and the White House find common ground. The Trump administration has also indicated that it expects Congress to act on tax reform by the end of 2017. National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn told Fox News earlier in June that the administration plans to submit its detailed tax plan to Congress after it returns from its July recess.
- In January, The House of Representatives passed HR7, a bill which would essentially make the Hyde Amendment a permanent law. The decades-old Hyde amendment is a budget "rider" that bans federal funding for abortions in the United States, except for several notable exceptions. The amendment has banned federal funding for abortions via Medicaid for years. If HR7 becomes law though, this restriction would become permanent. Additionally, it would also become exceedingly difficult for women to have abortions covered by private insurance, due to the bill's proposed ban on women receiving ACA subsidies (funds that would help cover the cost of their insurance and diminish out-of-pocket expenses) if they select an insurance plan the covers abortion. The bill has been received in the Senate and has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration.
- As noted above, both the Senate and House versions of the Obamacare repeal and replacement bills defund Planned Parenthood — an organization which provides millions of women with essential reproductive health services — for one year.
- In February, Congress passed two career-oriented acts: the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act and the INSPIRE Women Act. Both seek to promote the participation and recruitment of women in math, science, and engineering.
- In perhaps one of the more unexpected activities of the beginning of its legislative session, Congress has had to navigate an investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged ties with Russia. For his part, Trump has denied these allegations, saying during a news conference on May 18 that " ... there is no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign — but I can always speak for myself — and the Russians ... Zero."
- Following Trump's controversial firing of former FBI Director James Comey on May 9, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a massively-publicized hearing in early June to question Comey about the Russia investigation as well as to address claims that Trump could have obstructed justice by allegedly asking Comey to stop his investigation of ousted National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (Trump has also denied these allegations).
- The Senate Intelligence Committee also held another hearing in mid-June to question Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged Russia ties.
- Once special counsel Robert Mueller is finished with his investigation of the campaign's alleged Russia ties, he will report his findings to the attorney general (in this case, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, since Attorney General Sessions has recused himself from the investigation). The findings will recommend either dropping the investigation or levying charges. The Justice Department must then notify Congress of the conclusion resulting from these findings.
- Senate Republicans held steadfast in their commitment to ensuring that Gorsuch was confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice of the United States. However, they certainly took unprecedented measures to ensure that this happened by invoking the "nuclear option."
- New health care legislation has not passed both houses of Congress and thus Obamacare has not been repealed and replaced, as desired by many Republicans. However, throughout the beginning of this congressional session, Republicans have judiciously worked to try to achieve this aim (and are continuing to do so). The proposed health care bills also defund Planned Parenthood, a long-standing goal of many Republicans.
- The contents of the Republican health care bill also suggest Republicans are moving away from their promise about "fixing" Obamacare — a promise that once included lowering premiums and deductibles and maintaining continued protections. Indeed, their bills seem to encourage the opposite of these promises.
- Republicans have not yet delivered on promised tax reforms — something that has notably annoyed several Republican donors. However, as noted above, Republicans have committed to passing tax reform legislation by the end of the year.
- Republicans have dropped the ball on Russia sanctions for election interference by not yet getting the bill through the House of Representatives. Despite seemingly bipartisan public commitment to "punishing" Russia for this interference, the lack of passed legislation reflects a promise unkept.
- A vote on the Senate version of the health care bill is imminent following the July 4 recess. However, if McConnell and Senate Republicans do seek to make changes to the bill and acquire a new CBO score, it could take some time before a vote is held on the legislation.
- In addition to finalizing plans for health care legislation, crafting tax reform legislation will likely be a major legislative priority that Republican members of Congress focus on for much of the remainder of 2017.
- Many anticipate that a Senate vote on raising the debt ceiling will take place in July, before Congress' longer August recess. However, Speaker of the House Ryan has indicated that the House will only commit to voting on the issue before the United States hits the debt ceiling. If that were to occur, it would likely happen sometime in September and trigger a first-ever default on U.S. financial obligations, like social security. Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, wants Congress to vote to raise the debt ceiling as soon as possible. However, Congress seems hesitant to rush the vote, as it may cause discord between fiscal conservatives and moderates within the Republican party.
- Earlier in June, the House voted along party lines to pass the Financial Choice Act, which, if it becomes law, would gut many of the financial regulations put in place by the Dodd-Frank Act. The Dodd-Frank Act is a substantial financial regulatory reform bill that was passed following the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Consideration of the new bill is now in the hands of the Senate, which, according to CNN, is likely to craft its own version of the bill. According to the New York Times, repealing key Dodd-Frank provisions also constitutes an important, though lesser-publicized, priority on the Republicans' legislative agenda; however, they likely face an uphill battle to pass legislation in the Senate.
It will certainly be interesting, to say the least, to see how the remainder of Congress' year unfolds after members return from their July recess.