February 2024 Update

by John Endean

February 17, 2024

To:         ABC Members and Friends

From:     John Endean

Date:     February 17, 2024

Re:        Report for Mid-February 2024

As we move into spring, where do we stand?

As I write this, the Senate’s $95 billion aid bill for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan appears dead in the House, although there is much talk about certain procedural maneuvers that could bring the legislation to a vote. Speaker Mike Johnson, for his part, said that the House “will not be jammed or forced” into passing the bill, because the text is “silent” on the issue of securing “our own border.”

There was a reason for that silence. Earlier this month, Johnson announced that the Senate’s immigration reform measure, which was originally attached to the foreign aid package and negotiated with Senate Democrats by the very conservative Senator James Lankford (R,OK), was beyond redemption, not worth discussing, and would not therefore be taken up in the House at all.

Then, almost immediately, the Speaker brought to the House floor a stand-alone $17.6 billion aid bill for Israel, of course without border security provisions.  It failed.  He then oversaw an impeachment vote against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. It failed. On February 13, on the second try, Mayorkas was indeed impeached, largely along party lines and by a one-vote margin. The political benefits of this symbolic vote – the Senate will do nothing on this matter – were not easy to discern, and it was meaningless for border security.1

Against this backdrop, Congress and the President face new challenges. Most immediately, two continuing resolutions currently funding the government are about to expire: one on March 1 and one on March 8. If they are allowed to expire, in whole or in part, at least some of the federal government will shut down.

For those interested in particular appropriations bills, the CR expiring on March 1, covers: Agriculture-FDA, Energy and Water, Military Construction-VA, and Transportation-HUD. The CR expiring on March 8 covers: Commerce- Justice-Science, Defense, Financial Services, Homeland Security, Interior-Environment, Labor-HHS-Education, Legislative Branch, and State and Foreign Operations.

In the midst of this, President Biden will deliver his State of the Union message on March 7, two days after Super Tuesday. I cannot be the only American who wishes that the President, in the manner of all chief executives until FDR, would send a written statement to the Hill. But that is not going to happen. Prepare for a raucous evening.

On March 11, Mr. Biden will submit his FY 2025 budget to Congress. By law, both the budget request and the National Security Strategy are due on the first Monday of the month, March 4. Nobody seems to mind since few take the budget process seriously, as we know. Appropriators are already predicting that they may not finish their work in time for the beginning of the new fiscal year on October 1. That means another continuing resolution, or, less likely, a shutdown, just as the election looms.

CBO Coincident with the beginning of a new federal budget season, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released in early March its economic and budget outlook. Regarding the budget and the debt, Philip Swagel, director of CBO, said in testimony to Congress, that:

  • the deficit is projected to grow from $1.6 trillion in 2024 to $2.6 trillion in 2034;
  • net interest costs are a major contributor to the deficit, with their growth equal to about three-quarters of the increase in the deficit from 2024 to 2034
  • by 2034, net interest costs are projected to be one and a half times larger than defense and nondefense spending; and,
  • measured in relation to economic output, federal debt held by the public will rise from 99 percent in 2024 to 116 percent ($54 trillion) in 2034, surpassing its previous CBO projects the debt will continue to balloon to about 172 percent of GDP by 2054.

This situation is unsustainable. Already, federal interest costs exceed US defense spending, four years earlier than what CBO had predicted just last year. Overall, health care costs and interest payments on the debt are driving federal spending and neither is amenable to moderation. One victim of this drive toward insolvency will be Social Security which, under current law, will be unable in ten years to meet its obligations to retirees.

As I have noted in past reports, there is a movement in Congress to establish a fiscal commission with the power to develop proposals to address this situation. It could not come too soon.

Political Scene On Valentine’s Day, Republican Congressman Mark Green of Tennessee announced that he will not seek reelection. Said Mr. Green, “Our country – and our Congress – is broken beyond most means of repair. I have come to realize our fight is not here within Washington, our fight is with Washington. As I have done my entire life, I will continue serving this country – but in a new capacity.” In the near term that means working to elect Donald Trump as our next President.

A cynic might point out that if Washington is broken beyond most means of repair, a House of Representatives controlled by the Republican Party could be part of the problem. But no matter: the point is that Mr. Green is the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and consequently a person of significance on the Hill. And, at age 59, he is a youngster by Washington standards.

Mark Green’s decision to call it quits is not unique. Consider the following chart, compiled by the reporter Bryan Metzger, showing members of the House who are leaving the Hill and, for now, not seeking higher office (I should add that Derek Kilmer is 50, not 64 and Jennifer Wexton is fighting a neurodegenerative disease):

More Republicans than Democrats are leaving the House and compared to the departing Democrats, they are slightly younger. Note also that Kay Granger is the House Appropriations Committee Chair, Patrick McHenry is the Financial Services Committee Chair, Cathy McMorris Rogers is the Energy and Commerce Committee Chair, and Mike Gallagher chairs the House Select Committee on China. As with Mr. Green, these lawmakers are relinquishing posts that can take years to earn and that wield considerable influence and fundraising capacity.

We do what we do for our own reasons, of course. But whatever their individual motives, those GOP members who are leaving must not regard continued service in the House sufficiently compelling to forego other options.

Some may be exiting because they sense Republicans will lose control of the House in November and have no appetite for returning to the minority. The special election held last week in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which was won by Democrat Tom Suozzi, can be seen as trouble ahead for the GOP. (Suozzi won by eight points in a district where Trump is leading Biden in the polls by five points.)

Some may find the priorities of the House under the influence of Donald Trump as unproductive – a “do-nothing” House in other words. For example, of the three Republicans who voted against the impeachment of Mayorkas, two – Ken Buck and Mike Gallagher – are leaving.2

It is also possible that Republicans are tired of the abuse they endure when they deviate ever so slightly from the new party line.

Consider Gallagher. He holds a lifetime score of 84% from the very conservative Heritage Action for America (the average House Republican score is 79%).

Yet, when he opposed the Mayorkas impeachment, a vote of negligible importance, he really stirred the pot at home and on talk radio. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel of February 8 quotes one Ken Sikora, the Oconto County GOP Chairman: “I can no longer tolerate nor support someone who will not follow his constitutional duties and the wishes of his constituents. I am calling on all District 8 Chairs to unite and condemn this betrayal.” Others called for Gallagher to be “primaried.”3

To be a young, very conservative member repudiated by his local party for the most trivial of reasons cannot be very rewarding, especially if there are other jobs to be had. Why stick around?

It will be interesting to see who the Republicans nominate to replace the departing House members. In the meantime, Republicans like their chances in November to retake the Senate.

Currently, the Democrats control the majority by one vote, 51-49 (the three Independents caucus with the Democrats). In November, the map looks favorable for the GOP with twenty-three Democratic seats and eleven Republican seats up for grabs. The Cook Report rates the eleven Republican seats as either “Solid R” or “Likely R.” In contrast, Cook rates three Democratic seats as “Toss Up.” The three “Toss Up” seats are held by Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, John Tester of Montana, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Cook rates as “Lean D”, a category only somewhat more secure than “Toss Up”, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, and the Michigan Senate seat, which is Open (Debbie Stabenow is not seeking reelection). For a closer analysis of all this, I will defer to Charlie Cook who will be talking with you at our spring meeting.

I do want to note in passing the recent decision of Republican Larry Hogan to enter the Senate race in Maryland. A former governor, a leader of the No Labels movement, and someone sufficiently moderate to be competitive in deep blue Maryland, Hogan polls well against his most likely Democratic opponent, Congressman David Trone. The owner, with his brother, of the Total Beverage chain of booze, cigar, and fatty cheese stores, Trone has deep pockets and is already running a lot of ads on local television. This race will tighten over time but will remain a real chance for an additional GOP pick-up.

As for No Labels, with Hogan running for the Senate and Joe Manchin announcing that he will not run for President, it is hard to see if the group’s threat to launch a third-party Presidential campaign retains any credibility.

In other words, it is going to be Biden v Trump.

As this memorandum has argued, Donald Trump’s ideological hold on his party is all but complete (Lara Trump will soon be serving as co-chair of the RNC with the announced intention of directing “every single penny” of party funding toward her father-in-law).

As for President Biden, the deadlines for primary ballot access expire at the end of this month in all but six states. That makes a challenge from, say, Gavin Newsome, almost impossible.

As Charlie recently wrote, “at some point you just have to give in to reality.”


1 I should add that the Speaker also lost a rule vote on the House floor pertaining to the proposed increase in the SALT deduction. Eighteen Republicans voted no. In the words of Hill reporter Jake Sherman, “This Republican majority has lost more rule votes than any other majority in five decades, a stunning sign of weakness.”

2 The third nay vote was cast by Tom McClintock of California.

3 This sort of thing goes on all the time, as you know. Moving briefly to the Senate, look at James Lankford (78% Heritage lifetime rating compared to 52% average GOP Senate rating). Because of his role in the bipartisan border negotiations, Lankford earned the disapproval of the Oklahoma Republican Party which passed a resolution condemning and censuring him. In the meantime, a popular national commentator – Lankford won’t say who – promised that if the Senator moved a reform bill, “I will do whatever I can to destroy you, because I do not want you to solve this during the presidential election.”