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CAPITOL LOOKOUT: Politics could cloud hopes for new Congress

Besides being able to regularly visit Washington’s memorials and Smithsonian museums, one of the perks of living and working in our nation’s capital is the easy access to “inside the Beltway information” that you can get by attending free seminars and conferences featuring former and current members of Congress, super-lobbyists and high-priced pollsters, many of whom have keen insight into elections and what they portend for the future.

Such was the case when I attended the “Day After Conference” less than 12 hours after the polls closed on the 2014 midterm elections. Sponsored by the influential National Journal, its lineup of a dozen political notables ranged from former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) to Washington political strategists Heather Podesta and Celinda Lake and noted political analyst Charlie Cook.

Within sight of Congress, just up Pennsylvania Avenue and just a stone’s throw from the White House, more than 400 political junkies who make their living in the political arena in one way or another packed an auditorium in the imposing Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center to hear what they had to say.

They gathered, hoping to divine some clues to the meaning of the election results beyond what the talking heads provide on cable TV.

Cook, the keynoter, was especially entertaining, having been on TV until 2:45 a.m. that day and having ridden a three-hour train from New York to D.C. while finding time to write his next column before taking a 15-minute nap and showing up at the conference, which began at 8 a.m. and lasted until nearly noon.

He questioned whether the Republican sweep was a tsunami, a tidal wave or simply a wave normally associated with the sixth year of an incumbent’s presidency. Given the low voter turnout, especially among women and minority-group members, and the proportionately higher turnout of older white men, he suggested that the election was mostly a simple wave and that we should not read too much into it.

That said, the burning question on everyone’s mind was what the election results meant for the gridlock that has paralyzed America’s government for longer then we all care to admit. Would the Republicans, now firmly in control of both the House and Senate, gin up more conflict with the president or would conciliation and compromise be the order of the days, weeks and months to come?

Perspective was brought to bear on this question by 81-year-old former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), a three-term member of what was once known as the world’s greatest deliberative body and who is now, like most of his former colleagues, a lobbyist. Bennett, a well-respected member of the Senate’s Republican leadership team, had been denied his party’s primary nomination by the Tea Party in 2010 for being insufficiently conservative.

What was the message the American electorate was sending? Would divided government produce more or less gridlock? Would the Republicans now turn to governing in the hope of showing the public that they could solve some of the nation’s pressing problems as the 2016 presidential election cycle gets under way?

Bennett opined that the Republican congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader-to-be Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) are deal makers and that the new crop of lawmakers being sent to Washington, though conservative, are generally more interested in getting things done than in grinding government to a halt.

His words were echoed by McConnell a few hours later during a nationally televised press conference in which he said there would be no government shutdown or default on debt on his watch and that “the gridlock and dysfunction can be ended.”

Although a more activist agenda by Republican leaders will come as welcome news to many, there remains a part of the electorate with strongly held views that the federal government should do less, not more.

Although immigration reform, the minimum wage and energy issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline were much discussed during the post-election chatter, many of the “Day After” panelists thought the prospects for a tax bill, especially one dealing with corporate taxes, has a better-than-even chance with the new Congress.

If that’s true, the marine industry needs to get on board and get its ducks in order real soon because the window of opportunity will be very narrow and short-lived. There are only about six months between February and August, when the Congress actually legislates, and by September all eyes and every vote will be made under the shadow of the 2016 presidential election, where the Democrats can expect a significantly more favorable electorate and significantly fewer congressional seats at risk than the hand they were dealt last Tuesday.

“Politics is always stranger than fiction,” Podesta noted as her panel of K Street power players gazed into their crystal balls. As a certified graybeard who has been on the Washington merry-go-round longer than the incoming and outgoing leaders of the Senate have been in office, I agree with her assessment. Anything can happen in the months to come and probably will.

Michael Sciulla established boating’s first federal political action committee and testified more than 30 times on Capitol Hill during a 28-year career at BoatUS, where he managed the organization’s government relations and public affairs operations while also serving as editor of its 650,000-circulation flagship publication.


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