Dec 22 8:00 AM

Why 2015 will look a lot like the early 1990s

Though 2015 sees the sun rise on a new Congress, will it be a new day for US politics?
Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg / Getty Images

In his 1991 book Parliament of Whores, conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke famously wrote, "Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it." In 2015, with a new Senate majority and a larger majority in the House, the GOP will get another chance to make O'Rourke look good.

The midterm wave saw the Republican establishment not only vanquish Democrats in the November general election, but also harness or hold off insurgent conservatives and tea party populists during the primaries. Yes, there were some exceptions — the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by David Brat providing the most striking example. But in the end, the grand old party faithful tacked hard enough to the right to keep its incumbents in office and bring in challengers that, while undeniably ultraconservative, didn't self-destruct in the campaign as they have in the last couple of election cycles.

So at the start of 2015, Ohio's John Boehner will still be Speaker of the House, and veteran Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell will ascend from Minority to Majority Leader.

It will be interesting to see what McConnell's Republican majority does with the Senate rules, which come up for a vote at the start of each new session. How much of the fraught and frustrating filibuster will remain for the minority Democrats to use? Still, no matter what the rules, the president still has to sign every bill the Senate votes on, and that president is still, for another two years, Democrat Barack Obama.

Obama's mantra since taking office in 2009 has been to find common ground with the Republican Congress. That might not seem like what he's doing to some in the GOP, who are crying foul at Obama's executive actions on immigration and the environment, and his executive overtures toward Cuba. But some of those Republicans probably owe their presence in Congress to the administration's strategic blunder of waiting until after the elections to make moves that could have motivated Democratic votes.

No doubt, there will be a number of standoffs between Congress and the White House over now-classic GOP whipping boys like the Affordable Care Act and environmental regulations, and some of those clashes could actually get quite heated. But the United States may be surprised next year when Republicans and the president turn out to be remarkably cooperative when it comes to foreign trade — specifically, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

McConnell has vowed to make trade a priority right out of the gate, and Obama has signaled that he is willing to buck his own base to fast-track this massive, NAFTA-style package of deals with China, South Korea, Vietnam and other Pacific Rim nations. But the Democratic base will almost certainly not like what this "bipartisan," multilateral treaty has in store for U.S. manufacturing, intellectual property rights or the global environment.

That is, if anyone pays attention. Despite objections that may be raised by the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Wall Street is going to love the TPP — and they will show their affection in tangible terms to the trade deal's most ardent and vocal supporters.

Big money campaign donations are going to drive a lot of the political agenda in 2015 — as they did in the 2014 midterms and will continue to do heading into the 2016 presidential election. The GOP has been busy this fall filling Congressional committee staffs with lobbyists from the industries that funded their November victories. And while Sanders, Warren and Brown all are said to have presidential aspirations, the chances of any of them out-fundraising consensus frontrunner and Wall Street darling Hillary Clinton is incalculably slim.

On the Republican side, a similar dynamic could be in play. Ted Cruz has done an impressive job of occasionally bucking his party's establishment and raising a hefty war chest, but will tea-partisan politics be able to withstand the big money behind establishment heartthrob Jeb Bush?

All the candidates will have to weather what will surely be a cynical year in governance. With budgetary deadlines in February and September, voters are likely to be further turned off by more of the last-minute lack of accountability that permeated December's CRomnibus debacle, which saw special interest riders slipped in to a "must pass" spending bill.

Still, while both governmental dysfunction and unusual cooperation on trade may keep eyes on Congress in early 2015, by the end of the summer, the nation's pundits, if not its populace, will turn its attention to presidential politics. And with a mega-trade deal on the table, waiting to be fought and fawned over by a Clinton and a Bush, 2016 is shaping up to look a lot like the early 1990s, too.

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