Policy Outlook for 2015

February 20, 2015

At the beginning of each year, Van Ness Feldman professionals provide their policy outlook for the coming year in the major areas of our practice: energy, the environment, natural resources, land use, and government relations. This year’s Policy Outlook focuses on likely 2015 developments in Congress and the Executive Branch. We hope that you find this document to be helpful and encourage you to contact one of our professionals if you are interested in additional information on any issue covered in the Policy Outlook.

OVERVIEW OF 2015

Following the large number of Republican victories in last November’s election, there are several factors to consider in evaluating public policy opportunities and challenges in Washington this year.

The first is Republican majority control of both the House and Senate; thus enabling Republicans to act on their policy priorities as well as use the instruments of the Legislative Branch to challenge the Obama Administration. The second is President Obama will continue to use executive actions to achieve his policy objectives in his final two years in office.

The most noteworthy change on Capitol Hill in 2015 is in the Senate where Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has replaced Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) as Majority Leader. In a floor statement in early January, Majority Leader McConnell set forth his plans for the operation of the United States Senate: "We need to get committees working again. We need to recommit to a rational, functioning appropriations process. We need to open up . . . the legislative process in a way that allows more amendments from both sides."

Under Senate “regular order”, new committee and subcommittee chairs will greatly impact the legislative agenda in the Senate. For example, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will exert great influence over energy, environment and natural resource issues as Chairman of both the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.

Republicans secured the Senate Majority with the election of 9 new Senators. Several have been assigned key committee assignments important to energy, environment and natural resources issues including Senators Dan Sullivan (AK), Shelley Moore Capito (WV), Bill Cassidy (LA), James Lankford (OK), Cory Gardner (CO), Steve Daines (MT), and Mike Rounds (SD). This is an experienced group of policymakers who will have an immediate impact in their new roles.  New Committee assignments in both the House and Senate can be viewed in this VNF Alert.

The House Republican majority now stands at 247 members, the largest number of Republicans in the House of Representatives since the late 1940s. With limited opportunities for House Democrats to obstruct the House majority, Republican leaders will focus on managing political and policy differences within House Republican ranks, working closely with Senate Republicans, and challenging the Obama Administration’s executive actions on issues ranging from climate change to health care to immigration. 

President Obama’s response to gridlock in prior sessions of Congress has been to use executive actions to advance his policy initiatives. This is particularly true on environmental and climate change matters where the Administration continues to push forward a series of controversial rulemakings at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We expect the President will continue to use executive actions to advance Administration priorities.

The President has signaled a desire to work with Congressional Republicans to adopt bipartisan legislation in some substantive areas. However, the President has also set an ambitious agenda for his final two years that includes issues that are not likely to be considered by Republicans in Congress. The President has vowed to veto legislative attempts to rollback his environmental, climate change, health care and immigration initiatives.   Presidential vetoes are likely to stand as Republicans lack the votes in either chamber to override a veto.

We see Washington’s policy leaders emboldened to act on their respective agendas. Republicans in Congress are intent on returning the Legislative Branch to “regular order” so as to capitalize on their majority status, contest policy differences with the Obama Administration, and build political support necessary to maintain control of the Congress. The President is equally intent on defending actions of the Administration on climate change, health care and immigration, to frame his political legacy, and to seek collaboration with Capitol Hill where possible.

Sequestration or mandatory and automatic budget cuts agreed to by the Congress and the President in the Budget Control Act of 2011 resumes in fiscal year 2016 unless the law is changed by October 1, 2015.  This budget dynamic will impact budget talks between the Administration and the Congress and the fiscal priorities of both political parties.  President Obama has requested Congress lift sequestration for both domestic and national security spending in the Administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget.  Key Republican Congressional leaders have expressed an interest in exempting national security spending from sequestration’s mandatory budget cuts.

And not to be overlooked, the 2016 election cycle has already begun. President Obama will conclude his term in less than two years and new aspirants are exploring campaigns for the Presidency. Republicans are preparing to defend a large number of seats in the 2016 election with Democrats intent on regaining control of the Senate. The 2016 elections will impact policy and political considerations throughout 2015 on Capitol Hill and across the Executive Branch.

A list of the Outlook’s topics is set forth below: