The Undercurrents Roiling Congress This Morning

By now most Americans don’t remember James Thompson, a civil rights lawyer in Kansas. He was the Democrat who lost a special election there in April, to fill a congressional seat vacated when the incumbent congressman, Mike Pompeo, took a job leading the CIA.

Thompson received only 46 percent of the vote on that April 11. He was one of the numerous Democrats last spring who ran vigorous campaigns to fill seats vacated by someone taking a job in the Trump Administration—and who came up short. So Democrats engaged in the usual rending of shirts and gnashing of teeth, that they couldn’t win.

I never saw Thompson’s loss that way. When an unknown Democrat did that well in a deeply Republican district—and when so many other Democrats did the same, getting to 45 or 48 percent in Republican areas all over the country—I took it as a sign that many voters were deeply uncomfortable with the Republican agenda. Even in defeat, Thompson brought that animosity into the light. Republican lawmakers could see how close they were to it.

Three months after Thompson lost, his fellow Kansan, the conservative Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, came out against his own party’s’ first effort at Obamacare repeal. As he said at the time, “The Senate healthcare bill missed the mark for Kansans and therefore did not have my support.”

Moran was no fool. He heard the message of opposition behind Thompson’s loss. So he opposed the first effort at Obamacare repeal, which failed in July, which led to the Senate’s second effort at Obamacare, which failed in September.

Obamacare repeal would have meant enormous upheaval for Corporate America, with consequence for regulatory compliance functions everywhere. And yet, it hasn’t happened, and may never happen, because subtle undercurrents like Thompson’s loss months ago still have consequences even today.

As I’ve said all year: the Democratic Party has more power in Washington than people understand. They took a terrible hand of cards and have played it brilliantly.

Which brings us to the election results of last night. Because if Republicans were painting themselves into political corners before, while Democrats were losing—just wait to see what happens now that Democrats are winning.

Cracks in the Dam

Obviously yesterday’s victories for Democrats will embolden them to challenge Republicans on tax reform. Already the original plan unveiled by Republicans in the House is unpopular with voters, especially upper-middle income voters who may well see their taxes increase from the plan. (Senate Republicans plan to unveil their own plan on Friday.)

Time now favors the Democrats. Don’t forget that the government is running on a temporary budget until the end of this year, when lawmakers will need to renegotiate another operating budget for 2018. And resolve the status of DACA immigrants. And complete tax reform. And respond to lord knows what from President Trump, who plumbs new depths of unpopularity every day.

Notice we barely even mention Dodd-Frank reform these days. That’s how unlikely it is any time soon.

And, all the while, Republican lawmakers need to consider whether they’ll run for reelection in 2018. No wonder we keep seeing more and more Republicans announcing their retirement. Just last night we saw another: Frank LoBiondo, a congressman from southern New Jersey.

Republicans have painted themselves into a corner, supported ever more loudly by an ever smaller group of right-wing activists. Thompson’s performance in Kansas last spring was a harbinger of pressures to come. Last night’s victories for Democrats were the first signs of voter dismay boiling over.

Now, for corporate compliance officers worried about specific issues here today—yes, the doings of the executive branch will always matter more, and Trump still has his hands on the levers of executive branch power for now. We’ll continue to talk about the Trump Administration’s consequence for corporate compliance functions as always.

But when you do pause to wonder about the legislative branch, and how Republicans might change the landscape for all issues tomorrow—don’t hold your breath. Democrats have the wind at their backs, and Republicans can’t keep it together. I’m not even sure Republicans know what “it” is any more.

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