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Political considerations and the work of Congress

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole

After a short break, members of Congress return to Washington this week, ostensibly to do the people’s business. But will any significant work be completed amid the din of hyperpartisanship and during a presidential election year?

U.S. Rep. Tom Cole thinks the answer may be yes.

Cole, R-Moore, says appropriations bills could make it to President Trump’s desk sometime during 2020. He also believes an infrastructure deal could be reached, although not one as sweeping as some would like. A bill to lower drug prices is a possibility.

The reason: to provide vulnerable House Democrats something to pitch to constituents as they seek re-election in November.

In an interview with The Oklahoman, Cole said he believes some of the progress seen in 2019, such as appropriations bills and the trade deal involving the United States, Mexico and Canada, were because Speaker Nancy Pelosi "didn’t want to send her members home with nothing else. I think the same thing could happen again this year.”

Democrats control the House, but 31 of their members hold seats that Trump carried in 2016. Among those is Rep. Kendra Horn of Oklahoma City, who upset an incumbent Republican by a narrow margin in 2018 in a district Trump won by 11 points.

“They can’t go home and say, ‘What I did was constantly investigate the president and I voted to impeach him,’ which most of them did, and not have something else,” Cole said.

But one challenge facing Pelosi and her party is that, as Cole put it, “anything we do, Donald Trump has to sign and he gets credit for.” That’s a bridge too far for many Democrats.

Cole recalled 1996, when President Bill Clinton was running for a second term. That year, a Republican-controlled Congress approved welfare reform, which was a victory for the party but also a victory for Clinton. Those associated with Republican Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential race were not happy about Congress helping the incumbent.

“The same pressures are in play here,” Cole said.

“I think Pelosi’s going to be trapped politically, and I don’t know which way she’ll go, because obviously the personal intensity between the speaker and the president is much worse than anything we ever saw between (former Speaker Newt) Gingrich and Clinton in my view.

“I don’t know how much that colors things. But in the end, your job as speaker is to do what’s in the best interest of your members. They’re the ones who made you speaker.”

The growing strength of each party’s base also comes into play. Members on both sides are loath to do anything that might cost them any of that support.

Cole noted the days when Oklahoma Democrats such as Wes Watkins or Dave McCurdy could vote against Ronald Reagan and still win re-election, even though voters in their districts had backed Reagan. “I’m just telling you, those days are gone,” Cole said. “They just don’t exist anymore.”

Thus, it should come as no surprise if consequential legislation goes wanting this year.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›