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5 important stories from Washington in 2017 that didn’t grab the big headlines

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Between the huge Republican pushes to overhaul the country’s health care system and tax code, high-profile battles over Supreme Court and Cabinet appointments, saber-rattling over North Korea, a seemingly endless string of West Wing hirings and firings, and the sexual misconduct reckoning that ended the careers of Sen. Al Franken and others, it was easy to lose track of a lot of consequential news out of D.C. this year.

2017 may have been a record year for Washington news: Seemingly every week, there was a story that would, in lesser years, have fueled a news cycle for months.

Among the huge Republican pushes to overhaul the country’s health care system and tax code, high-profile battles over Supreme Court and Cabinet appointments, saber-rattling over North Korea, a seemingly endless string of West Wing hirings and firings, and the sexual misconduct reckoning that ended the careers of Sen. Al Franken and others, it was easy to lose track of a lot of consequential news out of D.C. this year. (There’s also that whole ongoing-investigation thing into the president’s campaign and its ties to the government of Russia.)

You might have even forgotten that some of that stuff happened. (Neil who? What’s that guy up to?) But there’s much more you didn’t hear much about, even while it was happening. Here’s a roundup of the D.C. news that got put on the backburner in 2017 that’s worth revisiting now:

1. Republicans kill thousands of regulations ...

As soon as President Donald Trump took office, he and the GOP majorities in Congress began a methodical campaign of deregulation, passing bills and utilizing Trump’s power of the pen to undo rules and policies put in place by Barack Obama and many of his predecessors.

Over the course of the year, they have worked to kill regulations across every corner of the federal government, from the environment to Wall Street, the workplace to education. This month, Trump announced his administration had rolled back 1,600 regulations so far. Big picture: They are aiming to bring the total number of federal rules below the amount that existed not just in 2008, but in 1960.

What kind of stuff got the ax this year? There were the top-line items, like killing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rules that protected the concept of “net neutrality” in online communication, and a rule to prohibit some mentally ill people from purchasing firearms.

Some other stuff you may not have heard about: The administration eliminated a rule that made airlines disclose baggage fees, one that made oil and gas companies disclose payments to foreign governments, and rules that subjected more U.S. waterways to pollution protections.

There are hundreds more regulations that, over the course of the year, got put on the chopping block, got delayed, or were weakened. In 2018, expect that the deregulatory juggernaut will continue apace.

2. … and reshape the federal bench in their image

So you’ve heard a lot about that Neil Gorsuch guy and, to be sure, his elevation to the U.S. Supreme Court — after Senate Republicans stonewalled for a year the Obama administration’s pick for the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia  — was a huge deal.

But for positions in not-as-important-but-still-very-important federal courts, the White House and the Senate have together worked swiftly to appoint record numbers of jurists to the federal judiciary this year.

When he was inaugurated, Trump was faced with 100 openings in the federal bench — double the number of vacancies Obama inherited when he took office. This year, his administration has named nominees for over half those vacancies, and the Senate has confirmed 19: 12 appeals court judges, six district court judges, and one Supreme Court justice.

The White House’s selections represent the whitest and most conservative slate of judicial nominees since the 1980s. (Fifteen of the 19 confirmed nominees are men.) Many are accomplished and qualified jurists; one touted selection has been David Stras, the Minnesota Supreme Court justice who the White House selected for the 8th Circuit Court. He got a hearing in the Judiciary Committee last month, after reservations from Sen. Franken delayed the process for a few months by holding up his “blue slip” for Stras’ nomination.

Other selections have been … less impressive. For example, take Matthew Peterson, a Trump appointment who was completely dismantled by a friendly Republican senator in a December hearing because he couldn’t answer basic questions about the law and had never tried a case in federal court … or any court. (He was nominated to the D.C. district court, one of the country’s most important courts.)

But Trump nominees failing to make it through this process is the exception, not the rule. Because of that, the federal courts will be injected with a conservative flavor for decades, and that will probably be one of Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s most consequential and lasting achievements.

3. Democrats struggle to find a message and move past 2016

After a heated 2016 primary and a stunning defeat in the general election, Democrats entered 2017 with a long to-do list, topped by two things: blocking the agenda of Trump and the GOP, and working to retake control of Congress.

To succeed, though, Dems had to do some serious soul-searching and communicate to voters what they’re for, not just against. A year later, it’s unclear how well they’ve done that.

Over the summer, Democrats did roll out out a new economic platform, which they’re calling A Better Way. Elements of it appealed to the party’s Bernie Sanders wing and to the party’s center, but nobody seemed to really love it or recognize it as an authoritative reflection of what the party stands for now.

Meanwhile, intraparty fights lingering from 2015 and 2016 continued to play out all year. Some Sanders-aligned progressives feel shunned at the Democratic National Committee, and sensationalist campaign tell-alls, like the one from former interim party chair Donna Brazile, only put fuel on the embers smoldering from the primary.

There was good news for Democrats at the ballot box: After a high-profile and costly defeat in a U.S. House special election in Atlanta’s conservative suburbs, in the fall, Democrats picked up governorships, a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, and made progress at state legislatures.

Without question, Democrats have a lot of grassroots energy at their disposal heading into 2018, thanks to a historically unpopular president mobilizing voters on issues from immigration to health care to taxes. Those in the political prediction business — and take them with a grain of salt — believe Democrats have a chance to take back Congress. 

But 2017 showed that Democrats still have work to do in striking a balance in how they communicate on economic issues, other issues like immigration and LGBT rights, and, of course, what they say about the president, and the ongoing investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia.

4. But lots of them are running!

In Minnesota and in other states, 2017 saw a groundswell of enthusiasm prompting people to run for elected office, from Congress to the state level and on down.

At MinnPost, we’ve been tracking candidates in our Election 2018 “Who’s Running” dashboard, and we’ve had to update it constantly this year with new additions to crowded fields for congressional races around the state.

A lot of that enthusiasm has been on the DFL side: In the 1st Congressional District, which incumbent DFL Rep. Tim Walz is vacating to run for governor, as many as nine Democrats were vying for the endorsement at points during the year. In the 3rd District, as many as five Democrats were competing for the chance to challenge GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, and in the 8th District, DFL Rep. Rick Nolan has drawn an endorsement challenger, Leah Phifer.

In December, a busy 2018 in Minnesota got even busier with the departure of Sen. Al Franken, putting his Senate seat in play. That means both of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot next year — a rare occurrence — and many Republicans may want the chance to challenge Senator-to-be Tina Smith, who will have been on the job for 11 months before the 2018 election.

5. Congress couldn’t get its act together

It seemed Congress was more active than ever this year, between all this tax and health care business. The legislative calendar backs that up — 2017 had the most scheduled days of legislative business since 2011 — but that doesn’t mean that Congress was always doing what it’s supposed to do.

Basic congressional business frequently fell by the wayside this year, and faced with opportunities to deal with reauthorizations of key programs and other policy deadlines, lawmakers mostly elected to punt rather than handle them head-on. With the year coming to a close, there’s simmering discontent in both parties that Congress didn’t have substantive debates and votes this year on a number of important topics.

Broadly, congressional leaders have been unable to move on reauthorizing important programs without dragging them in as potential bargaining chips in spending fights. Funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which funds state programs so 9 million disadvantaged kids can access care, ran out on Sept. 30. It took until the last week of business in 2017 for Congress to consider a bare-minimum extension of CHIP, free of any of the so-called poison pill provisions that made Democrats unable to vote for a prior version.

Congress had also delayed in reauthorizing an oft-used foreign surveillance statute, figuring out a way to fund disaster relief that satisfies Republicans and Democrats, and deciding what to do for the millions of Dreamers, the undocumented immigrant brought to the U.S. as children, whose legal status Trump moved to end this year.

All this dysfunction around spending and deadlines comes in the shadow of big promises made by Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional leaders: a return to so-called regular order, which entails passage of 12 separate appropriations bills to fund the federal government. That did not happen this year, even with unified Republican control of Congress and the White House. It will not be until January at the earliest that Congress funds the federal government through the end of fiscal year 2018 — with more than a quarter of that new fiscal year already over. 

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Comments (2)

Can you confirm

That our Senator Al Franken secured himself an extra $3000.00 a year in Senate pension by waiting until Jan. 2nd to resign? Not a big amount of money to MinnPost readers but also not a headline anywhere that I've noticed.

Sam - this has been an absolutely disastrous

Year for the country’s debt (probably over 2 trillions at least). We have a POS president who lies constantly and easily could start a nuclear war. Young immigrants will be thrown out of the country for no other reason than building a wall. And as usual the northern states will be paying even more to prop up the southern states of lazy losers. Etc, etc,etc. I would prefer a report on the disaster than a OK for republican hacks