An eventful week in Washington opened with Democrats scoring an upset defeat in a Senate race in deep-red Alabama, only to close with Republicans crossing the t’s on the centerpiece of their 2017 legislative agenda. Along the way, Capitol Hill continued to feel the reverberations of the national reckoning with sexual harassment, and the Federal Communications Commission moved forward with a controversial move to deregulate ISPs.
A Democrat won a Senate election in Alabama
Doug Jones, who served as an Alabama US attorney in the 1990s under Bill Clinton, won an astounding come-from-behind victory to defeat the Republican nominee Roy Moore. Moore’s campaign was weighed down by both accusations of having preyed on teenage girls and a poor national political environment for the GOP.
- Not just scandal: It’s clear that the allegations against Moore played a key role in putting Jones over the top, but even before those stories broke Jones was down by only 5-10 points — remarkably close for a deep-red state.
- A Democratic Senate within grasp: Democrats face a very unfavorable Senate map in 2018, but Jones’s victory gives them a plausible path to a majority — hold all their incumbent seats, and win in Nevada and Arizona — that had been hard to see.
- What’s next? The GOP is desperately trying to rush its tax bill to a vote before Jones can be seated, since a razor-thin 51-49 majority will make it difficult to advance any controversial bill.
Republicans wrote their tax bill
After a minor amount of drama, House and Senate GOP leaders appeared to have reached agreement on the shape of a final tax bill, though they were keeping the actual text a closely held secret throughout most of the day — actual text won’t be released until 5:30 pm. By all indications, they have the votes to pass the bill early next week.
- The big picture: The House tax bill, the Senate tax bill, and the final compromise bill differ in a number of important details but they are similar in broad strokes — business owners get a big permanent tax cut (in the form of a corporate rate cut, a special deduction for pass-throughs, and a big reduction in the estate tax) while middle-class families get a small temporary one. About 13 million people are expected to lose health insurance, and deficits will rise.
- Unanswered questions: With the bill moving through a very rushed process, there are big unanswered questions about how much new tax evasion or tax avoidance will be facilitated by some of the new legislative structures. The official score of the revenue loss entailed by the bill assumes broad compliance and little gaming, but experts have serious doubts.
- What’s next? The bill polls poorly, so there’s always a chance that a last-minute backlash will complicate the whip count. But all signs are that the bill will pass early next week and be signed into law.
Sexual harassment accusations kept roiling Congress
Harassment charges continued to make waves on Capitol Hill this week, playing a key role in Jones’s victory in the Alabama special election, prompting a Texas Republican to announce he won’t run for reelection, and ending with the revelation that a top House ethics official is accused of assaulting women.
- In and out: Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican who holds a solidly red seat, announced that he won’t run for reelection — giving the GOP its best chance at holding the seat by avoiding a special election. Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-NV), who allegedly touched women inappropriately and made sexual comments, continues to resist entreaties from party leadership to stop down.
- Unethical ethicists: The Office of Congressional Ethics investigates sexual harassment claims in the House, but its staff director and chief counsel turns out to be the subject of a federal lawsuit for allegedly physically and verbally abusing women and using his position as a high-ranking congressional official to influence police investigating the matter.
- What’s next? Nobody knows for sure, but essentially everyone in and around Congress expects that more harassment scandals will come to light sooner rather than later.
FCC chair Ajit Pai voted on Thursday to roll back Obama-era regulatory moves, reclassify broadband internet as a Title I information service, thus also ending network neutrality regulations that force wireline ISPs (cellular internet is already allowed to operate in non-neutral ways) to treat all data equally.
- The case against net neutrality: The argument for Pai’s move is that allowing ISPs freedom to structure their pricing and service however they want will ultimately boost investment in the sector, and deliver more competition and higher quality infrastructure. Non-neutral mobile internet providers have avoided the dystopian practices advocates warn about; the lack of regulation simply lets them optimize their product better.
- The case for net neutrality: The argument against Pai’s move is that there’s very little competition in the wired broadband market — the typical American has one or two broadband providers rather than three or four wireless ones — and common carrier rules are needed lest the uncompetitive infrastructure market start infecting the market for online services.
- What’s next? Litigation! A bunch of blue states have announced plans to sue, and they’ll be supported by some internet companies and advocacy groups. The legal issue will turn not on the underlying merits of the decision, but on whether the FCC really gathered enough new information over the past year to warrant a new rule.