A View from the Inside: Washington, D.C.
Stephen A. Borg  

Step back in time with me to one year ago today. We were right in the midst of one the most unpredictable Presidential elections we have ever seen as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ran against each other using two very differing platforms. The electorate was angry, Congress’ approval ratings were in the doldrums, and the economy was struggling to grow at modest rates. In the month that followed, we all know the story… Donald Trump pulled massive upsets in the rust belt, built mainly with his message of jobs and the return of the American middle class. With his victory and the corresponding Republican majorities in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, Republicans in Washington, D.C. and throughout the nation felt the wind at their back and began to lay out a bold and far reaching agenda to quickly repeal and replace Obamacare, pass the first major tax code overhaul in three decades, construct a broad, comprehensive infrastructure investment package, and secure the border. And that was just the beginning.

When the 115th Congress was officially gaveled into session in January and Members of Congress were sworn in, Republicans quickly began to get to work on laying the foundation to move the numerous pieces of legislation required to fulfill their promises and move this agenda forward. The House of Representatives quickly began drafting legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, hopeful that soon after Mr. Trump was sworn into the Presidency on January 20th that the bill would be sitting on his desk in the oval office awaiting just his signature and thus fulfilling a promise that Republicans had been making ever since Obamacare was first passed 7 years earlier. The plans were to then quickly pivot to tax reform, overhauling and simplifying the tax code, boosting economic competitiveness and kick-starting the job market, particularly in the manufacturing sector where many rust belt jobs have been lost throughout the Midwest. Confidence in the Republican Party was high and Congress was eagerly talking to anyone and everyone about the quick success the election was going to afford them to realize.

Fast forward back to the present day; I am writing this article on the first day of October and Congress has yet to pass any significant piece of the aforementioned package, President Trump has started to cut deals with Democrats on funding issues, and Members of Congress are staring the 2018 mid-term elections right in the face. While many people have their own thoughts and opinions on what has happened in the last 9 months, or probably more likely have differing views on where to point the finger of blame, I wanted to take this time to fill in on some of the back story on why this agenda was an uphill struggle to begin with and why it might not be a surprise we are where we are.

During the 2016 election campaign, most political pundits believed that there was no way under the current political landscape that Republicans would be able to hang on to control of the Senate. When numerous, very vulnerable Republican Senators rode Donald Trump’s coattails to victory in the Midwest, it became clear that Republicans were going to keep control of the Senate, setting up Republican control of the White House, Senate, and House. Most Republicans were emboldened by this election victory “sweep” and began dreaming of what was to come: a long time coming repeal of Obamacare and tax cuts and reform the likes of which our country has rarely seen. In the House of Representatives, most people thought that after the emboldening election victories, Republicans would quickly be able to put their differences (which not too long before had brought forth the surprising resignation of John Boehner as the Speaker of the House) aside and the House would lead the charge on passing this multi-tiered legislative agenda. The House Republican conference is essentially split into 3 main groups: The Freedom Caucus (Ultra-Conservatives), the Tuesday Group (Moderates), and the remaining Leadership and rank and file member bloc, which tends to span the political spectrum. The Freedom Caucus, a relatively new faction of House Republican members holds enough members to block any piece of legislation from passing the House of Representatives when they stand together and history has shown us that this bloc tends to vote in unison for the most part.

Soon after gaveling in the 115th Congress, House Republican Leadership quickly designed a repeal and replace package behind closed doors and began the process of “selling” the package to the different Republican factions. They soon realized that each faction had their own issues with the package and after several attempts to change the language they ultimately passed a repeal and replace package by a very slim 217-213 vote.

Next up was the Senate, where in the wave of the election excitement, most people forgot one very little remembered, yet very important, Senate rule; most pieces of legislation need 60 votes, not a simple majority, to move forward in the Senate. Many were so excited that Republicans retained control of the Senate they overlooked the fact that Republicans would only hold 52 seats, meaning they would need 8 Democrats/Independents to come along side of them to pass most of the pieces of legislation. Ultimately the Senate attempted to use a tool called budget reconciliation in their attempt to repeal Obamacare, which would allow them to pass the repeal and replace package with a simple majority. In the end however they ran into similar issues that the House saw and they were not able to bring the separate factions of the Republican party into agreement on what the final package should look like and did not have the votes to simply pass the House passed version.

After many fits and starts, it appears that any attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare are dead for the foreseeable future and Congress and the White House are moving on to tax reform. While we are extremely hopeful that these efforts will prove to be fruitful, we hope that lessons were learned from the earlier healthcare fights and Leadership and the White House continue to engage the American people and Members of Congress as they craft their tax reform package. I would make the plea that you take the time to pick up the phone and call your Members of Congress to explain to them how important tax reform is to you and your business.

As an incentive to become engaged and also provide you with an update on our silica issue, let me take this time to relay a recent set of events with you. MCAA and our coalition partners in the construction industry have spent years fighting the new silica exposure rule, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) finalized late last year. As you know from previous updates in this space, our coalition, as well as other organizations that have a stake in the rule, brought forth a lawsuit arguing that OSHA did not adequately show that this new rule was technologically and economically feasible. At the same time, we continued our outreach efforts to Capitol Hill and began talks with OSHA on what changes we hoped they would make to the rule.

Earlier this year, our coalition began having what we thought were productive talks with OSHA, and we were hopeful that OSHA would work with us to address our concerns. Then, without warning, OSHA abruptly cut off our talks and said they would be making no changes and enforcement would begin towards the end of September. We were shocked at this sudden change in stance from OSHA and immediately put our grassroots and shoe leather lobbying efforts into full force and began calling on our friends on Capitol Hill. The relationships were forged during our annual fly-ins, the ask was easy, and the results were spectacular. Many of you heeded our call and took time out of your day to pick up the phone and ask your Members of Congress to call the Secretary of Labor and share how egregious this sudden change of heart was and how this rule, as written, would have a drastic impact on the masonry industry and construction industry as a whole. Oh my, were your calls heard! Members of Congress immediately stood with us and called the Secretary the Labor. Letters were quickly written, signed by dozens of Members of Congress and sent to the White House. Not too long after these efforts started did we get word that the Secretary of Labor wanted to begin talks again with our coalition on improving this rule. This would not have happened without the many members of the MCAA picking up the phone and making their voices heard and I implore you to get engaged, stay engaged, and make your voice heard. You can and do make a difference when you engage your elected officials and the Mason Contractors Association of America is making a difference in Washington, D.C.