The Big Casino – March 2024

As the political class braces for the official end of the Republican presidential primary and the beginning of the longest presidential general election in history, we offer these observations on the political and legislative state of play in Washington, D.C.

Political Landscape
Following a decisive win in the South Carolina primary, Trump is poised to officially sew up the Republican nomination after the Super Tuesday primaries on March 5 and setting the stage for the longest general election campaign (i.e., slog) in U.S. history. In doing so he becomes the first former president to win his party’s nomination since Grover Cleveland in 1892. As for Biden, he runs again as not only the oldest but one of the longest-serving and most experienced figures in American governance, having come to the U.S. Senate in 1972.

After a relatively slow start, the Biden camp is now assertively moving into campaign mode, acting swiftly to capitalize on hot button issues like the Alabama court decision on IVF treatments and working to ameliorate a major vulnerability by signaling a coming series of executive actions on immigration and border control. Trump is effectively ignoring Nikki Haley, his last serious challenger, and continuing to build out the machinery (Super PAC funding, asserting control over the Republican National Committee, etc.) needed for the race to Election Day.

Polling continues to demonstrate the public is deeply dissatisfied with the two major candidates, an unease that put wind in the sails of third-party efforts. Even though no third-party candidate has received Electoral College votes since 1968 (George Wallace), both Biden and Trump have cause for concern. The president suffered the lowest third-year voter approval ratings of any president since Jimmy Carter, and his team is working each day to staunch further bleeding. For instance, his political allies have been actively undermining efforts by the No Labels group. For Trump, who has never attracted more than 46% of the general election vote, the anti-establishment bent of the third-party candidates potentially attracts some of the disillusioned, erstwhile voters he must have to win.

In the end, the third-party efforts only prove decisive if they take away electoral votes in the swing states, thus Robert Kennedy, Jr.’s push to secure the nomination from the Libertarians, the only third party to appear on all 50 state ballots in 2020. Green Party candidate Jill Stein recently was added to the ballot in Wisconsin, and the major candidates will have to take these efforts seriously. One only need look to 2016 (Jill Stein) and 2000 (Ralph Nader) to see where even small, isolated impacts by third-party candidates had major ramifications.

When it comes to the general elections, the recent political analysis by Moody’s presciently observed, “the economy may not be at the top of voters’ minds in every election, but it is rarely less than a close second.” The Biden team has to hope the public begins to feel the effects of falling inflation and other recent good economic news. Additionally, the president’s campaign will remind voters of the events of January 6th, 2021, hoping to kill two birds with one stone – stoking the enthusiasm of a restless liberal base while reminding leery swing voters of the unappealing chaos that follows in Trump’s gargantuan wake. For its part, the Trump message will also target swing voters by underscoring the president’s age and limitations, pointing out how a weak president has led to multiple public policy challenges – a chaotic border, inflation caused by reckless spending, and meddling in needless foreign wars. But, in the end, if the former president’s team wants to engineer a victory it must come to grips with the fact that as former Clinton White House advisor Doug Sosnik has written, “his ability to inspire his base is matched only by his ability to alienate the rest of the electorate.”

Down a level, Republican prospects in the Senate continue to improve. No GOP incumbents are in real jeopardy, and the NRSC’s aggressiveness seems to be paying dividends – clearing the field in Montana, and enticing the best possible candidate, former Gov. Hogan, into the Maryland race. Assuming the recent trend of voters tying presidential and senate races together at ballot box continues, Republicans seem headed toward regaining a slim majority in 2025. In the House, most analysts describes the race as too close to call, both sides enjoying a strong foundation of “safe” seats and fighting over no more than 40 or so districts. Again, the increasing tendency of voters to opt for “straight ticket” could be determinant.

Legislative Agenda
The legislative machinery on Capitol Hill has grounded to a near-halt, and depending on one’s philosophical orientation this can be either a good or bad thing. Because House Republicans are essentially functioning as a majority in name only, we should all continue to assume the least common denominator when it comes to legislative output.

The current four-week stretch of congressional activity (leading up to Easter recess) will be dominated by FY24 spending discussions. The Senate does need to address the House’s impeachment of Secretary Mayorkas, the first impeachment of a cabinet secretary since 1876. Sen. Schumer is likely to want to dispose of the matter quickly, wanting as little public focus as possible on border control, a Biden campaign weakness. However, it could take several days to process the necessary procedural motions in the face of likely Republican resistance. Besides spending issues and the Mayorkas impeachment, the only other noteworthy legislation that could come to the Senate floor in March is the FAA reauthorization.

Conservatives in Congress are increasingly comfortable with a potential stalemate on FY24 spending and the 1% across-the-board cut on discretionary spending that would take effect in May under the Massie Amendment. (Side note: going often unsaid is how the FY24 delays are slowing any prospective work on FY25 spending.) Increasingly, we hear from Members and staff about the inevitability of a long-term CR, but we still think there is a decent chance of enactment of some appropriations measures. Given the coming
March 1st deadline for the first four bills, we will all know much more quite soon.

Expect in the coming weeks a flurry of regulatory activity from the Biden Administration to try to protect final rules from future review under the Congressional Review Act. Recall that during the early days of the Trump Administration, 15 different rules, promulgated in the final months of the Obama Administration, were rescinded by the CRA. The statute protects rules that are finalized more than 60 days of congressional session earlier, a deadline that could start to toll as early as May. Additionally, the lack of legislative activity opens the door even further for aggressive action by a White House eager for tangible achievement in an election year. The coming administrative actions on immigration and border control are only the next steps in a stream of executive orders and rulemakings we should expect throughout 2024.

Much has been written about the recent spate of Member retirements from the House, but in historical terms the overall numbers are mundane. Plus, 13 House Members are leaving because they are seeking other, higher office. Still, it is true that many of the Republicans leaving have admitted they are struggling with changes in the Republican Conference. In short, it appears the Members leaving are more invested in the traditional legislative process than other recently elected Republicans; otherwise, it is hard to understand why four committee chairs would retire now.

Finally, it’s important to note this Congress has adopted a slower legislative pace as the Supreme Court in a series of cases is examining the limits of executive power and the administrative state. If, as many legal experts predict, the Court acts this spring to limit or even to overturn the Chevron Doctrine of deference to agency actions, there could be even more onus on Congress to legislate more broadly and efficiently.

Worth a Read
Some late-winter snow for Canada would be helpful.
Volunteers wanted to (kinda) go to Mars.
The NFL continues to dominate American media.
The traditional cable bundle continues its long, slow demise.

March 5 Super Tuesday
March 10 Daylight Savings Time Begins
March 20 Vernal Equinox
March 28 MLB Opening Day
March 29 National Vietnam War Veterans Day
March 31 Easter Sunday
April 3 National Chocolate Mousse Day
April 8 NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship
April 11 First Round of the Masters


Scroll to Top