East Coast Blizzard Shuts Down D.C., Shifting Focus to Iowa

Winter Storm Jonas swept through Washington, D.C., last week leaving behind icy roads and a quiet city. Due to the storm, which left 250,000 people without power and may end up costing the U.S. economy more than $1 billion according to several media reports, major legislative action was stalled on Capitol Hill.  The House of Representatives cancelled all legislative activity last week, and the Senate returned on Wednesday to continue debate on a bipartisan energy reform bill.   

The Senate energy reform bill, or the Energy Policy Modernization Act, aims to upgrade the reliability and security of the electric grid, increase the energy efficiency standards of commercial buildings and promote the use of renewable energy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky stated the chamber will continue the debate the first week of February and will have an open amendment process. As of last week, senators had proposed more than 80 amendments. An amendment proposed by Michigan Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow would provide a state-matching emergency appropriation of $400 million to address the water crisis in Flint, Mich. Other amendments could focus on a range of issues such as energy reliability studies, manufacturing or examining the Strategic Petroleum Reserve drawdown. 

House Democrats took the opportunity to hold their annual retreat in Baltimore to craft a strategic plan to tackle the primaries this year, beginning with Iowa, which hosts the nation’s first caucus for the presidential elections today, Feb. 1.

Iowa has the distinction to be the first state to hold a caucus or primary during each election cycle. According to Iowa law, the state caucus “shall be at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus or primary which constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state.”

The Iowa caucuses give the nation its first definitive view of the presidential election. Moreover, momentum is important in politics, and a candidate that does well in Iowa might earn enough momentum to become the eventual nominee. This was the case in 2008 with President Obama, who beat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in Iowa and went on to earn the party’s nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.

Some states have tried to increase their influence in the election process by moving their elections earlier in the year—also referred to as frontloading. However, the national political parties can penalize states for doing this, and given the severity of the penalties, no state has chosen to frontload this year.

Iowa will open the election process today, followed by New Hampshire on Feb. 9. Like Iowa, New Hampshire passed a state law in 1975 that mandates that the state hold the first primary—rather than caucus—of the national election calendar.

South Carolina and Nevada also hold their primary elections in February. Super Tuesday takes place on March 1, when 12 states will hold their respective presidential primary or caucus elections. The District of Columbia will hold the nation’s last primary on June 14.

In the midst of all the talk surrounding Iowa, Congress will be busy with a heavy load of legislative activity this week. The Senate will be looking to make further progress on the Energy Policy Modernization Act, while the House will consider a full range of bills. The House schedule can be viewed at the majority leader’s home page.