What can we expect from the new power dynamic in Washington?

Even though President Donald Trump claims to be great at deal-making, he has been bad at it so far during his presidency.
REUTERS/Jim Young
Even though President Donald Trump claims to be great at deal-making, he has been bad at it so far during his presidency.

Most democratic systems in the world are based on the premise that you need a government than can govern. And, by “govern,” in those systems, they mean a government that can pass its bills and implement the policies on which it was elected. If, after the election, or the postelection process of putting together a majority that can govern (in that sense), the “government” can’t pass its bills, a new election is often triggered, leading to a new party or coalition of parties committed to govern.

That’s not our system. Ours features just two significant parties spread across three branches. And the legislative branch is spread across two houses elected on different schedules. Occasionally, in the U.S. system, one party controls all the branches and both houses of Congress. In recent history, that’s fairly rare. But we just completed a two-year period when Republicans had the presidency (and therefore the executive branch), majorities in both houses of Congress and even a majority of Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents.

Even in our system, that should have been a formula for action. But it wasn’t. The all-Republican lineup got just one big legislative thing done, a massive (and, in my view, regressive) overhaul of the federal tax code that was disproportionately beneficial to business and the wealthy. But a great many other priorities on which Republicans ran were not enacted. Every elected Republican agreed that the Affordable Care Act needed to be repealed and replaced, but they failed to get it done. And we had a president who had some of his big plans blocked by the courts.

And now, that party, the Republican Party, has lost control of one house of Congress and will no longer be able to legislate without bipartisan compromise.

In addition, the two parties, which used to be much better at bipartisan action, have become very bad at it. We’ll see what happens in the next two years. But with divided government and a declining habit of compromise, I’ll be surprised if very much major legislation occurs, especially because of the polarizing quality of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Even though President Trump claims to be great at deal-making, he has been bad at it so far during his presidency. And he currently faces an increased possibility of action toward impeachment, which, if it occurs, will make it less likely that he will be inclined to act cooperatively with the House Democrats who are trying to impeach him.

Pretty big mess.

I reached two wise Minnesota-based political scientists who follow this stuff closely and asked what they expected to see during the next two years of re-divided government.

Steven Schier’s take

Steven Schier of Carleton College expects the period just ahead to be a “pretty big mess.” Trump, who was supposedly so ruthless and clever about the uses of power that some feared he would turn into an “authoritarian tyrant,” Schier said, has instead turned out to be a “pitiful duffer.”

“[Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing,” Schier said. The skills Trump may have employed over his life as a developer, casino operator and a reality TV star seem to have little or no application in his current job of president. If he could get only one major bill signed when his own party controlled both houses of Congress, he’ll have an even tougher time now that Democrats hold a big 36-seat majority in the House (with one seat vacant).

The House Democratic majority may not be able to get any of its legislative preferences passed by both houses and signed into law, Schier said, but they now have the power to fairly easily block anything that Trump and the Republican Senate majority want to do.

The Democrats who now control the House Committees, also have subpoena power, which they will surely use to get answers from Trump and his administration about their many scandals, especially including the Russian stuff.

House Democrats can, and very likely will, take at least some steps down the road to investigating possible impeachable offenses committed by Trump, Schier expects. That will not sweeten the environment for working together on legislation.

The Democratic landslide in 2018 House elections ushered many new ultra-liberals, which Schier said has created a new “woke caucus” that will push for what used to be considered far left ideas like single-payer health care. Even if once-and-future Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted to split differences with Trump and Senate Republicans, she will have a hard to moving to the center while maintaining the backing of the “woke” left, said Schier.

Kathryn Pearson’s observations

Political scientist Kathryn Pearson of the University of Minnesota, who focuses on Congress, cautioned me not to write that the big tax bill was the “only” accomplishment of the last session, because it was a huge bill of great significance to Republicans, and because Republicans were also proud of progress made in reducing regulations. Point taken.

But she agreed that, especially heading into 2019, the congressional parties are “more coherent and more polarized” than they were in recent decades (meaning the Democrats are more liberal and the Republicans are more conservative and there are fewer moderates in either party) and the task of finding bipartisan common ground may range “from unpleasant to catastrophic.” But with that noted, she agreed that, given unified Republican control of both houses of Congress and the White House for the past two years, the list of their big accomplishments was not that impressive.

Heading into the new reality of 2019, she said, the “big paradox” is that “the parties are more coherent, which makes the big picture less coherent” because it’s very hard to find a middle position that could attract majorities in both houses of Congress.

So, in 2019, she said, “I see Democrats in the House bringing up signature progressive bills on their key priorities, health care and energy and more, and passing them through the House on straight party line votes, making a strong statement, but having little chance of seeing them become law.”

But, she added: “They can then campaign in 2020 saying ‘these are the things that the Republicans are blocking.’ ”

There will also be things, like infrastructure projects, that could be good for Democrats and be good for Trump, and House Democrats may be torn, wanting the projects but not wanting to cooperate with Trump. She said it’s at least arguable that it’s in their interest to compromise, even if they have little interest in seeing Trump get a share of the credit.

On the Trump scandals, Pearson said, “there’s no doubt” that House committees, led by Democrats, will use their power, including subpoena power, to investigate. But the question of how far to go down the path to impeachment proceedings, especially since impeachment in the House would only refer the matter to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial, will be treated fundamentally as a political question. It will not be decided by insurgent Democrats. It will be decided by the House Democratic leadership on that basis.

Her final thought on that: “It remains to be seen whether they see it in their political interest to impeach. If I had to bet, I would bet that nothing gets done.”

Pearson is struck by the fact that Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi came up via the Progressive Caucus within the Democratic Party, but is now being discussed as if she is a moderate holding the young progressives back, and the members who remember Pelosi’s days as a progressive leader are fewer.

She predicts that the actual strategy followed in 2019 will be this: Pelosi and the rest of the leadership will bring progressive policies to a vote when they know they have 218 enthusiastic votes for it. If not, not, and then perhaps they will rankle the party’s left wing.

On the Republican side of the House, there is an ongoing Trump problem. Polarization has made the search for acceptable compromises more difficult for quite some time. But that difficulty is “massively exacerbated by a president who doesn’t get engaged in the policy, and then changes his mind and lashes out at will, including at members of his party.”

An example of this problem is “the wall.”

“Republicans who really want to cut immigration know that the wall is not the way to do it. But they know that a wall is what he wants. And that’s where we are.”

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Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/03/2019 - 10:42 am.

    To answer the rhetorical question in the headline: Not Much.

    Optimists, and I still am one occasionally, might hope for some common ground on the long, long list of infrastructure needs throughout the country, but even that won’t gain much traction until the current paralysis over the laughable “wall” is resolved.

    Meanwhile, there are at least a dozen other significant issues, from foreign policy to weapons procurement to educating current and future generations to local, national, and global environmental concerns, begging for well-deserved attention. Gridlock will not provide solutions to any of them. “My way or the highway” isn’t likely to serve new progressive Democrats very well as an operating principle, nor will continued temper tantrums in the Oval Office.

    I have no idea how the Constitution might be altered to promote, or favor, or require, a parliamentary system (which has its own drawbacks), but it’s a system that looks more and more appealing as the influence of People of Money in Washington continues to grow. James Madison’s faith in the balancing effects of “factions” seems increasingly misplaced.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/03/2019 - 11:17 am.

    But, what gets said–and the rhetoricof how it’s said–matters.

    Look at how Bernie Sanders was able to move the Democratic Party’s policy needle leftward from where Hillary Clinton’s positions were: it was the result of saying things, and repeating and repeating them, again and again and again, until Americans got used to hearing about, say, universal health care and free college education. Republican candidates for office in 2018 didn’t dare say they didn’t want good health care policy, so they lied about it to voters (who mostly saw through them).

    One doesn’t have to descend to Trump’s one-simple-phrase-repeated mantras to realize the power of getting things before the large public, to sway opinion.

    The big difference we may see? Long-term thinking by Democrats, long-range strategies and really smart tactics. Nancy Pelosi is Mitch McConnell’s match in the How to Use Power game in Congress, and she’s a true progressive. She’ll do fine, and I look forward to good policy solutions being presented (as she has already done with the Wall thing).

    Not much may be passed as laws. But the policy needle will move again, to the Democrats’ favor. Progressive Democrats.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/03/2019 - 01:01 pm.

    I’m guessing that after a very short period of time, certainly no more than a year, many of the “old & busted” House Democrats will find the inane prattling of the new hotness “woke” crew annoying enough to consider working with the GOP on some issues.

    In the absence of that possibility, nothing will get passed into law, which isn’t a bad thing either.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/03/2019 - 01:17 pm.

    As long as the executive branch is run by a random number generator, nothing is likely to happen. The Dems will only push legislation that can pass with enough of a majority to override a veto, which in a tribalized government is not likely.
    I suspect that their main emphasis will be information gathering to strengthen the case against Trump in case he runs again in 2020.
    The Senate Repubs will continue to concentrate on stacking the courts.

  5. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/03/2019 - 02:10 pm.

    First off, there is no evidence Trump has done anything impeachable. The Democrats hate him for beating Hillary but have never once put forth a single piece of evidence of impeachable offense.

    Secondly, hopefully nothing gets done. The new Dems are extreme left wing and their ideas are bad for America. The GOP did nothing because Ryan and McConnell refused to do anything Trump ran on. They were/are wholly owned by big Corp interests.

    2020 will be interesting (and possibly the last election cycle this nation has if the divisions keep worsening). A Depression is coming. Obama papered over the bad with trillions in new debt. Trump also failed to fix the structural problems with the budget and economy.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/03/2019 - 03:19 pm.

      The debt was coming down under Obama. Don Trump has ordered up a boat load of red ink.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/03/2019 - 03:58 pm.

        He doubled the debt he inherited. That’s just a fact.

        And that doesn’t excuse GWB either.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/04/2019 - 10:30 pm.

        The debt was not coming down under Obama, it went up every year he was in office.. and has done so since 1957. The deficit did drop temporarily but was back up to 1.4 trillion for FY 2016, his last full fiscal year in office. FY 2017 saw a 671 billion dollar deficit. FY 2018 saw a 1.27 trillion dollar deficit. You can look at the data for yourself: https://www.treasurydirect.gov/NP/debt/current Fiscal Years start Oct 1st and end Sept 30th.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/03/2019 - 03:22 pm.

      We’ll leave it to Mr. Mueller to determine if impeachable offenses have occurred.

      If you look at Obama’s debt record rationally, you will see that the debt sky rocketed in response to the 2008 fiscal crisis and went the other way after that. It now seems that Trump’s tax cut had zero bang for the buck, and will definitively blow up the deficit and debt.

      Elizabeth Warren’s message to the working class is not unlike Trump’s message to minorities:

      “What have you got to lose?”

      Eliminating tax giveaways, seriously reigning in Wall St excesses, fixing social security, managing higher education debt have all been scrupulously avoided by all the Rs and many Ds. Maybe time for a try?

      A rising tide lifts all ships…

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/03/2019 - 03:44 pm.

      A small list of Trump promises made while campaigning but now could flourish with Democrats….

      Rebuild the county’s infrastructure

      Fund Flint water cleanup

      Produce peace in the Middle East

      Produce a tax code so simple, it will put H&R Block out of business

      Replace Obamacare with something terrific, universal, and affordable

      Promote clean air and water

      Release his tax returns

      “Fix” poverty for African Americans and Hispanic Americans

      “Fix” the Veterans’ Administration

      Eliminate the national debt

      Starting to get nervous yet, Mr. Barnes ?

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/03/2019 - 04:10 pm.

        I am sure Mr. Barnes, like all thinking conservatives, will claim no Trump ownership, just a few mushy words about the lessor of 2 evils in 2016.

        Trying to find a well spoken, thoughtful Trump defender willing to engage in a rational discussion these days is near impossible.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/04/2019 - 02:55 pm.

        Not to take offense NR however, “current occupant of the Oval Office” is a documented 70% liar, new movie the, Lying King, and the other 30% is either twisted truths, 1/2 truths, made up, fantasy, or self aggrandizement. So what is it that has a common path/understanding forward? PS: Me thinks that he also promised to release his tax returns! Comes under. lie or fantasy?

    • Submitted by Kathleen Castrovinci on 01/03/2019 - 08:48 pm.

      Who are you kidding, Bob?

      George W. Bush took a Budget Surplus in 2001 from Bill Clinton and turned it into a defict mess by 2009. Yes, Obama had to raise taxes where needed in which to pay down the deficit. He had to factor in the costs of Medicare Part D, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the 2 tax cuts, and the Financial crisis that happened before the 2008 election as the Stock Market was crashing, as with the GDP.. The monies that needed to be borrowed to get this country on track like the Stimulus and pay for Bush’s debacles, took a toll on raising the National Debt.

      The last Republican President who left office with a Budget Surplus was Dwight Eisenhower in 1961.Obama left this country in far better economic shape for Trump. That is a fact.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/04/2019 - 08:12 am.

      You said:

      ….The GOP did nothing because Ryan and McConnell refused to do anything Trump ran on…..

      And, just as apt, from the last presidential term:

      ….The GOP did nothing because Ryan and McConnell refused to do anything Obama ran on….

      Now can we all admit that the GOP hates America’s democratic traditions and that they are unwilling to do what is necessary to rescue America when it encounters dire circumstances ?

      10 crisis years and rolling–GOP still not giving a damn.

  6. Submitted by Greg Smith on 01/03/2019 - 03:30 pm.

    the possibility of the Dems infighting might prove to be very entertaining, if one disregards the need for a sane government.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/03/2019 - 04:54 pm.

      Hmm…

      So your’e telling us that prior to the potential for D infighting we had a sane government?

      Maybe your’e the thoughtful Trump defender we’re looking for????

  7. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/03/2019 - 04:00 pm.

    “Elizabeth Warren’s message to the working class is not unlike Trump’s message to minorities:

    “What have you got to lose?”

    Now that is funny, right there!

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/04/2019 - 08:13 am.

      I agree, funny, but true.

      Take West Virginia, among the reddest of red states, yet inflicted by significantly higher indicators of “societal woes”:

      Educational quality & attainment
      Access to affordable healthcare
      Income levels
      Opioid abuse
      Highest unemployment rate in lower 48
      You name it and they are in the bottom 10…

      And yet they put their faith in the conservative choice in election after election and nothing gets any better and coal gets no cleaner.

      Maybe time to try the opposite:

      “What have you got to lose?”

      • Submitted by Misty Martin on 01/07/2019 - 10:41 am.

        Mr. Blaise:

        Well, here is one West Virginian, and an evangelical as well (some of Trump’s most ardent supporters) who didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 and will NOT vote for him in 2020.

        One lone blue vote in a sea of red.

  8. Submitted by Kathleen Castrovinci on 01/03/2019 - 10:25 pm.

    Finally, some oversight into the CORRUPT Trump Administration that the Republican lead House refused to do.

    Watch for Trump’s tweets to get more desperate as he lashes out as the walls come crashing down on his fraud of a presidency.

  9. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/04/2019 - 07:46 am.

    The next two years will be a stalemate, but it gives the democrats the opportunity to do some trial balloons for the 2020 elections. The democrats have to stay together and be rational while the republicans will be continuing to generate their self-inflicted wounds.

    Trump, among other things, keeps reminding people he won and won big. In his mind that is all he had to do was win, never mind any coherent governing. Trump will be very busy with anything but governing as Mr. Mueller and 17 other investigations proceed. Trump will continue to be driven by Fox, much to his demise. Many of Trump’s cabinet members will still have “Acting” preceding their title as no one wants to work for Trump.

    Republican senators and house members will be trying to figure out how to not let any Trump stink land on them. Too late for that as they have already made their bed with Trump.

    Trumps base still won’t be able to figure out that they have been hoodwinked by Trump. They’ll point out the tax cut, which most won’t be positively affected by. They’ll point out the republican judges, which haven’t been working very good for Trump. They’ll be clambering for a stupid wall. They still haven’t figured out the Hispanics are good for our country and if immigration had been stopped decades ago many of Trump’s base would be here.

    The next two years are going to be just like the last two years, no marked improvements for the country.

  10. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/04/2019 - 10:51 am.

    Correction: They still haven’t figured out the Hispanics are good for our country and if immigration had been stopped decades ago many of Trump’s base wouldn’t be here.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/04/2019 - 11:03 pm.

      I would disagree. Those from 3rd world nations have kept wages down and are almost entirely in the bottom 50% of income earners. They access the welfare state at very high rates and are using more than they are paying in to be sure. We never should have allowed the Ted Kennedy bill to pass back in the 60s. If I recall correctly, people warned back then that what we are seeing today would happen.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/05/2019 - 09:19 am.

        Like George Soros and Elon Musk? There is a very, very, long list. But hey, like the Lying King, “Trump” Facts don’t matter. Better to just make stuff up to suit a biased perspective. .

      • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 01/05/2019 - 09:28 am.

        There is always a touch of irony when a citizen of the United States complains about immigration. Except for those of pure Native American origin, everyone in this country is of immigrant descent. The United States gained its territory largely through the dishonest and violent removal of the indigenous population. Yet, somehow Americans maintain the idea that this land is theirs alone and that it is not only harmful but also immoral for other people to enter it.

        Immigrants wear many hats in American society. They are family members, students, workers, business owners, investors, clergymen, and members of the armed services, to name just a few of their roles. You can’t use Trump’s definition of immigrants because he uses his definition to fill you with fear and hatred. Just because he is fearful and hates doesn’t mean we have to.

        Some American family histories get pretty dark with slavery, corruption, etc. They were not Hispanics. We have laws to filter out the bad actors. What’s with the DACA haters. The DACA children were brought here as children through no choice of their own. America is the only country they have ever known. It is simply because politician generate hate to use them as their political pawns.

        Come on America we need to be better than we currently are. Everything doesn’t come down to statistics. Some things in life require compassion.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/06/2019 - 04:53 pm.

        “We never should have allowed the Ted Kennedy bill to pass back in the 60s.”

        Keep out the browns and the blacks? Can we revisit this statement on the 21st?

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/08/2019 - 10:38 am.

        “They access the welfare state at very high rates and are using more than they are paying in to be sure.”

        That’s what you like to think. According to the Cato Institute, “Overall, immigrants are less likely to consume welfare benefits and, when they do, they generally consume a lower dollar value of benefits than native-born Americans. Immigrants who meet the eligibility thresholds of age for the entitlement programs or poverty for the means-tested welfare programs generally have lower use rates and consume a lower dollar value relative to native-born Americans. The per capita cost of providing welfare to immigrants is substantially less than the per capita cost of providing welfare to native-born Americans.”

        https://www.cato.org/publications/immigration-research-policy-brief/immigration-welfare-state-immigrant-native-use-rates

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