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 Every elected Republican agreed that the Affordable Care Act needed to be repealed and replaced, but they failed to get it done.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.
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.
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.”
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.”