WASHINGTON – The pending new Congress upends the roles of Minnesota’s House members, may set a record for gridlock and could boost the influence of the state’s moderate lawmakers.
To me gaveled in on Jan. 3, the new 118th Congress is divided.
Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate and Republicans will hold a slim majority in the House. That, coupled the start of the 2024 race for the White House, means politics is expected to overshadow policy and most new initiatives are expected to come from the executive branch, not the legislative branch of the U.S. government.
“We’re probably not going to see much of anything other than campaigning,” said Marjorie Hershey, professor of political science at Indiana University.
Still, Hershey said, “disagreement is a normal thing” in Congress, even when the House and Senate is under the control of one party. And she said President Biden, who came into office with a unified Democratic Congress, knew he had to accomplish what he wanted early in his term, because midterm elections usually result in losses for their party.
“Presidents have learned by this time that what they’re going to achieve has to be done in the first 12 months,” Hershey said.
And Biden made use of that opportunity, winning congressional approval for a massive infrastructure bill, the Inflation Reduction Act – a climate and health bill – and other initiatives.
But Hershey predicted the new Congress would shift from “policy making to (political) position taking.”
For the incoming Republican majority in the House, that means a rash of congressional investigations into President Joe Biden’s actions, policies and son Hunter Biden.
The probes will occur in several House committees, including the Judiciary Committee which counts Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-7th, as one of its members and the House Financial Services Committee, where Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th, is a senior member.
Emmer, who is House majority whip in the new Congress, recently tweeted out a photo of Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Anthony Fauci, the director of a federal infectious disease institute who headed the federal government’s response to the COVID pandemic. These Biden administration officials are prime targets of the new House GOP, though Fauci recently stepped down from his post.
“Oversight is crucial to creating a government that is accountable to the American people,” Emmer said. “Let us be clear, we will hold the Biden administration accountable.”
Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th, said his priorities will include mining and energy development and more help to law enforcement. But even if Stauber, as a member of the majority, can move his bills forward and even win their approval by the House, the representative of Minnesota’s Iron Range, like his House GOP colleagues will likely be stymied by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
While House Republicans are also expected to use their new majority status to pass a number of “messaging” bills aimed at promoting the GOP agenda that die in the Senate, Minnesota’s Democratic House members now have the opportunity to flex their muscles as minority party lawmakers in opposition.
“As the newly-elected deputy chair of Congressional Progressive Caucus, I will also be laser-focused on preventing some very serious threats posed by a Republican House,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th. “That includes protecting Medicare and Social Security, along with food and housing assistance for working families, all of which Republicans are threatening to cut.”
Tim Lindberg, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, said the state’s GOP House members will be more likely vote the way Republican House leaders want them too, and have less independence than when they were in the minority, especially Emmer as a new member or that Republican leadership.
Still, Lindberg predicted that it will be tough for Republican leaders to keep its conference together. He also said the differences between the culture in the House, which both under Democratic and Republican leadership has held partisan investigations, and the more measured Senate “will be more pronounced.”
Changing roles for Minnesota legislators
Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, one of the largest law firms in the United States, recently provided a webinar for its clients on what to expect in the next Congress.
The firm’s top lawyers determined that a divided government means the White House will shift focus toward the federal agencies rather than Congress to advance policy goals. So President Biden will likely use his executive authority more frequently, something that carries risk of being challenged by Republicans in court, as they did when the president sought to forgive some student debt.
The law firm also predicted that moderate lawmakers and caucuses in Congress will hold more power, especially the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, of which Rep. Dean Phillips, D-3rd, is a vice chair.
Roscoe Jones, a partner at the law firm who participated in the presentation, said moderate lawmakers could help forge agreement on certain issues, including mental health care reform, national security, criminal justice reform and infrastructure.
“There’s a host of areas where the moderates of both parties will say ‘we have to be the adults in the room and get things done,’” said Jones.
Jones also said a divided Congress “doesn’t mean nothing will be accomplished, but passing legislation will be harder.” However, he said most of the policy making will be done by the federal agencies at Biden’s behest.
Meanwhile, Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd, is promoting her centrist credentials and willingness to find common ground with the GOP.
“The 118th Congress will be different as Democrats are in the minority, but I’m proud of the strong, bipartisan record I have built over the past four years, and I look forward to continuing to work across the aisle to deliver for Minnesota’s Second District,” Craig said.
Craig said she will “continue to focus on addressing health care costs, solving our supply chain challenges, pushing to ban members of Congress from trading stocks, ensuring our special education programs are fully funded, supporting our law enforcement communities and of course, codifying Roe v. Wade.”
Some of those goals are attainable, others not. For instance, it’s not likely a vote to codify Roe v. Wade will pass the GOP House. But there could be agreement on some sort of stock trading ban, more money for local law enforcement and more help for those suffering from addiction and mental health issues.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar also had an ambitious — and often centrist — agenda for next year that included working with Republicans to increase the number of apprenticeships and training opportunities for workers. She’s onboard with another GOP priority — more federal help for law enforcement. Klobuchar also said she wanted to address the lack of affordable child care, housing and higher education and protection for refugees and “Dreamers.”
One large bill that must pass next year is a five-year farm bill that would continue all U.S. Agriculture Department programs beyond the date many are set to expire – Sept. 30.
Craig, Fischbach, Rep. Brad Finstad, D-1st, and Klobuchar and fellow Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, who all sit on agriculture committees, will be active in hammering out a farm bill that must be bipartisan to win enough congressional support.
“My top priority will always be delivering for Minnesotans,” Smith said. “In particular, I will be hard at work to make the next Farm Bill the best one yet.”
The Republican takeover of the House means Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th, will lose her position as a chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee that sets the Pentagon’s budget. But, as the highest-ranking Democrat on the panel, McCollum will still have influence over a massive spending bill that is usually the product of bipartisan negotiations. McCollum, however, is expected to push back against GOP efforts to curtail U.S. military aid to Ukraine.
She said that “as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee,” she would also “work to ensure our federal spending reflects the priorities of Americans, Minnesotans and especially the families of Minnesota’s fourth district.”
Besides promoting health care, climate change and other issues, McCollum said she would also “ensure our communities have the federal resources needed to invest in public safety through grants and community project (earmark) funding.”
There was an effort by Republicans to ban earmarks, or funding for local projects, in their rules for the new Congress. But that effort did not pick up much support among House Republicans and was derailed, ensuring both Democratic and Republican lawmakers can continue to bring back federal money for special projects in their districts.
The Senate, where Democrats will have a slim, 51 vote majority (including three independents who caucus with the Democrats), will have few legislative victories in a divided Congress. But they will continue to confirm Biden’s judicial nominees, which requires the support of 50 senators.
Former President Trump left a legacy of filling the federal courts with his judicial appointments. Yet Biden has outpaced Trump in these appointments – he’s nominated 150 candidates, of which 95 have been confirmed, and Democrats are prepared to continue to reshape the federal bench in the 118th Congress.
However, unlike Trump, who was able to put three of his picks on the Supreme Court, Biden may not have the opportunity to match that.