Midterm elections in American politics are akin to a reset button and on November 4, 2014 the American people pushed that reset button in a big way.
The Founders of the American Constitution set up an electoral cycle whereby presidents would be elected every four years, all House members would be elected every two years, and one-third of the US Senate would be elected every two years.
The midterm elections are an opportunity for voters to register their approval or disapproval with the president and his political party’s agenda, as well as the congressional response to that agenda. As such, the midterm elections can result in a change in majority party control in the House, the Senate, or both chambers.
In 2010, we saw the House of Representatives go from Democratic Party control to Republican Party (GOP) control largely due to dissatisfaction with the economy and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
Yesterday, we saw the other shoe drop for the party of the president – the Democrats – as the Republicans won enough seats to become the majority party in the Senate, and increased their existing majority in the House of Representatives to achieve control both houses of Congress.
With a shift in party control, the Republicans will choose which bills can come to the floor of the Senate for debate and passage, which presidential nominations will be considered for a vote, and there will be a complete rotation of committee and subcommittee chairmanships. In short, in 2015, the US Congress will be under unified party control facing an opposite party president.
This has happened before…
There is precedent for the political situation that is about to unfold. Going into the 1986 midterm elections, the Republican President Ronald Reagan had been working with a Democratic controlled House and a GOP controlled Senate. However, in that midterm election, the Democrats won eight seats and Congress went under unified Democratic control.
The Democrats started their new session in 1987 by passing a number of bills that Reagan promised to veto, including bills to protect the environment and invests in roads and highways. The Democrats managed to override several of those vetoes and from then on, the Congress and the president worked together on trade legislation, funding for healthcare and AIDS, and limited welfare reform.
Will such bipartisan cross-branch cooperation be possible 28 years later, in a far more polarized and divided world?
Maybe – maybe not. Here’s why.
If it was just up the establishment Republicans in the Senate, they would seek common ground with the president in the areas of trade, taxes, and infrastructure because the business community is a key constituency of theirs and it wants to see congressional action in these areas. They will, at the same time, also push for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which Republican candidates in this midterm election promised they would do. This is likely to pass both houses but face a presidential veto which they will not be able to override since it requires two-thirds of each chamber.
Bear in mind that in just two short years America has congressional and presidential elections. The GOP will have more incumbent Republican senators up for reelection than the Democrats. If they wish to hold on to their newly won majority, they will have to show voters that they can be a productive force, not just obstructionist.
Whither the Tea Party?
However, in American lawmaking, both chambers have to pass the same version of a bill, and there is a group of radical GOP members in the House of Representatives who affiliate with the Tea Party movement, that have no desire to cooperate with President Obama in any way, nor do they see the need for promoting international trade or refurbishing American roadways. Because the Republican Party in the House has established an informal rule - known as the Hastert Rule - that a majority of the party has to agree on legislation before it can be brought to the House floor, if the Tea Party members object, a bill cannot pass the House.
To get the House and the Senate on the same legislative page – even under unified GOP control – will take all the persuasive powers of both Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and neither one of them is known to be a particularly charming or charismatic leader. But they do have a trump card: their influence with wealthy campaign contributors and GOP aligned interest groups who this year proved that they will work very hard to defeat Tea Party affiliated candidates.
The “establishment” wing of the GOP managed to defeat several popular Tea Party challengers to Senate Republican incumbents in the primaries in 2014. This electoral success sends a strong signal to those Tea Party members of Congress that in the next election cycle, they could very well face nomination challenges funded by the establishment if they do not cooperate.
Competing priorities in 2016: White House vs. Congress
On top of pressure to retain control of the Congress in 2016, there is the looming presidential election and the chance to recapture the White House.
There is a long list of candidates gearing up to run for the Republican Party nomination, including prominent members of Congress such as House member Paul Ryan (R-WI), Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). Each of these men has to establish a reputation for leadership and that might require opposing everything and refusing to work with President Obama at all. Remember, President Obama crafted part of his campaign message around the failed policies of President George W. Bush. There is no doubt that whoever wins the Republican Party nomination to run for president will have to adopt a similar strategy. It is much harder to do that if you cooperate with him.
The 2015 policy environment will depend almost entirely on which motive prevails among the Republican Party – hold the House and the Senate in 2016 or rally the more conservative elements of the party base voters to win control of the White House.
It is likely that Congress will only be productive if Republican Party leaders can persuade a majority of their members of the House and Senate that limited cooperation with the president in the areas of trade, taxes, and infrastructure legislation will succeed in doing both at once.