On 2 November US politics was substantially altered by the midterm elections for Governors, House of Representatives and Senate positions. From a comfortable lead in both houses, the Democrats now find themselves in a hung legislature, holding a narrow margin in the Senate and being considerably outnumbered in the House of Representatives. The resurgent Republican presence on Capitol Hill has prompted a degree of uncertainty on the anticipated direction of policy, with views diverging between centrist mediation on Obama’s part to bridge the polarized partisanships; and gridlock, whereby the goals for both parties are primarily obstruction of the opposition and shortsighted maneuvering to secure a position for 2012. The new Congress will first sit on 3 January 2011.
Before the midterms, democrats held both houses, the Senate 56-43 and the HOR 255-180
Understanding the future direction of the US legislature depends on two areas of concern. Firstly, of pertinence to why the shift occurred in the first instance; and secondly, what the realities are of doing politics in the modern Congress.
We Ain’t Gonna Vote on Party Lines No More
New speaker John Boehner viewed the election (at least in rhetoric) as indication that “It’s pretty clear that the American people want a smaller, less costly and more accountable government here in Washington, D.C.“, Fiscally, this is the case, but the economies of scale achieved by bundling social and fiscal conservatism in the Republican platform is not indicative of actual voter preferences. A Cato study indicated that 59% of voters are fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Furthermore, both parties believe the deficit must be reduced; fiscal conservatism does not equal small government. Obama would phase out deficits through gradual lowering of Government spending and raising taxes on key elements of the Economy. Republicans would more substantially cut spending and lower taxes to incentivize entrepreneurism.
Instead of broad ideological “shifts” to the left or right, it’s better to view the results as an expression of frustration at the stubborn economic situation and general disillusionment with the executive following his stellar campaign run. Firstly, the American people are not enamored with Republicanism. At trend independent voters make up a third of the voting population. 58% of them said they view Democrats unfavorably, and 57 percent said they view Republicans unfavorably. Also, voter turnout among Barack Obama’s vanguard was especially low. This was an “old white folks’” election, with turnout by young and African-American voters declining. The youth vote declined from 2008’s 18% to 9% of the total vote, and the African American from 13% to 10%.
This data paints a picture of a voting public disillusioned with the halting performance of the country rather than one embracing Republican values. The call from the masses is less “We’re so glad to have you back!” and more, “If you can, plugga, you have a crack at it.” The missing variable is that many of the issues facing the USA are independent of which party is in power. This Great Recession is the largest since the Depression; solutions must be measured in years and decades, not weeks and months. Furthermore, it is a recession of uncertainty. The Federal Reserve, and just about anyone involved in planning the recovery is in uncharted territory. Republicans will now have substantially more influence on policy and will have to face consequences of policy as a result. Ditto for Afghanistan. In actuality the President’s and Republican’s views on Afghanistan do not diverge that sharply. Both are against hasty withdrawals and for a strong relationship after combat has ceased. All eyes are towards 2012, and both Democratic and Republican legislators have to maximize internal credit for laws passed whilst simultaneously maximizing external blame for laws stalled no matter what the actual imperatives behind the bill’s progression were.
This plays well according to the constraining factors inherent in the structure of Congress. The evolution of Congress since the 1960s has favored increasing polarization due to the twin scourges of demographic shift and decennial redistricting, as Todd Purdum describes in his Vanity Fair piece. Since the 1960s the stalwarts of southern Democrats and northeastern Republicans (whom both leaned central and at times collaborated) were eroded. The civil rights movement drove away conservative Democrats to the open arms of the GOP, whilst after Watergate and Reagan’s rising phoenix of Neo-conservatism liberal Republicans turned blue. Since then, decennial redistricting (the redrawing of electoral boundaries every ten years) has allowed for gerrymandering to flourish, consolidating polarization in both parties. The trend of polarization has intensified recently. David Broder of the Washington Post proclaimed the end of collaboration in the legislature, stating, “statistically speaking, the center has already disappeared.”
Congress today is stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma. The internal monologue for both parties adheres to the following logic: “Odds are they’re coming at us bipartisan because they either need something from us, or want to cheat us for gains. If they want to cheat us, we need to defect as soon as possible. If they genuinely need to cooperate, we’ll screw them over and blame them for the fallout! Viva Casa Politika!” In this iteration of Congress it is the Republicans who obstruct, but this needn’t be the case. It is simply in this case that a Democrat is executive and is therefore originator of bills pungent to Republicans.
Through these two factors, the imperatives behind the Republican advance and the structural combativeness of Congress, we will see an underhanded Congress come to light. Ideological pronouncements will mask raw calculations of self interest. This means that subjects amenable to such reinterpretation will be those most likely to be obstructed. The two parties will cooperate on what they absolutely have to, and attempt to slice the credit to their greatest advantage. Expect maneuvering to make Louis XIV, Machiavelli, and their modern compatriots, Jay-Z and Mr. “Tint the Windows” Game proud.
Let us examine some of the effects of this dynamic on specific legislation going through the house in 2011. Firstly, tax cuts are a non-issue, since they must be negotiated or expire by January 1st, within the current ‘lame duck’ sitting of Congress. Furthermore, Obama has shown compromise between his and Republicans’ positions. Republicans wish to extend Bush’s tax cuts indefinitely for everyone. Obama originally wanted to cap the extension to only the first $250 000 of income, but now is prepared to extend unlimited cuts for a limited time. The bill in some compromised form should be passed before year’s end. Neither party can afford to be limp enough to cost every family in America a tax hike in the middle of a slump.
Health Care debate should rear its head again during the 2011 Congress. The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is the perfect example of obstructionism in the legislature. The history of the bill has been chequered by stalling and catering to special interests since its inception. Republican charges of Socialism in the bill obscure the fact that in 1993 Republicans proposed a legislation that had many of the same clauses. Charges against spending increases are overstated. There is no consensus that the Health Care Bill will increase the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office has forecast a decrease in the deficit as a result of the taxes in the bill, as has Economist Uwe Reinhardt. Ben Nelson threatened filibuster in the Senate until his electorate Nebraska received special perks in the bill (this was later removed in the amendment). Not a single Republican voted for the Act. On March 25 2010 a repeal bill was already proposed by Iowa representative Steve King. Due to the Democrat majority in the Senate and the Presidential veto, Healthcare will not be repealed. However, enough dirt will be kicked up about it to sustain dynamic oppositional rhetoric in the run up to 2012.
The START treaty will suffer similar obstructionism, which bodes terribly for US trust in foreign policy. Senator Jon Kyl was the main agent of stall, holding the keys to the eight Republican seats needed for START ratification. His strategies have followed textbook stalling examples, wavering between accepting the treaty as relatively benign and expressing concerns about the pace at which it was being ratified. When Obama’s START first entered the house in April he stated, “I’m not convinced today that ratifying the New START treaty is in the best interests of the United States,” on the basis of “watered down” verification provisions. This is despite the fact that he supported a no verification-clause three page SORT treaty in 2003. In July he characterized the treaty as “benign” but pushed for $2.4 billion in Nuclear modernization. After the administration pledged $4.1 billion, in August he argued for a lame-duck passing of the bill. Now that the lame duck is here, Kyl is a proponent of waiting until January. The point here is not that START does not get passed (though it may not), but that it does not get passed until Obama has lost credibility in his foreign policy. That will happen, and when election time 2012 arrives, his “failure to secure a satisfactory deal with the Russians” will be used against him. Obama is currently attempting to circumvent Kyl, but Republican responses have been tenuous.
There are other areas where legislation will stall. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the armed forces is dead, as is cap and trade. DREAM, an Act which would allow illegal immigrants to go to College if they had gotten their High School diploma or equivalent may flounder. However, the two above are the most contentious and high-impact areas outside of spending, which will be influenced by Republicans but proceed on a bill-by-bill basis. The general thrust of the debate will centre on the raise taxes vs lower spending choice. In this case, Republicans will find the effects of their policy prescriptions may drive voters westward.
The Tea Party
As Foreword Report foresaw, the Tea Party did not sweep the electorate. Certainly they enjoyed gains, but the most celebrated candidates lost, in cases by a large margin. Sharron Angle lost to Harry Reid in Nevada and eventual winner, GOP member Brian Sandoval. Furthermore, his vote splitting went to democrat Reid rather than fellow Republican Angle. Christine O’Donnell’s failure goes without saying. In Connecticut the vote split between Republican and Tea Party Republicans eventually led to a Democrat win, deposing what was a Republican electorate. Such losses were widespread in blue electorates where Tea Partiers won nominations but were too extreme for the left-leaning populace. Also as Foreword reported, however, they sowed the seeds for gains in the future, electing two representatives to the Senate and twelve seats in the HOR. Indeed, these gains were more than Foreword anticipated. Tea Partiers who did not embody the more extreme tenets of its membership managed to distance themselves from those elements and focus on the central libertarian aspects of its ethos (Rand Paul stuck to political economy in his victory speech).
The problem with the Tea Party remains the same. It is decentralized and therefore unfocused and uncontrollable. Once in the legislature, the pressures of formulating policy will begin to show. From that point the Tea Party will either evolve and become integrated into the GOP as a libertarian faction, or radicalize further and consolidate its grassroots. Either way, its influence will grow as the political and economic situation underlying the tea party’s existence will continue to 2012. Take a case in point: as many Americans believe the Tea Party should be in charge of the US’s future direction as Obama. Regardless of muddled policy prescriptions, that is a powerful political stew.
It’s 2012, Stupid
The 112th Congress will be a Congress looking forward to the next election, and will utilize the tools of subterfuge and one-upsmanship. Calls for bipartisanship are mere rhetoric. Laws will pass slowly or not at all. The Tea Party will continue as a force to 2012 at least. The public will not be swayed by events on the ground as they are but as they are spun. In this climate, as domestic progress is suboptimal and international US credibility in two-level games suffers, the progress of America’s economic and political recovery will suffer further drawbacks.