In recent months, due to some combination of unexpected Democratic legislative success, a somewhat rosier economic outlook, abominable Republican candidate recruitment and fallout from the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights, Democrats’ congressional prospects have brightened.
Many prognosticators are no longer projecting full-scale congressional demolition for the party. Some, like FiveThirtyEight and Decision Desk HQ, now predict that Democrats will hold the Senate. Most still give Republicans the edge in flipping the House.
Political trifectas are historically short-lived, and the Democrats’ may well be coming to an end. As exasperating as the past two years have been for Democrats forced to legislate by the whims of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), that early term productivity will stand unmatched by a split-Congress reality.
Republicans are already champing at the bit to punish President Joe Biden with their newfound investigatory powers, should they retake the House. The push to do so will only grow, as new maps consisting of exceptionally noncompetitive districts let more extreme candidates dominate GOP primaries and flood into Congress. Party kingmaker former President Donald Trump, too, tends to select endorsees and boost candidates who prioritize loyalty to him and his lie that Biden is an illegitimate president over anyone interested in bipartisan collaboration.
All of that could add up to a legislature fixated on manufacturing scandal about everything from Hunter Biden’s laptop to the administration’s student loan plans, culminating in flailing stabs at impeachment.
Given that, what can we expect a split Congress to actually do?
“Can we expect Biden for example, with Republicans controlling the House, to pull something off like he did last month? The answer is absolutely not,” Jeff Peake, political science professor at Clemson University, told TPM, referencing the miraculous resuscitation of the Inflation Reduction Act. “Things will come to a screeching halt in Washington.”
Mitch McConnell famously opined after the 2010 midterms that, for his party, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
The would-be Republican House majority has already telegraphed plans to take that approach to the extreme, with an added sprinkle of MAGA on top.
The only legislation we might see Republicans working with Democrats on, political scholars theorized, are must-pass items like annual spending bills — and even those could come down to a game of shutdown chicken.
In that way, too, it could have echoes of the Obama years, when the Republican House forced repeated government shutdowns, including when Democrats wouldn’t agree to weaken or defund the Affordable Care Act in exchange for GOP support for the appropriations continuing resolution.
Maybe something on the level of the COVID-19 pandemic would prompt them to cooperate, Eric Schickler, political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, mused: After all, in 2020, under Trump, the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate acted in unison to pass relief legislation.
“But even in a crisis, it’s less clear that this Republican majority would act,” he said. “It would depend on it being electorally really bad for them not to come to the table.”
A Republican House may be even more unwilling than usual to work with Democrats on the eve of a presidential election year.
“I don’t see either party getting any parts of their agenda through — maybe only something they agree on, like China is bad or Russia is bad,” Peake said.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, some bipartisan legislation did pass the Republican-controlled Congress, pointed out Frances Lee, a political science professor at Princeton University. But it was mostly technical, second-order bills like mitigating Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy and regulating toxic substances that didn’t garner much attention or make for easy partisan posturing. Obama was left to try to achieve his policy goals through executive action.
Big Republican Plans
Instead, House Republicans would likely spend their time on what they’ve already promised to do: a whole constellation of investigations into everything from the Afghanistan pullout to the Mar-a-Lago raid.
Many are already promising to impeach Biden, though they tend to be flexible on the rationale.
With a base in Trump’s thrall and increasingly radical candidates winning seats, GOP calls for vengeance on a President they don’t like (and who many wrongly believe lost in 2020) will be loud and unrelenting.
While that posture would grind congressional productivity to a standstill, it could hold a silver lining for Democrats heading into 2024.
“Biden would be able to paint Republicans as going after him for revenge, and that could be helpful for Democrats in the next election,” Peake said. “They’d be a foil.”
“I have a hunch that if it’s a slim Republican majority, it’ll be a hard couple years for McCarthy,” Schickler added. “Republican majority leaders in recent years have had an almost impossible job: the base wants them to do one thing, but some of what they want is not really gonna play well in swing districts.”
Such overreach has cost a party before; Republicans going overboard in their desire to punish former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment made 1998 one of the very rare years that the incumbent President’s party picked up House seats in the midterms.
While Democrats would certainly prefer to hold both chambers, keeping the upper one comes with special perks.
Even with a hostile Republican House, Democrats could confirm judicial and executive branch appointments apace. Should any Supreme Court vacancies arise, Democrats would be able to fill them unilaterally.
A Democratic Senate would also afford Biden some protection.
“Republicans won’t be able to set up veto showdowns with Biden,” Schickler said. “If they had both chambers, it’s possible you pass a bill to fund the government with tough conditions that Biden has to veto, and maybe he gets blamed.”
“Holding the Senate also means agenda control,” Lee added. That applies to what comes to the floor for a vote, as well as what Senate committees would focus on in their hearings.
As of recent history, split Congresses have been unproductive Congresses. If Republicans take even just the House, the Biden legislative agenda will be paltry. The next two years would be replete with executive action and frivolous House investigations — but also significant work in reshaping the federal judiciary. If Democrats can only hold one chamber, the Senate is the more important one to keep.