United in Division


The U.S Capitol Building in Washington D.C. (Wikimedia Commons).

After a tumultuous midterm season filled with heated rhetoric and deep divisions throughout, many are left wondering what will happen next. Democrats achieved a decisive victory in the House of Representatives, poised to flip between 35-40 seats, while Republicans cemented their Senate majority, likely picking up two additional seats.  Regardless of whether one perceives these results as a “blue wave,” as has been reported by various media outlets, or as a “…very close to complete victory” for Republicans, as declared by President Trump, the country is headed towards another era of divided government.

These results would likely please James Madison, an American founding father often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.” As Madison explains in Federalist 10 and Federalist 51, the Constitution makes it nearly impossible for a single faction to take control of the government. Checks and balances exist to prevent individual branches from amassing incommensurate power and federalism forces the federal government to share control with the states. In addition, since the legislature was initially intended to be the most powerful of the three branches, separate electorates select each chamber of the bicameral (meaning split into two chambers) body. By design, this system creates a substantial status-quo bias. For example, even while controlling both chambers of Congress and the presidency, Republicans failed to achieve their longstanding goal of repealing Obamacare. Although they had support in the House and from the president, they still could not amass sufficient votes in the Senate. With Democrats securing a majority in the House, gridlock will likely become the norm over the course of the next two years.

When the 116th Congress is sworn in on January 3, House Democrats will utilize their newly minted majority to advance Democratic causes, likely to little avail. Current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has asserted that she has sufficient support to reclaim her position as Speaker of the House, although she does face some opposition from within her party. Pelosi has promoted campaign finance reform, with the goal of decreasing the role of money in politics, as a likely HR1. House Democrats will also likely reintroduce the DREAM Act, gun control legislation, and environmental protectionsnone of which are likely to be passed by the Senate or signed by President Trump. Nevertheless, gridlock is a two-way street, and House Democrats will presumably derail the majority of President Trump and Congressional Republicans’ legislative priorities.

House Democrats are also eager to utilize the oversight and subpoena powers afforded to them by their newfound control of the chamber’s various committees. Representative Adam Schiff, who is expected to serve as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has repeatedly expressed his dissatisfaction with the previously concluded investigation conducted by the Republican majority. Schiff has stated that he will seek to “fill in the information gaps that remain” and will likely seek to publicize much of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation. In addition, Representative Richard Deal, expected to become the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has announced plans to subpoena President Trump’s tax returns, a power afforded to the chairman of the committee under a 1924 provision in the Internal Revenue Code. Democrats in the House will also have the power to impeach President Trump, although this does not appear to be in any immediate plans.

House Republicans, meanwhile, elected Kevin McCarthy to replace the departing Paul Ryan as their leader. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will retain his position with a firmer control over the chamber. This will decrease the influence of moderate Republican Senators such as Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, as they will be far less likely to hold the deciding vote. With their expanded majority, Senate Republicans will also have an easier time confirming the President’s executive and judicial appointments, allowing them to continue their efforts at reshaping the makeup of federal courts.  

Fortunately, there remains room for potential compromise between the two governing parties. As stated by Pelosi in a recent press conference, “…[Democrats] will strive for bipartisanship. We believe that we have a responsibility to seek common ground where we can. Where we cannot, we must stand our ground, but we must try.The greatest potential for bipartisanship appears to be in infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers has repeatedly issued a “D+” grade for the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Both President Trump and Congressional Democrats have expressed interest in reaching across the aisle to fix crumbling roads, bridges, and airports across the country; however, this will be easier said than done, as negotiations on other bipartisan agreements have fallen apart in the past.

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