ABC The Drum
Republicans could make history in the US midterm elections, with control of the Senate and the most House seats they've had since 1928. But few people believe this will do anything to extricate Washington from gridlock, writes
The 2014 midterms have done little to capture the imagination of the American people. Not much was made of Republican neophytes proclaiming that ISIL is colluding with Mexican drug-runners to infiltrate America, or that the UN is plotting to eliminate gas-powered cars. After the last few election cycles, it takes more than that to get voters' attention. And while the outcome of the election matters, particularly in state-level races that will decide the status of reproductive and voting rights for millions of Americans, few people believe it will do anything to extricate Washington from gridlock.
The 2014 election sits at the intersection of the historic and the inconsequential. Historic because, if things shake out in Republicans' favor, the GOP will not only take over the Senate but will hold more seats in the House of Representatives than they have since 1928. Inconsequential because even with Republican majorities Congress is unlikely to pass any significant legislation, or grapple seriously with the challenges facing the nation.
What we will see instead is government by symbolism. Republicans will lay out their 2016 agenda with bills that have no chance to become law but that highlight the differences between the GOP and Barack Obama: bills to repeal Obamacare, bills to defund the Environmental Protection Agency, bills to unravel finance regulation and consumer protections. There is little hope for meaningful immigration reform, which passed the Senate in 2013 but was instantly shelved in the House. Tax and entitlement reforms? Not a chance.
In place of legislation, a Republican-controlled Senate will offer investigation. Investigations of the Obama administration have been a fixture of the House since 2011. Speaker of the House John Boehner has even vowed to sue the President over expansion of executive power (though he has yet to find a law firm willing to take the case). The Senate will now do the same, as part of the Republican argument that the Obama administration has been at best incompetent, at worst criminal. Brush up on Fast and Furious, Benghazi, the IRS, and any executive orders issued in the last six years. You'll be hearing a lot about them.
Why will a Republican-controlled Congress do little to unstick Washington? In part, it's a matter of incentives. Given the electoral landscape in 2016, Democrats are almost certain to wrest back control of the Senate in two years. They have no motivation to help Republicans govern effectively between now and then. But the larger problem is in the Republican Party itself. The Senate may be able to cobble together bipartisan legislation that meets the sixty-vote threshold. But such legislation then has to get past the hardline Republicans in the House. And though House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has pledged less obstruction in the lower chamber, Tea Party Republicans have given no sign they're in a compromising mood.
Further disincentivising the act of governance: Republican Senators have already been warned by party leadership to anticipate challenges in the future primaries, the American approach to pre-selection. Fear of losing these primary challenges, which have unseated leading Republicans like Sen. Richard Lugar and former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, has helped cure Republican legislators of any impulse to compromise.
Despite all this, there is a silver lining to a Republican Senate. Since the Republicans took over the House in 2009, Congress has been zooming from crisis to crisis: debt-ceilings, defaults, sequestrations, fiscal cliffs, government shutdowns. Innovations in impasse have become a cottage industry of the Republican House. With the GOP in control of the entire Congress, such fiscal brinksmanship will likely be kept at bay. House Majority Leader McCarthy has pledged to pass a long-term funding bill during the lame-duck session following the election in order to forestall any debt-ceiling showdowns or government shutdowns prior to the 2016 election.
That pledge elicits a sense of relief, but little else. When the best offer on the table is a promise not to intentionally drive the country off a cliff, it's little wonder the electorate is not riveted by the election. There are major issues facing the nation — growing income inequality, a broken immigration system, climate change — but few people believe that Congress, whether in Republican hands or split between the two parties, will do anything to address these challenges. Whatever the outcome on Election Day, two more years of inaction are almost certain to follow.
This article was originally published at ABC The Drum