Comment Editor Fintan Hogan suggests what we can expect from this new American Congress. Should we anticipate bipartisanship, polarisation or something else entirely?
If you dislike the hallmarks of American politics – the gridlock, the division, the small-minded fringes – look away now. Every two years, commentators enjoy peering into an imaginary crystal ball. How exactly are the dominoes lined up? Will Senator Manchin play courtier or king-maker? How do the red and blue chips stack up? But this time, there’s no easy game to predict. The deck of cards has been collected, shuffled, dished out and thrown all over the floor.
An impossible game
American government is difficult by design. The separation of powers ensures that no one branch of government – president, Congress, Supreme Court (SCOTUS) – can dominate the others. This is why so much gets done when one party has a royal flush of all three branches. Both sides recognise that a House-Senate-President sweep is a political window which is usually snapped shut in two short years. Internal compromises ensue – a few bills pull together the diffuse interests of the entire party. Starved of political progress, these pork-barrel smorgasbords cram together every campaign slogan of the last decade.
The Republicans came up Trumps in 2016. Blessed with a majority in both chambers of Congress, and with a red SCOTUS bench, President Trump managed to pass sweeping tax reforms just before Christmas 2017. The Obama administration enjoyed a similar political hand in 2010 when signing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) into law.
But Biden enjoys none of these advantages. A wafer-thin majority in the Senate and a minority in the House offers him no manoeuvring room. If history is any guide, this Congress will be a dry spell for the executive office’s famous fountain pens. The game will be harder than ever this year, as the impending doom of the approaching debt ceiling threatens complete gridlock and government shutdown. President Biden will have to trade something away to force a borrowing cap hike through the House.
While moderate Republican lawmakers like Maine’s Suzanne Collins make a song and dance of holding up their own party, they baulk at the prospect of ever waving through a big legislative win for the other side. With a country so polarised that red and blue might as well be black and white, there’s little hope of anyone in DC voting for anything that so much as smells like the other side. Congress will be in a continual Mexican stand-off.
The Dems are lacking as much in ideas as political capital. The last Congress was a successful one for the blue team – Inflation Reduction, Electoral Count Reform and CHIPS Acts were all big wins. A final $1.7 billion lame duck bill added the icing on the cake. Short of codifying Roe or a Sanders-esque public investment bill, Democrats got pretty much everything they wanted out of this Congress, despite the wrangling of more moderate members.
The short, fervent periods of legislating at least make a difference to the country. In contrast this will be a fallow year, relying extensively on executive action. The Biden administration will resort to unilateral moves over things like agency remit to bandage over upcoming issues. But executive action is weak, temporary and easily challenged in the courts. We may see bipartisan moves on issues like China, but don’t expect anything notable from this Congress. The stakes are as high as ever for Americans, but both parties are impotent. No-one has an ace up their sleeve.
Who’s even at the table now?
Divided government isn’t unique to this session of Congress. Only 6 of the last thirty years have enjoyed unitary government. Yet the 118th United States Congress is definitely unique in one way – no one knows who’s in charge. Rarely is there such a power vacuum at the top of US politics; this will make party discipline nigh-on impossible to manage as wannabes and radicals jostle for the limelight. The hands have been dealt, and neither side is happy with the flop.
Starting with the elephant in the room, the Republican caucus is a mess. Representative Kevin McCarthy’s painstakingly erected House has already come tumbling down fourteen times, as he failed to win the support of the ‘Freedom Caucus’ on the right of his party. Dubbed the ‘Never Kevin crew’, they reluctantly allowed his nomination as Speaker to carry at the fifteenth time of asking – on the condition that even a single dissatisfied member can force a confidence vote on his leadership. This will be a Damoclean sword hanging over McCarthy’s head, a weapon of the Republican right.
Conservative members have also been guaranteed places on the powerful House Rules Committee, able to derail unfavourable legislation and set the political agenda. The red right will be louder, more boisterous and more powerful in 2023. Republican leadership had little choice but to roll the dice on these fringe members being co-operative. You might as well hope for five aces.
But the Democrats aren’t in much better shape. Nancy Pelosi has stepped down as caucus leader in the House, leaving relative-unknown Hakeem Jeffries in her place. He faces a similar challenge on his left from ‘the Squad’ as McCarthy does on his right. Representative Ocasio-Cortez professed some degree of respect for the ‘democratisation of the legislative process’ (read ‘less party control’) espoused by the Freedom Caucus. Jeffries will not enjoy the experience, name recognition or clout that his predecessor Pelosi did when trying to bring them into line.
And dissident Democrats are hardly overawed when they look up the chain of command. Biden’s approval rating has slumped to 42% and Vice-President (VP) Harris sits at 41%. Commands passed down to rank-and-file Democrats might be viewed with more scepticism than they would otherwise have been. No one in the party has significant political capital. Despite her disappointing VP tenure, Harris is still the run-away favourite to replace Biden if he does not run in 2024. This does not imply party reverence to the heir-to-the-throne, but apathy over an uninspiring pool of potential challengers.
The era of the smooth partisan alignment is having a last hurrah with Mitch McConnell’s Senate Republicans. Outside of that, the parties are disintegrating into cliques. US politics does not enjoy the considerable adhesive force of a single party leader. In opposition, British parties tend to regroup around a new leader and set of ideas; American parties rip themselves apart. With both sides now effectively out of both power and ideas, disarray is the order of the day.
This is exacerbated by the absence of a stand-out presidential nominee for either side. The Republicans are engaged in open conflict between pro- and anti-Trump factions. Florida governor Ron DeSantis is the current favourite to usurp Trump – but the favourite rarely wins. Trump has a record of bluffing his way out of difficult situations and DeSantis does not enjoy the baked-in GOP support which the former president does. Preliminary rounds of character assassination between contenders will be a gruelling affair for watchers. Both heavyweights will try to convince Republican voters to go all-in on them, while outsiders hope to pick up the pieces as the two destroy each other.
This would normally call for Democratic optimism, but Biden’s position is so weak that he’s not even got the best individual odds of winning in 2024. This is a staggering position for a first-term incumbent to be in. No opposition candidate is yet selected and re-nomination is all-but guaranteed for presidents who seek it. To have longer odds than DeSantis – someone who has not even started campaigning – is abysmal. The longer Biden takes to decide whether or not to cash out, the more divided the Dems will become. Chose quickly Mr President, or you may just be selling your party down the river.
Bad blood is running hot in DC. Neither side is willing to grant an inch to their opponents. Far better, they suppose, to use their power to cause discomfort. While extreme Trump-backed candidates struggled in the 2022 midterms, this does not herald a period of bipartisan bliss.
Democrats will be desperately trying to keep Trump lawsuits, DeSantis culture wars and Republican abortion politics newsworthy for the next two years. With an unpopular leader, the best play is to point at the other side. In response, Republicans will use their new Congressional toys to keep favourable stories in the headlines. Just as Democrats managed to do with the January 6th inquest, committees to investigate the improprieties of Hunter Biden or the President’s handling of classified material will surely materialise. Designed purely to dish dirt on the White House, expect lots of shouting and little of substance.
Americans searching for something positive to say about their political classes might be flush out of luck for the next couple of years. Divided government is always painful – but this time, both sides are at the mercy of their rebellious wings. Presidential nominations are a roulette wheel; party leaders are hostage to fortune. Observers love to watch politics like a chess match between right and left, but perhaps we should call a spade, a spade. The cards have been dealt for 2023. Read ‘em n weep.