As voters head to the polls Tuesday, one outcome is already a near-certainty: A dysfunctional US Congress is going to get even more unworkable, particularly if Hillary Clinton wins the White House.
Whichever party wins control of the Senate is likely to claim power by the slimmest of majorities, making the 60-vote margin needed to advance legislation more elusive. Republicans are expected to keep the House, but they too will have a smaller majority, giving more leverage to a group of ultra-conservatives who have pushed to shut down the government in the past.
The bitter partisan vitriol of the presidential campaign won’t end with the election. Republicans are already gearing up to investigate — and perhaps impeach — Clinton if she wins. If Donald Trump prevails, he would enter the White House believing congressional leaders of his party sought to undermine his campaign, but that voters took his side.
“The prognosis for a more functional Washington is poor,” says Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire.
Many Americans may find solace in having a deeply divided Congress that can’t pass controversial laws, but lawmakers have a significant must-do list next year. At the top is the need to address the expiration of the nation’s debt limit in March. Without action, the U.S. Treasury could face a unprecedented default as early as the summer. Congress will have to forge a new budget deal, or allow sharp spending cuts on defense and non-defense programs to come into force automatically in fiscal 2018.
The Senate will also have to address the next president’s nominees, including any for the Supreme Court. While some senators in both parties talk hopefully of a rebirth of bipartisan action next year, bitterness remains from Republicans’ blocking Merrick Garland’s high court nomination and some senators suggesting they would take the unprecedented step of blocking any picks by Clinton.
Filling the court seat is likely to maximize raw partisan feelings on both sides no matter who wins.
In the past, narrow margins of control in Congress have forced members to compromise. But the vitriol of the campaign, along with the dwindling numbers of moderates, has meant that members often pay a price within their own party for breaking ranks.
Some of the concern about gridlock comes down to simple mechanics. In the Senate — where one likely scenario includes a 50-50 split between the parties, with the vice president casting the deciding vote — a slim majority means that one or two senators can hold their own leaders hostage over ideological demands. For Republicans, that gives someone like Ted Cruz of Texas more leverage. Democrats, meanwhile, have to accommodate both a liberal wing, led by Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and moderate Democrats facing tough re-election races in 2018, such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
In the 435-member House, Republicans are going to lose seats, though Democrats have virtually no chance of making the net gain of 30 seats they would need to win control. Still, the Republican majority will be even more dominated by the right, which means additional leverage for a rump group of about 40 arch-conservatives to pressure Speaker Paul Ryan or block him from forging deals with Democrats.
“My advice to any member of congressional leadership is this: You are always better off governing, than not governing,” says Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, co-chairman of a group of House moderates.
Dent says efforts to forge compromises on even the most basic functions of government are made all the more difficult by “unbending and overly polarized” members.
Ryan, who has been speaker for only a year, insists he wants to stay on in the job, although he could still face an internal challenge. The 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee has built a reputation as someone who is serious-minded on policy. But if he stays, Ryan will often face choices between placating the far right and blocking compromise, or reaching across party lines and risking retribution from his own party.
Throw into this mix that posturing for the 2018 Senate races will be under way even before the gavels drop in both chambers to begin the next two-year session. For one thing, even if Democrats win the Senate on Tuesday, Republicans are very likely to take it back in 2018, with a political map that greatly favors them.
Despite all these factors, former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott says there is some reason for optimism about Congress being able to function. Some of the recent Senate logjams, he said, are due in part to the increasingly strained ties between the two current Senate leaders, Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Harry Reid. Lott says there is some hope that after Reid retires in January, McConnell will have more success getting along with his successor, Chuck Schumer of New York.
Lott, who was Republican leader from 1996 to 2002, said “it’s obvious” the relationship between Reid and McConnell “contributed to the gridlock in many ways.”
Lott said the new president also may be able to help change the tone, but the success of that will revolve around whether Clinton or Trump pursue an agenda that includes at least some elements with appeal to both political parties.
Areas for Compromise
There may, for example, be an opportunity for Clinton early on to find areas for compromise with Congress, such as on a corporate tax overhaul or changes to sentencing laws.
If Trump wins and has a Republican Congress, the scenario shifts a bit, because the party could employ a tactic, known as reconciliation, to push through spending and tax cuts and perhaps to repeal large parts of Obamacare. But it’s unclear whether the priorities of congressional Republicans would match up closely enough with Trump’s, particularly after the real-estate mogul’s concerted attacks against GOP leaders like Ryan.
For whatever may get done in bipartisan fashion under either potential president, there is likely a small window for it to happen. By August, say senior legislative staffers from both parties, members will start to focus on the 2018 midterm elections.
Lott also notes that the Senate has changed in the last decade or so in ways that make it tougher for the next president to find opportunities for bipartisanship. The chamber lacks “old bulls” — universally respected senior senators like Democrat Ted Kennedy or Republican Bob Dole who had the ability to rally others in the chamber around solutions, Lott said.
Lack of Decorum
Senators don’t spend as much time in Washington as they used to, which means there is less personal chemistry and trust between members of different parties, he said. This has led to a sometimes surprising lack of decorum, Lott said, pointing to a moment in 2015 when Cruz called McConnell a “liar” on the Senate floor.
“You need civility at the top and all up and down the line,” Lott said.
Congress has long been a highly unpopular institution for its perceived inability to get things done.
The latest RealClearPolitics average of multiple polls shows an average of 76.1 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the job Congress is doing. This is despite some legislative accomplishments over the past two years, including a financial rescue plan for Puerto Rico and passage of some infrastructure-related bills.