When Democrats claimed over two-dozen seats in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, clawing their way back to controlling the lower chamber of Congress, it was in many ways a major victory. For starters, it indicated the country's bitter opposition to Donald Trump, and suggested the xenophobic and racist messaging he and his Republican Party closed the campaign with didn't appeal to enough voters, at least in suburbia. And control of the House meant Democrats would have the ability to actually oversee the executive branch through investigations, subpoenas, and hearings; even before their victory, Democratic leaders were expected to look into Trump's ties to Russia and his taxes, along with his extremely lobbyist-friendly Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, among other shady characters.
That oversight role shouldn't be underestimated—more investigations could lead to more Trump cabinet resignations or, at a minimum, more sunlight being shone into how exactly the Trump Organization made its money. But the House by itself is a kind of consolation prize. The midterms, as hyped as they were, weren't going to determine control of the federal government so much as point the way America might go in future elections. The midterms did determine control of many state governments, of course, and state-level ballot initiatives on key issues like felon enfranchisement and Medicaid expansion passed. But the national picture was decidedly murkier. With the Democrats holding a majority in one half of Congress, they'll be able to block GOP priorities, turning the legislative branch into a quagmire where little gets done even as they pass their own mostly symbolic bills.
Meanwhile, Republicans got pretty good at not getting anything done all by themselves.
With the GOP's unified control of the federal government fading into the sunset, it's a good time to take stock of what conservatives achieved when presented with a rare shot to implement their agenda without having to compromise at all. The Trump administration rolled back regulations, decimated entire agencies, and cracked down on undocumented immigrants. Republicans in Congress approved a boatload of judges—some as part of a recent deal with Democrats that allowed them to campaign in the midterms—most notably a pair of Supreme Court justices, the most valuable pieces on the political chessboard. Donald Trump has been free to adopt his foreign policy in regards to war, diplomacy, and trade, of course. And Republicans did manage to pass a single piece of major legislation: the tax cut bill they rushed through at the end of last year, a package that disproportionately benefitted their rich donors.
But most of these accomplishments were the work of the executive branch. Trump could (and did) do an awful lot himself just by reversing Barack Obama's executive orders and withdrawing from treaties. The appointment of conservative judges will no doubt have a large impact on the country for decades, but rubber-stamping Trump's Federalist Society-endorsed picks didn't take much in the way of skill. Beyond tax cuts, the GOP Congress face-planted on its priorities, failing to unify around an Affordable Care Act (ACA) repeal plan and continuing the bipartisan, decades-long streak of doing nothing in particular on immigration reform.
Passing transformative legislation is hard, of course. Even when a party controls the House and Senate, it has traditionally had to deal with a 60-vote threshold in the upper chamber—a constraint that led liberal Democrats to compromise with their own party's centrist wing in 2010 when they passed the original health law. But for all the critiques of the ACA from the left, at least the Democrats managed to pass it, fulfilling a core campaign promise to reform the American healthcare system. The Republicans used some procedural maneuvering to get around that 60-vote requirement, and couldn't even get 50 votes to strike the thing down.
If the Republicans had retained the House, what would they have done with it? Probably not another healthcare bill, given how drastically unpopular their last one was. Another anti-immigration bill? Hard to see how that would get through the Senate without 60 GOP votes in the upper chamber. Not that winning the House provided Democrats with a way to block conservative judges, which seemed to be the thing Republican legislators were best at. Winning the House was a victory for Democrats, then, but it didn't come with a lot of power.
This is a story not so much of legislative incompetence as the sidelining of Congress when it comes to charting the course of the country. The presidency has expanded under both Republicans and Democrats to contain a dizzying array of powers. These days, major changes in American life are very often a result of executive actions or a Supreme Court ruling. Congress has had no say, for instance, in legalizing gay marriage, whether to protect undocumented people who came to the country as children, or even where US troops get sent. A divided Congress may be hopelessly tangled in itself like an ouroboros made of old white guys in suits, but a unified Congress is still weaker than either the president or the judicial branch.
What DC is headed toward is a repeat of the late Obama era. Back then, House Republicans repeatedly passed bills targeting the ACA, none of which had a chance of actually becoming law. Democrats will take similarly symbolic votes. perhaps, say, on raising the minimum wage. Republicans also launched plenty of investigations, mainly the notorious, never-ending Benghazi affair, and Democrats will follow suit—though they probably have more meat to bite into than Republicans did. A Democratic House will change the tone in Washington, which is likely to become even more combative, if you can believe it.
But to actually get things done, Democrats are going to have to wait until 2020.
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