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What to Expect When You're Electing

by R. Anthony Arnold
June 2022

Summer is in swing, the NBA season is drawing to a close, and baseball is back! Which can only mean one thing, right? Midterms are approaching! While that's probably not the answer you were hoping for, it is an important one, especially this year.

Between now and the fall elections, here are only a few of the things that could happen:

The Supreme Court could overturn Roe vs Wade, throwing abortion law into a chaotic state that would create both the opportunity and motivation for federal action.

The inflation that’s hammering pocketbooks, when combined with rising energy prices, could turn into a recession.

Our ongoing support of Ukraine in its war against Russia will continue to demand more of both money and weapons, even if Ukraine does achieve success on the battlefield.

There’s also the Democrat priorities from before the last presidential election, such as immigration reform, student loan debt, and criminal justice issues, three areas where promises haven't led to progress. And there’s still President Biden’s planned domestic spending bill, Build Back Better, which was supposed to be a transformational investment, but now languishes somewhere in the Senate, held up by both structural issues like the filibuster, and Democrat infighting.

Whoever ends up in control after the midterms, they’re going to have a full plate. But the two parties have very different agendas, they each have their unique limitations, and there’s at least one big “X” factor that could come into play after the elections. So I want to walk through some big picture observations and break down what to expect from each party.

If Republicans Win

After all that talk of Democrats, and with them currently being in control of both Congress and the White House, it may surprise some of you to see the discussion starting with Republicans. But here’s why.

Since the Civil War, the president’s party has only picked up seats in the House four times in the midterms. And the last time the president’s party didn’t lose control over at least one house of Congress in the midterms was 2002, when President Bush had an unusually high level of support due to a post 9/11 bump. So, the most likely scenario, especially when the President doesn’t enjoy great approval ratings, is that the party in control of the White House is going to get punished by voters.

Is this always the most sensible course of action by voters? Probably not. But it’s a pretty stable trend, and if applied to the elections this fall, it means Republicans stand a solid chance of regaining the House, and maybe even the Senate. So, what would they do with that power? Would they use it to advance legislation aimed at addressing the various needs of Americans?

No, they probably wouldn’t. Republicans would have goals, but they likely wouldn’t have anything to do with passing legislation. Their primary objective would be to prevent President Biden from becoming a two-term president. So there won’t be bipartisan bills aimed at relieving financial stress, or figuring out what to do about abortion.

What there would likely be is purely symbolic bills meant to energize their base, but wouldn’t have a chance of overcoming a Senate filibuster, or getting signed into law by President Biden. And there would also be a high chance of games being played with the debt ceiling, or political hostage taking while trying to pass a budget.

Any unfilled positions, such as federal judges, would likely sit empty. When President Biden took over, there were roughly 1,200 civilian positions requiring Senate confirmation. As of February this year, according to the Associated Press, only 302 had been confirmed, with another 247 waiting. If Republicans control the Senate, then those positions won’t get filled. The parties hate each other, and they aren’t going to do the president any favors.

Which brings us to the other half of Congress, the House, where the animosity between the two sides runs the deepest.

If Republicans win control then we’re all but guaranteed to see an increasing escalation of the worst tendencies in politics. We’ve seen over two dozen House Republicans sponsor a bill that would expunge former President Trump’s impeachment from the record, and we’ve heard numerous members express support for impeaching Biden if given the chance. Last September, in fact, a number of House Republicans filed impeachment articles.

And a poll conducted earlier this month by YouGov found that 68% of Republicans wanted to see Congress take that exact step, which begins in the House.

Alongside these actions, there would be a strong desire to punish Democrat house members for the stripping of committee assignments and issuing of subpoenas that have occurred over the last couple of years. The norms governing collegial behavior in Congress are gone now, and without them things are likely to get nastier and more personal, at least in the short term.

Now, does this mean literally nothing positive will happen? No. There are bills with lower public profiles that will get passed. And most of those are likely to be helpful on a smaller scale, but not transformative in the least. But neither side will be rushing to take credit, and the tone and tenor of Congress will likely get worse, even if that doesn’t seem possible right now.

If Democrats Win

But what if Democrats win? Certainly they’d have strong motivation to do something. To circle back to what I mentioned earlier, Democrats are running into quite the headwind this fall. If they overcome it, then it will be because their voters delivered them a remarkable victory in terms of turnout and support. And you can bet that Democrat politicians would like to see that rewarded, ahead of the next presidential race.

However, desire doesn’t translate into action. If the last two years, which have seen Democrats control both branches of Congress and the White House, have taught us anything, then it’s that fighting with your own party can prove just as tricky as fighting with the other side. There would be a lot more of that, as each wing of the party attempted to take credit for their success in the midterms.

But, that doesn’t mean they’d do nothing. With another couple of years in control, I think the odds would be really high that President Biden would get some form of his Build Back Better plan. Senator Joe Manchin, the persistent fly in the ointment for Progressives, isn’t completely unreasonable. He may be more conservative than most in his party would like, but he’s still got a lot more in common with them, than he does Republicans.

It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where Democrats, feeling pressured by a slow/stalling economic recovery, feel the pressure to pass something, even if it’s not everything they want. The President, having been rewarded with unified control for two more years and thinking about reelection, wants another signature piece of legislation under his belt. Under those circumstances I think a deal gets done, albeit one that would be a far cry from what was initially proposed.

On other issues though, more skepticism is warranted. Any legislation that requires 60 votes to pass in the Senate is doomed. Getting rid of the filibuster is also going to be hard, unless they pick up a few seats in the Senate and can do away with it, even without the support of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who, so far, remain committed in their promise not to ax it.

Again, this doesn’t mean all is doomed. It just means that even if Democrats retain control, a more restrained outlook is more accurate than the kind of wish-list proposals that only lead to frustration. Democrats would certainly want to do quite a bit, but how much of that would actually happen is an open question.

There’s one other factor to consider with Democrats, and that’s the popularity of the president himself. It’s too early to talk about 2024 election stuff, though it’ll be here before you know it. But right now President Biden is hovering in the low 40’s when you look at his approval ratings. He’s not in the strongest position to launch a reelection bid, and from the moment he won the nomination people in his own party were pretty openly wondering if he’d be a one term president. A transitional candidate to one of the younger up and coming stars.

If he doesn’t start to turn it around either before or after the midterms, then don’t be surprised if the Democrat infighting goes up a notch. A similar thing happened to President Carter after the 1978 midterms, which not only led to him facing a primary challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy, but also helped pave the way for Ronald Reagan to steamroll Carter in the 1980 election.

Should President Biden start looking weaker, then his own party will be increasingly reluctant to help him, as other ambitious people start to quietly look towards their own futures. Remember, the first presidential primaries are in January of 2024, which means that anybody looking to run, on either side, will need to start building their operation shortly after the midterms end.

All things considered, the stakes are high this fall. There’s been a number of unexpected events, and America’s post-Covid recovery hasn’t gone as smoothly as many people wished. Whoever is in control when the dust settles, they’re certain to have their work cut out for them.