The Mixed Bag of GOP Control

Even if Republicans win a majority in both houses, with power comes responsibilities that pose risks.

Nathaniel 'Nate' Silver, editor-in-chief of ESPN's FiveThirtyEight blog, speaks during a panel discussion at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, March 8, 2014. The SXSW conferences and festivals converge original music, independent films, and emerging technologies while fostering creative and professional growth. 
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
March 26, 2014, 5:02 p.m.

Nate Sil­ver is back, and back in the news. Sil­ver’s ap­pear­ance on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, where he said that if the elec­tion were held today, the Re­pub­lic­ans would likely win the Sen­ate, got im­mense at­ten­tion. On Fox News, an­chors glee­fully an­nounced that Sil­ver, their bête noire in 2012, had pre­dicted a Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity in Novem­ber, a “fact” du­ti­fully re­por­ted in many news out­lets. Oth­er re­ports said that Demo­crats, who loved Sil­ver’s track­ing of the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tions and his spot-on ana­lys­is then, were now furi­ous with him.

The breath­less re­port­ing was kind of amus­ing. What Sil­ver ac­tu­ally said was any­thing but shock­ing or par­tic­u­larly news­worthy; as polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Jonath­an Bern­stein noted in his blog, it was pretty much what our best ana­lysts of con­gres­sion­al elec­tions, Charlie Cook and Stu Rothen­berg, have been say­ing for some time, and fits some ba­sic facts.

Demo­crats have more seats, and more vul­ner­able seats up (duh — it is the co­hort elec­ted in 2008, when Demo­crats won many seats in Re­pub­lic­an states). Midterm elec­tions, es­pe­cially in a pres­id­ent’s second term, see a sag in turnout for the party in the White House. Barack Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing is in the low to mid-40s, dan­ger­ous ter­rit­ory for his party. So a net loss of six seats or more for Demo­crats is clearly feas­ible.

But Sil­ver did not “pre­dict” that out­come (in fact, he gave a quite broad range of pos­sible out­comes). He provided a snap­shot as of last Sunday. It is an ac­cur­ate snap­shot — but we have a whole photo al­bum ahead for the next sev­en-plus months.

Let’s put the caveats aside and ex­plore what the policy pro­cess would look like if Re­pub­lic­ans do win a ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate and hold their ma­jor­ity in the House. The bot­tom line is that the pro­spects for sig­ni­fic­ant ad­vances in solv­ing prob­lems in key areas would be bleak. But it is more com­plic­ated, and more in­ter­est­ing, than that.

First, the real down­side. Start by ima­gin­ing what the GOP zeit­geist will be if the party picks off six, sev­en, or eight seats. My guess, the same as after the 2010 midterms: “Man, did that polit­ics of ob­struc­tion work like a charm! Let’s double down on it and take the whole en­chil­ada in 2016!” If there is no pub­lic back­lash against an ut­terly dys­func­tion­al Con­gress and a near-com­plete lack of pro­ductiv­ity, why rock the boat?

That at­ti­tude would com­bine with a com­mon re­ac­tion of law­makers out­side the pres­id­ent’s party in the fi­nal two years of a two-term pres­id­ent: Why do any­thing now that in­volves com­prom­ise when we have a chance to do what we want after the next elec­tion? And there would be an­oth­er factor mov­ing to­ward a rad­ic­al-right dom­in­ance: an ex­plo­sion of in­terest from Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates for the pres­id­ency, and a jolt of con­fid­ence on the right that things are go­ing their way and there is no need to com­prom­ise on a nom­in­ee. More can­did­ates would emerge from the Right, join­ing the Ted Cruz/Marco Ru­bio/Rand Paul/Mike Hucka­bee con­tin­gent. Watch­ing the pu­tat­ive pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates all vote against the budget com­prom­ise pulled to­geth­er by Paul Ry­an and Patty Mur­ray — and then watch­ing Ry­an join them and vote against the debt-ceil­ing bill that ba­sic­ally rat­i­fied his spend­ing deal — made it clear to me that the en­ergy on the pres­id­en­tial nom­in­at­ing side is all on the bed­rock right edge.

But it is more com­plic­ated than that. While Amer­ic­ans tend to look at the pres­id­ent as the sym­bol of gov­ern­ment in Wash­ing­ton — giv­ing him and his party more blame if things are not go­ing well in Wash­ing­ton — the per­cep­tion would be altered if Re­pub­lic­ans took full con­trol of Con­gress. It would be much harder to dif­fuse blame for a “Do-Noth­ing Con­gress.” The pres­sure to act, to pass le­gis­la­tion to deal with ma­jor prob­lems in the coun­try, would be en­hanced, and the con­spicu­ous fail­ure to act could, in the mem­or­able words of Mitch Mc­Con­nell, “dam­age the Re­pub­lic­an brand.” The pres­id­ent would un­doubtedly use his plat­form to push hard for im­mig­ra­tion re­form, maybe tax re­form, a ser­i­ous jobs pro­gram, and an in­fra­struc­ture plan, among oth­ers. Spurn­ing ac­tion on all of those would have its costs.

Second, there would be a strong im­petus for Re­pub­lic­ans to pass le­gis­la­tion that had some polit­ic­al ap­peal but would draw pres­id­en­tial ve­toes — something Demo­crats would have done reg­u­larly in the fi­nal two years of the George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion but for GOP fili­busters in the Sen­ate. So we might get a pas­sel of bills that provide money for pop­u­lar pro­grams by cut­ting the heart out of things Demo­crats love — such as the re­cent bill that ad­ded funds for pe­di­at­ric health re­search by cut­ting the pub­lic fin­an­cing of party con­ven­tions.

The prob­lem is that House-Sen­ate ten­sions of­ten su­per­sede or at least rival par­tis­an ones — re­mem­ber that in the Clin­ton era, Speak­er Newt Gin­grich had worse re­la­tions with Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Bob Dole than he did with the pres­id­ent. And even if the fili­buster were not a po­tent tool for Demo­crats, get­ting all the Re­pub­lic­ans — in­clud­ing the prob­lem-solv­ing-ori­ented con­tin­gent of Susan Collins, Lisa Murkow­ski, Bob Cork­er, et al — to go along with hard-edged bills would be a ma­jor chal­lenge for the lead­er­ship.

There is one last set of ele­ments that is less com­plic­ated. A Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate would un­doubtedly stop con­firm­a­tion on vir­tu­ally all Obama-nom­in­ated judges, and prob­ably on most of his ex­ec­ut­ive nom­in­ees. And we would see a sharp ramp-up of in­vest­ig­a­tions of al­leged wrong­do­ing, with Benghazi and IRS re­dux. If you like Dar­rell Issa, you will love hav­ing his re­in­force­ments and dop­pel­gang­ers in the oth­er cham­ber. If you are Barack Obama, not so much.

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