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The 112th U.S. Congress, to be sworn into office in January 2011, will have a bifurcated power structure, with Democrats in the majority in the Senate, and Republicans in the majority in the House. The voters were in an anti-incumbent mood on Election Day, voting out dozens of experienced lawmakers and replacing them with many relative political newcomers. David King is lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School, and a respected scholar on the U.S. Congress, political parties, and voting.
Q: How did voter discontent manifest itself on Election Day?
King: This is one of those rare instances in which pundits from both the left and the right, all seem to agree, in claiming that the voters are very unhappy. It’s as if Election Day was garbage day and the voters either put the incumbents in the trash or threw them into recycling.
The economy is poor. People don’t believe that President Obama cares about their issues, and so they got rid of the Democrats in huge numbers, putting the Congress back to where it was a decade ago.
Q: What will be the most tangible impacts of the power shift on Capitol Hill?
King: The first tangible result will be in the lame duck session over the next few weeks, during which the Bush tax cuts will most certainly be extended. Even some Democrats in the Senate now want to extend them even for those families earning more than $250,000 per year, so what the Administration was unwilling to do a month ago, they will embrace very quickly now.
When the 112th Congress is in place next year, there will be gridlock, not on all issues – economic policy should move forward; tax policy will move forward – but much of the signature items from the first two years of the administration are gone. The Administration will not be able to pursue significant environmental reforms, and certainly it will be trying to protect the gains that the Democrats and the Administration made on health care. It’s unlikely that the Republicans will be able to roll back many of the Obama initiatives because they don’t have a majority in the Senate, so look for gridlock.
Q: The polls in recent years have reflected an increasing lack of trust in the Congress. How do you think voters will respond during the next election if the partisan gridlock continues or gets worse?
King: I’ve spent my career studying Congress. It’s hard sometimes to stomach. The Congress has public approval ratings hovering under 20 percent. But the argument can be made that it’s also well deserved. How could anyone be enthusiastic or supportive of Congress right now? Members of Congress are simply are a polarizing influence in American policy.
Maybe we should not be trusting the Congress. Maybe this lack of trust is well deserved. They often promise things during the campaign that they simply can’t deliver. And I think one of the reasons they can’t deliver is that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans in a national sense agree on how to deal with our most significant public problems. So when they get into office, having made promises to solve problems but without a coherent plan to actually do so, they fail. And then we throw them out office, and we should!
Until the Democrats and the Republicans or maybe eventually a third party can figure out what to do, and how to get the American people invested as part of the conversation, we will continue to see this sort of ping-pong politics with one party in power and then quickly back out again. So I’m not deeply troubled by the lack of trust. One wouldn’t want too much trust in any form of government. You don’t want too little trust, but I think we have it just about right. They’re getting what they deserve.
Q: A number of Tea Party candidates also won office on Election Day. What challenges will they present to the governing process?
King: The big question now is whether or not the Tea Party candidates will play ball. They are actually very different than typical emerging candidates from the past. They tend not to have legislative experience. They tend not to come out of the state legislatures or even city councils. They tend to come out of business backgrounds. The Tea Party candidates are very unlikely to have any advanced degrees whereas most members of Congress do have advanced degrees. So it’s not at all clear yet if they’ll be able to fit into the culture of Washington and Capitol Hill. Maybe that’s exactly why they’re there.
It’s a huge challenge for the Republican Party to figure out how they’re going to be integrated. The new speaker John Boehner is facing a caucus with 88 new Republican members. Certainly some of the new Republicans have replaced other Republicans or filled open seats. But either way, there are 88 new Republicans in that caucus, and it’s very difficult for the speaker to control all of them, so we can expect a fair amount of internal division for a while.
What happens with the Tea Party elements as we move toward the 2012 presidential elections is a complete mystery. The Republicans don’t know. Nobody knows.
Q. What must President Obama do to develop a constructive working relationship with the new Congress?
King: There will be a constructive relationship around a few issues, especially around economic policy and tax policy. But on spending, there won’t be a constructive relationship. Democrats do not want to roll back social programs. The Republicans do not want to roll back defense spending, and a lot of the pork barrel spending that they ramped up when they controlled the Congress. So we can expect a yawning gap between expenditures and taxes. Despite the rhetoric and the fever among Tea Party activists, we are headed toward more deficit spending.
The president does have an opening to exert some authority, and that’s in foreign policy. The president tends to have much more autonomy in the foreign policy realm – and not only in regards to Iraq and Afghanistan, where Congressional approval is important, but also in regards to China. Democrats and Republicans agree that China poses major challenges for the United States – in regards to its currency, social issues, and defense issues vis-à-vis Japan – so this is one critical area in which the president can immerse himself, outside of the jurisdiction of the Congress.
So we can expect the president to be more of a foreign policy president, and we can also expect President Obama to become more active in using Executive Orders, which are policy directives that inform the executive branch how to implement laws that Congress has passed, and can essentially change the laws of Congress in not so subtle ways. We can expect President Obama to make greater use of this tool than he has in the past.
Q: So do you see any historical parallels between President Obama’s situation now and Presidents Reagan and Clinton following their mid-term defeats?
King: The widely understood narrative surrounding Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton is that when they lost seats in the mid-term elections they pivoted to become somewhat more moderate. But the evidence isn’t really clear in either case. In the case of t Ronald Reagan – he pivoted much more to become a foreign policy president and then exert his independent authority there. He also used the Office of Management and Budget to change regulatory policy, again, without the approval of Congress. Also, President Clinton did not alter his leadership style immediately in 1995 in that he didn’t necessarily pivot to the middle, and was both liberal and conservative, depending on the issue at hand.
So it’s too much of a simplification to expect that President Obama will now become a moderate. He was a pragmatist. He will be a pragmatist, and one would hope he will work more effectively with Congress. He did not work effectively with a Democratic Congress. Now that he’s forced to work with Congress in order to get whatever he can passed, I would expect that there will be a better working relationship than we’ve seen over the last two years.