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Government Affairs: After Nov. 6, will it be a new age of bipartisanship or more gridlock?

November 2, 2018 -  By
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United States Capitol. (Photo: LM staff)

U.S. Capitol. (Photo: LM staff)

With the Nov. 6 midterm elections just days away, what can we expect come Jan. 1 in the new Congress?

The consensus of the pollsters and pundits is the U.S. House of Representatives will flip from Republican control to Democratic. At this writing several days out from the midterms, the political website fivethirtyeight.com puts the probability that this flip will occur at 85.4 percent. The real discussion seems to revolve around the margin of the Democratic victory: Will it be just a few seats or many?

On the other hand, fivethirtyeight.com puts the chance of the Republicans retaining control of the Senate at 84.5 percent. There is also a good chance that Republicans may pick up a seat or two, adding to their current slim majority.

When you have split control over the machinery of the legislative process, things can tend to go in one of two ways: more bipartisanship in making deals and getting things done, or greater gridlock as both sides dig deeper into their respective ideological corners.

We have good examples where split political control over the levers of government has led to productivity.

For example, during Republican Ronald Reagan’s first six years in office from 1980 until 1986, he faced a House controlled by Democrats, while the Senate was in Republican control. Nonetheless, Reagan was able to achieve most of his major legislative accomplishments during that time of split control, including major tax cuts and comprehensive immigration reform.

President Trump would face a situation analogous to that which Reagan faced should the House flip to Democratic control Nov. 6.

As well, during the Democratic Clinton administration, Republicans won control over both houses of Congress in 1994. Although there were great political battles waged during that time, including the impeachment of the president, that period produced major reform of the federal welfare system and a program to provide health insurance to needy children.

The Clinton presidency also marked the first time the federal budget produced an annual surplus since the 1960s. We haven’t seen a federal budget surplus since.

Given this history, there does seem to be reason for hope that a new Congress with split control could be more productive or perhaps even pass a new comprehensive immigration bill and workable guest-worker programs.

However, there are some circumstances that existed in those earlier examples of legislative productivity that may not be present now.

During those periods there were significant moderate wings of both parties that were not very far apart on many issues. These moderate wings could cobble together a majority of bipartisan votes on many issues over which there was disagreement. Today, those moderate wings have eroded to the point that they are virtually nonexistent in either party.

The main reason for this erosion of the moderate middle is gerrymandering—drawing congressional district boundaries to favor one party or the other to create “safe” districts for that party. Political parties have been doing this since the birth of our republic.

But while gerrymandering is as old as our republic, what’s new is the precision with which it can be done now, thanks to the combination of geographic information systems and elaborate databases of voter preferences and behavior. This technology has only come into use for redistricting in the past decade.

Gerrymandering is now so effective that in Pennsylvania, with a statewide Democratic voter registration edge of more than 840,000, Republicans hold 12 of 18 Congressional seats. Only one of these seats has changed parties since the last redistricting took effect in 2013. Each district is locked into one party or the other.

The result is candidates running for office most fear an opponent from their own party in the primary, since once they are through the primary, their victory in the general election is almost assured. Democrats become more liberal and Republicans become more conservative. Candidates are pushed from the middle to their party’s extremes.

Over the last decade, moderates of both parties have been slowly squeezed out of Congress. Those who are left represent party orthodoxy. Members of Congress now are rewarded more for their ideological purity rather than their practicality and willingness to compromise.

Let’s hope the new wave of both Democrats and Republicans elected Nov. 6 includes at least some leaders willing to reach across the aisle to their opposite party colleagues.

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About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at gregg.robertson@conewagoventures.com.

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