It Wasn't Always Like This
It’s best adjective for our politics today, and, based on the latest polling, it’s likely the word also will describe the 116th Congress Americans will elect on Nov. 6, 2018 and that will take office on Jan. 3, 2019.
The most recent polling data suggests that Republicans will gain seats in the U.S. Senate—building slightly on their existing majority—and Democrats will take control of the House. Specifically, CNN predicts the most likely outcome is that Democrats have a 17-seat House majority in 2019 and the GOP increases its advantage in the upper chamber from two seats to four.
Presuming this outcome, neither party will have a clear mandate coming out of the election, but both will claim one. This outcome is rare, historically speaking. In only three midterm elections since 1946 has one party achieved gains in one chamber of Congress while the other party gained seats in the other. In 1962, Democrats lost seats in the House but gained members in the Senate. In 1970 and 1982, Republicans lost House seats while Democrats were down in the Senate.
Through the lens of today’s acrimony, one might think these contradictory results in the 20th century caused the two parties to fall even deeper into their trenches.
They didn’t. In fact, many of the accomplishments that the Brookings Institution, a generally middle of the road think tank, lists under government’s 50 greatest endeavors, including promoting civil rights, reducing disease, and expanding America’s highway system, were made by the lawmakers who were sworn in after these unique elections.
The 1962 election left Democrats with a two-thirds majority in the Senate, but a slightly weakened stance in the House. (To be sure, the party still had a strong majority, and held the White House under President Kennedy.) The 88th Congress, however, produced legislation to improve air quality and increase access to higher education. Lawmakers also passed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, an income tax cut bill, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended. In all, the 88th Congress managed to approve 666 bills and resolutions.
In the 1970 election, Democrats strengthened their House majority but their Senate advantage had eroded substantially from the early 1960s, and then the party lost a net three seats in the 1970 midterm elections. If Republicans felt emboldened to stop congressional Democrats in 1971 (especially since they held the White House under President Nixon), it didn’t show. In the 92nd Congress, House and Senate lawmakers brought 607 pieces of legislation to the finish line, including the Clean Water Act; the Supplemental Security Income program, which expanded Social Security; and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union.
By 1982, Republicans were in the majority in the Senate. The party gained seats in the chamber that November while Democrats added 26 seats to their House majority. By the spring of 1983, things were so rosy in Washington that the Christian Science Monitor editorial board couldn’t contain its praise, noting lawmakers had worked across the aisle to pass a $4.6 billion jobs bill and a massive social security reform package and had made “good progress on the fiscal 1984 budget.” In all, lawmakers in the 98th Congress passed 623 pieces of legislation, about 30 percent more than their predecessors in the 97th Congress.
“The lesson?” the Monitor said, “When the White House and the Congress have the resolve and political will, they can work together and get things done.”
Don’t expect the same thing in 2019 if the Senate goes one way and the House another.
No matter the partisan mix, congressional productivity has been on a downward trajectory since the mid-1980s. The 100th Congress (1987-1988) approved 713 pieces of legislation. A decade later, legislative output in Washington was nearly half that. In 1997 and 1998, Congress passed only 394 bills and resolutions.
There was some improvement in congressional productivity in the mid-aughts, but only 383 pieces of legislation made it to President Barack Obama’s desk during his first two years in office, when his Democratic colleagues controlled both chambers of Congress. Productivity fell by another third in his second two years as Republicans, having taken the House, ramped up efforts to stop the president’s agenda in advance of his 2012 reelection.
Even though Republicans hold both houses today and the White House, productivity hasn’t recovered. The current 115th Congress has sent only 270 pieces of legislation to President Donald Trump’s desk even though, like the 88th Congress, one party controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress.
So while, historically, the outcome of the 2018 midterms might be unusual, rest assured that our politics in 2019 will be business as usual.