What if the GOP Holds the House and Senate this November?
There are still 201 days until the mid-term elections – the equivalent of an eternity in political time. To wit: 200 days before the 2016 Presidential election, with neither candidate having yet formally clinched their party’s nomination, aggregate polling showed Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by just under 10 points nationally. (One model run based on Clinton holding only a 5.5 point lead suggested she would win the Electoral College in a 340-198 blowout.) Clearly a lot can change in six months.
With a building narrative – perhaps even an expectation – of significant gains in Congress this November for their party, the Democrats should recall that their candidate for the White House stood in a very similar position at this time just two short years ago. True, the Democratic Party sees encouraging data: voters nationally favor a generic Democrat for Congress over a generic Republican by about 5.5 points and, if the election were today, the data suggests that the Democrats would have about an even chance of claiming a majority in the House of Representatives:
But, of course, the election isn’t today. And the Democrats’ generic ballot lead has been steadily fading over the last several months, from a high of double-digits. While there has been no shortage of conversations in Washington regarding potential outcomes of a Democratic wave in November (Will the House impeach the President? Will Nancy Pelosi reclaim the speakership?), very little attention has been paid by politicos to gaming out what the landscape might look like should the GOP retain control of both the House and the Senate for the next two years. Presuming such an outcome, what could we expect?
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the current House Majority Leader, would seem at the moment to be the likely next House Speaker. But his ascension would come at something of a cost. The House Freedom Caucus, the conservative arm of the House Republican Conference, isn’t likely to have sufficient votes to successfully mount an outright bid against McCarthy with a candidate from within their own ranks. But they could withhold their support from McCarthy, which would at a minimum embarrass him and would almost certainly weaken his role as Speaker. Knowing this, the Freedom Caucus would be likely to use their members’ support for McCarthy as leverage and would insist that the new Speaker ensure that Freedom Caucus members be given senior roles in House leadership and as committee chairs. With fewer moderate Republicans in the House, the Freedom Caucus’ members, many of which represent districts so solidly Republican they may never elect a Democrat again, would also likely have outsized influence on the GOP’s Congressional agenda. Speaker McCarthy would likely encounter difficulty negotiating with the more moderate Senate to pass omnibus appropriations bills – President Trump said just a few weeks ago he would never sign another omnibus during his presidency – or to raise the debt limit.
But where the GOP may potentially struggle to keep the government’s lights on and the wheels of bureaucracy turning (as, quite frankly, they have since they took back the House in 2010), maintaining their hold on both chambers of Congress would enable them to double down on their economic policy agenda. The Republican Congress would be likely to turn its attention once more to tax reform, and to seek to make permanent the reductions in individual tax rates that were enacted into law late last year. Having fallen short by just one vote last year, if the GOP’s hold on the Senate increased in the midterms, Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) would be likely to try once again to push through legislation that would repeal – and potentially replace – the Affordable Care Act. The House would easily follow suit. And, if Republican wins in November are so significant as to make party leaders believe that voters have provided them with sufficient political capital, the GOP could seek, in the name of deficit reduction, to reform Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a host of other government-run and government-funded social programs. In his exit interviews over the last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) has said repeatedly that his failure to reform these programs represent his one regret in his time on Capitol Hill.
In theory, whichever party takes control of the House and Senate after November will have two years before their majority is up for renewal by the voters. In practice, however, America’s attention will turn pretty quickly from the mid-terms to the 2020 President election, creating a fairly narrow window – perhaps only a year – in which Congress would have the opportunity to consider legislation before the narrative turns to President Trump’s reelection campaign and the Democratic primaries. Thus, if the GOP does hold on to their majorities in the House and Senate, any significant legislation they would intend to send to President Trump’s desk would likely have to be passed before the end of 2019, adding yet another complicating element to Republican leaders’ strategic plans.