What's at stake at the US midterms?



On November 6, the US will head to the polls for a midterm election that celebrities, commentators and leaders from both sides of the political gulf are hailing as ‘one of the most important’ in living memory. Indeed, the 2018 midterms will deeply shape the remainder of the Trump presidency.

The current state of play

In Congress, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, as are 35 of 100 seats in the Senate. But safe seats aside, the electoral battlefield is much narrower. Although by no means gospel, Cook Political Report ratings peg 73 House seats as toss-ups or leaning slightly to one party. The same applies to only 13 seats in the Senate.

Republicans currently hold majorities in both chambers, but their margins are slim.

In the House, Democrats need just 23 seats to regain control. Most polling and analysis suggests that they are well on track to achieve this. The overwhelming share of competitive seats are Republican-held, and include 25 in districts that voted for Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election.

In the Senate, a shift of only two seats would see Republicans lose their majority. However, Democrats hold most competitive Senate seats, including several in deep Trump country. Most forecasts predict that Republicans will, therefore, retain control, and maybe even gain seats.

But what are the consequences for the Trump agenda if either, both or neither of these possibilities eventuates?

Gridlock on the horizon

If Democrats win at least one chamber of Congress these midterms, expect legislative gridlock to headline the D.C. traffic report on November 7, and likely most days for at least the next two years.

Despite unified control of Congress and the Executive branch, Republicans have few major legislative victories to show for the first two years of the Trump administration. Their efforts to repeal Obamacare—the defining Republican priority of the last decade—were stymied by internal opposition, whilst their only headline legislative accomplishment is a tax plan so unpopular that most Republican candidates have long stopped reminding voters that it was ever passed.

If—as seems likely—Democrats gain control the House, translating Republican priorities into concrete legislation will border on impossible.

Assuming that presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is able to corral her Party’s more conservative members (or that Democrats win a majority large enough that a handful of defectors won’t make a difference), Democrats would have the power to block Republican legislation, or at the very least demand favourable concessions on issues such as healthcare and immigration.

As his predecessor demonstrated, executive power would offer Trump a means around some such roadblocks. After Democrats lost control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms, then President Obama famously pledged to use his ‘pen and phone’ to skirt congressional deadlock and did so on such actions as the Clean Power Plan, his signature environmental initiative.

Already, Trump has taken a shine to executive action. He has variously used it to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations, relocate the US embassy in Israel, withdraw from various Obama-signed international agreements, and—if the Constitution doesn’t stand in his way—end birthright citizenship in the US. If Democrats win the House, it would be no surprise if Trump utilises executive orders with even greater frequency.

However, executive orders cannot fund the government. As the Republican Party well knows—having orchestrated the more than two week-long US federal government shutdown of 2013—spending bills require congressional passage.

If Democrats win the House, they will gain leverage to block funding for Trump administration initiatives—such as the southern border wall—to which the party faithful are vehemently opposed.

It’s hard to see the Democratic Party countenancing prolonged government shutdown in a high-stakes game of chicken over the budget. As became clear in the mere three-day shutdown of January 2018, there is little appetite amongst Party leadership to be seen as even remotely responsible for bringing the operations of government to a grinding halt.

However, victory in the House would give Democrats a far stronger negotiating position than in January, and the ability to demand concessions for passing the budget, such as protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children.

Ultimately, the results of these midterms will not stop the progress of the Trump agenda. But if November 6 concludes with Democrats holding at least one congressional lever of power, they will have the means to slow it to a crawl.

Time to settle in folks—there’s a good chance of deadlock ahead.

Andrew Herrmann is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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