OZY's Crystal Ball: What to Expect in Washington After the Midterms
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because cutting immigration and expanding Social Security are on the table.
By Daniel Malloy
There’s one thing we know for sure: The U.S. will have a new speaker of the House because Paul Ryan is riding off into the sunset. As for the rest of the makeup and agenda of the 116th Congress, well, we’ll learn a lot more after Tuesday’s midterm elections. But who can wait?
Let’s peer into OZY’s crystal ball instead and see the political agenda under three scenarios: Republicans holding on to power, Democrats taking the House but not the Senate and Democrats enjoying a big blue wave to take control of Capitol Hill. We’ll examine top priorities, as well as a wildcard policy for each.
The Red Tide Holds
If the booming economy and President Donald Trump’s efforts to rally the base in the final days pay off, you’ll see vindication in the eyes of Republicans when they return to Washington — and a renewed appreciation for the president. “If Republicans maintain the majority even by one seat, they defied the odds and are renewed in their confidence in the president,” says lobbyist Bruce Mehlman, a former George W. Bush administration official.
Their major items will look a lot like what they’ve spent the past two years doing: Republicans want to make permanent the individual tax cuts they passed this year, which expire in 2025. Also expect the GOP to take another run at repealing Obamacare, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated he’s ready to do if he has the votes. If Tuesday goes well for Republicans, he will.
Wildcard: After an immigration-focused close to the campaign season, expect a refreshed legislative push on a bill that would cut legal immigration by 50 percent and institute a merit-based system for green cards that relies on job skills. Backed by two Trump-friendly senators, the bill went nowhere this Congress. But Lauren Claffey, a communications consultant who worked on Capitol Hill and in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, points out that new Senate Republicans in this scenario are going to align more with Trump (for example, Marsha Blackburn replacing Bob Corker in Tennessee). “You’ll have a rush when these senators come in to make good on some of their campaign promises,” Claffey says.
The most likely of our three scenarios — at least if you believe the polls and projections — involves Democrats taking the House by a few seats, and Republicans holding the Senate. Nancy Pelosi, almost certain to reclaim the speaker’s gavel if Democrats win, has telegraphed a few priorities if this is the case. Among them is adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and forcing Trump to release his tax returns. Both would provoke a fight with the executive branch, which is reportedly seeking to define gender as immutable based on your birth certificate. With a House majority, Democrats would have subpoena power that they could use to investigate the White House, federal agencies and even Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — as potential House Judiciary chairman Jerry Nadler has said he would like to reopen the sexual assault probe.
It doesn’t sound like the best climate for bipartisan legislating. But there is much Trump and a Democratic Congress could agree on, says Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs liberal candidates and policies across the country. “In a hypothetical world, Trump should agree to sign laws allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, close the carried interest loophole [in the tax code benefiting investment fund managers] and pass $1 trillion in genuine infrastructure investment,” he says. “But so far, Republicans have put the kibosh on all of that.”
Claffey says the White House has been waiting until after the elections to roll out a new infrastructure plan, which won’t change much regardless of who’s in power. A Democratic House might even be more receptive.
Wildcard: Democrats could wield subpoena power not just over Trump officials, but on big tech companies to investigate, shame and spur stronger anti-trust enforcement from the Trump administration. “If data is the new oil, what do you do about the new John Rockefellers?” says Mehlman.
Big Blue Wave
If Democrats reclaim the House and the Senate, they can grind Trump’s judicial nominations to a standstill and force more bills onto his desk for him to sign or veto. That could mean bills to reverse GOP tax cuts on the highest earners, strengthen gun background check laws and give legal status to the so-called Dreamers who arrived illegally as children.
A wave also gives more of an opening for the House to vote on impeachment. Putting aside the improbability of 15-plus Senate Republicans crossing the aisle to toss Trump out on a two-thirds vote, many Democrats — with the usual caveats about what Robert Mueller may find — believe it would be political malpractice to impeach Trump, recalling how GOP overreach strengthened Bill Clinton in 1998. But the liberal base could well demand it, and a larger majority in the House would make it easier to push through.
Wildcard: This fall, more than 150 Democrats in the House and Senate announced the “Expand Social Security” caucus — co-chaired by Rep. Conor Lamb, who won a special election in a conservative Pennsylvania district this year. This, Green says, is indicative of how Democrats across the country are running on expanding entitlement and safety net programs. Expect new momentum behind plans to increase Social Security benefits and extend the payroll tax to higher incomes to shore up the program.