Next week, the country will go to the polls to decide who will have pride of place among Washington’s well-practiced disfunction. More likely than not, the Republicans will keep the House of Representatives and win the Senate. Then what?
The conventional wisdom is that very little will actually change. In theory, control of the Senate would give the GOP the power it needs to pass laws at will. In truth, the Democrats could still use the filibuster to kill bills in the Senate. Republicans could respond by threatening ‘the nuclear option’ – i.e., changing the rules of the Senate by a simple majority vote in order to eliminate the filibuster. I would welcome that, but the GOP is unlikely to do it: their only concrete gain would be to force President Obama into using his veto power. That might make for nifty political maneuvering (and greater accountability), but it’s also a risky strategy that could backfire with voters.
To be sure, control of the Senate would grant Republicans enormous influence over the President’s appointment of judges. If there’s a vacancy in the Supreme Court, then the President might find himself in a box. Control of the Senate also gives the GOP final say on treaties, which could come into play if the administration makes any progress on two major free-trade agreements it has been aggressively negotiating. Lastly, a Senate takeover locks Democrats out of the Congressional oversight process – a major lever in determining the political agenda.
All of which is to say that elections always matter – but they don’t always matter in ways voters appreciate. What voters would appreciate would be if this election were to break the logjam in Washington.
If the GOP wins the Senate, they would have an incentive to work with the White House to get some things done. The reason is that if Republicans want a chance to be competitive in the 2016 general election, then it would help tremendously to clear the table. Some issues, like immigration reform, have proved a liability for Republicans. If they can reach an agreement with the White House in the next year, it will lessen the headwinds that any GOP presidential candidate will face.
Similarly, there are other policy issues for which difficult but workable solutions are well-known to careful observers. The broad outlines of comprehensive tax reform and a Social Security fix, for example, are not difficult to divine – but they are very difficult to take political responsibility for. The GOP might welcome the opportunity to offload some of that fallout on an outgoing, and unpopular, Democratic president.
That’s a hopeful picture, but not a very likely one. The biggest problem is that even if the Republican leadership is able to negotiate a deal that works in the best interest of the party (and the country), it is far from clear that they’d be able to get the votes in their caucus to pass it. The dispiriting truth is that, for many Congressional Republicans, the safest course is to oppose any compromise, thereby torpedoing the chances of their party’s nominee in 2016 while at the same time insulating themselves from a primary challenger. Any deal would likely have to pass with Democratic votes, a risky proposition for Republican leaders and a heavy lift for an unpopular President.
Is there a way out? Yes, I think there might be. The Democrats’ majority in the Senate depends on two independents: Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Angus King of Maine. In addition, their hope for maintaining control of the Senate hinges on an independent candidate from Kansas, Greg Orman. That set’s up an interesting possibility.
Let’s take a brief look.
First of all, Bernie Sanders is a self-described socialist. So let’s just put him to the side for a moment. That leaves two potential independents, both thought of as pragmatic moderates. Because the Democrats control the office of the Vice President, which casts the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, they only need 50 seats for control of the chamber; the Republicans, in turn, need 51. That means that if the GOP wins either 49 or 50 seats, they could take control of the full Congress if King and Orman caucus with them rather than the Democrats.
At first blush, that sounds a little crazy because we’re not used to thinking about that sort of government-building in our two-party system. But both Angus King and Greg Orman have signaled their openness to caucus with either party if the circumstances are right. Their brand as political independents also depends on them not being knee-jerk allies of either party. So what might they demand in exchange for their valuable support? To begin, they’ll ask for and receive plum committee appointments. But, specially if they worked together, they could demand floor votes on key pieces of legislation and help reset the political conversation.
If Orman and King can get full votes on compromise pieces of legislation, those pieces of legislation would pass more often than not. The problem in Congress isn’t that you can’t find a majority of votes to do anything; rather it’s that the leadership of both parties can’t find a way to do anything without harming their political prospects. The value of independent legislators is that they don’t share that particular disincentive.
And an independent caucus, even if comprised of just two members, would have tremendous leverage: if the party they cut a deal with later balked, there would be nothing stoping them from switching sides. For starters, neither man has to worry about a primary challenge. Both men can also be unabashedly pragmatic without having to defend themselves against charges of political hypocrisy or party disloyalty.
Is this scenario likely? Probably not. It depends on jus the right balance of power resulting from the election, and on a certain amount of chutzpah that’s difficult to take for granted. But every political candidate talks about shaking up Washington – King and Orman might get a legitimate opportunity to do just that.
After years of gridlock, those of us who try to remain optimistic often do so by holding onto the belief that the country’s divisions are real, but that our political process is failing because it magnifies them rather than trying to move past them. Partisans on both sides keep waiting for their side to win. I’m waiting for the conversation to change.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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