Can decades of dysfunction reverse course in a single Congress? No. But despite the general pessimism surrounding Congress there are several reason to expect the 114th to be more productive than its recent predecessors, which were historically bad on several fronts. Now that divided congressional control is over a sense of mild optimism should overcome you. Plenty of ink will be spilled describing the impending dysfunction of a Republican Congress and a Democratic President. Divided government does depress legislative output, though probably not as much as most expect. However, research has shown that divided congressional control can actually be more debilitating. In her study on congressional stalemate, Sarah Binder found that the ideological distance between the chambers created more gridlock than divided government between the executive and Congress. While that sinks in, consider the 113th Congress was among the most polarized in US history. In other words, Congress was controlled by two different parties at a time when those parties are arguably the furthest apart than they have been since 1879. In that context it’s easy to understand why gridlock gripped the Capitol for the past four years. Now that Republicans control the Senate, we’re likely to see more robust negotiations between Congress and President Obama. The question is over what agenda items they will negotiate.
Republicans have two major roadblocks to legislating in the 114th Congress: the filibuster and the veto. Both checks require a supermajority to overcome (60 for the filibuster and two-thirds in both chambers for the veto). These thresholds are difficult, but Republicans can and will be able to overcome them in some form or another. However, these barriers do constrain the universe of policies that Republicans can target.
With only 54 votes in the Senate, Republicans will either need to moderate their policies to attract six Democratic votes – a strategy that will hugely frustrate their House colleagues – or use the reconciliation process to circumvent filibusters. This leads us to our first prediction: Congress will pass budgets. Reconciliation is built into the annual budget process. Congress has not passed a budget resolution since 2010. That will change in the 114th. If Republicans want to follow through on their campaign promises, they need to pass a budget in order to use reconciliation.
There is a catch. Reconciliation can only be used on policies affecting direct spending, revenue, and the debt ceiling. Republicans are unlikely to touch entitlements and leaders will likely pass a debt limit hike through indirect means, such as reinstating the Gephardt Rule (where the debt ceiling is raised or suspended upon adoption of a budget resolution). That leaves revenue measures as the most likely policies to be used under reconciliation.
Revenue bills just happen to coincide with several Republican priorities. Republicans can pass bills that repeal the individual mandate, eliminate the medical device tax, alter fees funding immigration deportation processing, corporate and/or individual tax reform, as well as several other policies. In other words, the bills Republicans want to pass to score political points will most likely come through the reconciliation process. And Republicans may very well want Obama to veto many of these bills. For example, a presidential veto killing a repeal of the individual mandate is something the Republican campaign committees are likely drooling over.
It’s also possible that bipartisan compromises emerge through the reconciliation process. However, it will depend on Republican politics and how far the president is willing to compromise on these issues.
There is also reason to expect a large number of bipartisan legislative efforts to emerge. Despite headlines suggesting bipartisan compromises are a thing of the past, a large number of bills passed the 113th House with over two-thirds support. In fact, several issues reached broad consensus on a regular basis. Homeland security legislation, reducing the number of government reports and studies, bills expanding government transparency, veterans’ legislation, among others, all passed under suspension of the rules (requiring two-thirds support).
Keep in mind that just because a bill receives bipartisan support does not mean it is uncontroversial. Several bills reported from the Financial Services and Energy and Commerce committees frustrated the Democratic base, but still managed to pass the two-thirds threshold. In fact, several bills stripping Dodd-Frank regulations were passed with large, bipartisan majorities. The swap push-out provision vilified in the cromnibus package is a great example. Despite liberals ardent objections the bill passed with 292 votes (H.R.992).
Bipartisan bills range from the widely agreed upon to those that divide the Democratic base. It will be very difficult for the President use his political capital to veto legislation if there is a good chance it can be overridden. And in the 113th, there were several policies, controversial and uncontroversial, that will put the president in a difficult position. In the 114th, he can make a stand or accept policy losses. But there is room for Republicans to slowly chip away at the President’s legacy by passing widely-supported policies.
The 114th is likely to be more productive than the 113th. That said, with a presidential campaign season looming, partisan politics could also overcome any modicum of bipartisan agreement.