By Richard M. Skinner
Few patterns are more reliable in American politics than the president’s party losing seats in the House of Representatives at the midterm – it’s held in 18 out of the past 20 midterm elections (1998 and 2002 – two years when the sitting presidents were exceptionally popular – are the two exceptions). But midterm losses can vary enormously. Democrats lost 72 seats in 1938, but Republicans lost just six in 1986. Right now, the normal indicators forecast a substantial Democratic wave. President Trump’s job approval rating is quite low, reminiscent of that of George W. Bush in 2006, when he at least had the Iraq War to blame. Democrats have opened a wide lead in the “generic ballot,” a common measure of voting intention for the congressional elections. There is also evidence that voters who disapprove of Trump feel more strongly than do those who approve of Trump, and that Democrats are more excited about voting than are Republicans. (There are other indicators that are better for Republicans – the economy is pretty good, and the House map favors the GOP).
Analysts of congressional elections are using these data points to forecast substantial Democratic gains perhaps comparable to the 30 seats they picked up in 2006 (they need 23 to take control of the House). But the Democratic edge in some surveys of the generic ballot is so large that they could plausibly gain 40 or 50 seats – at the level of the Republican sweeps in 1994 and 2010, or the Democratic waves of 1958 and 1974.
What impact would such a large class of Democrats have on the House of Representatives? Comparisons to the “Watergate Babies” of 1974 or the “Republican Revolutionaries” of 1994 would abound. One can easily predict that policy outcomes will shift towards the Democrats. They would gain control of the House of Representatives, marking the end of Republican control of the legislative agenda. Filibusters (even in a Democratic Senate) and Donald Trump’s veto pen would block most (if not all) Democratic initiatives. But Democratic committee chairs would be able to conduct oversight hearings of the Trump Administration, while Democrats would be able to impose some demands through continuing resolutions and other “must-pass” legislation.
Previous classes of this size backed the existing agendas of their party – but also often shifted power within it. The Democratic classes of 1958, 1964, and 1974, dominated by Northern liberals, moved the congressional party’s balance away from Southern moderates and conservatives. In Issue Evolution, Edward Carmines and James Stimson argue the Democrats of ’58 cemented their party’s allegiance to civil rights. The class of 1964, expanded by Lyndon Johnson’s landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater, helped provide the votes to pass the Great Society legislation. All these classes helped provide the votes to back the agenda of the Democratic Study Group, which wanted to shift power away from committee chairmen to the party caucus. The members of these classes shared not just liberal policy views, but an activist and publicity-seeking culture that clashed with that of the seniority-dominated mid-century Congress. These classes had sufficient impact on Congress to generate two classics of political science: Barbara Sinclair’s The Transformation of the U.S. Senate (on the Senate class of 1958) and Burdett Loomis’s The New American Politician (on the House class of 1974). The large Democratic classes of 2006 and 2008 provided the votes to pass the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus package before being devastated by the Republican wave of 2010.
Large classes of Republicans have provided the votes to pass legislative agendas, though those agendas have been mostly formulated by others. The class of 1946, elected during the greatest strike year in American history, helped pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which greatly restricted the power of organized labor. The Republicans of ’46 also were identified with strident anti-Communism, personified by the young Richard Nixon. These agenda items were not created by them, but had long been concerns of conservatives in both parties. The class of 1980 became known as “Reagan’s Robots” for their rock-solid support for the program of the new president. The class of 1994, which restored Republicans to control of the House after 40 years, mostly followed the lead of Newt Gingrich.
But these large classes also remade the operations of Congress. The classes of 1958 and 1964 produced large numbers of policy entrepreneurs who pushed for a more transparent, decentralized Congress that would give them more opportunities to shape legislation. But they also supported efforts to shift power away from committee chairs to the Democratic caucus more broadly. The “Watergate Babies” brought these efforts to the forefront shortly after they arrived in Washington. They voted out three senior committee chairmen, empowered subcommittees, and gave more power to the Speakership. The class of 1994 supported Speaker Newt Gingrich’s efforts to centralize power in the House of Representatives and to manage the body along more stringent partisan lines. But many members of the class of 2010 often revolted against their own party leaders; the House Freedom Caucus thought the leadership’s agenda was insufficiently conservative, while other members complained that Speaker John Boehner had excessively concentrated power.
If the 2018 elections produce the Democratic wave that many analysts are currently predicting, what might the Class of 2018 look like? More women are running for office this cycle than in the past, and a disproportionate number of them are running as Democrats. Policy concerns and a deep dislike for President Trump have mobilized these candidates and if elected, they’ll play a bigger role in setting the party’s policy agenda. As was the case in the 2006 wave election, the districts that would produce a Democratic majority are more moderate than those that elected the current Democratic minority. Democrats learned the hard way in 2010 that members elected in moderate districts can’t swing too far to the left without risking losing their seats. Party leaders would be wise to keep 2010 in mind when setting their agenda for the 116th Congress.
Also important to consider is how a large freshman class might reshape Congress’s institutional structures. The trend on Capitol Hill for a long generation has been towards centralizing power in leadership. But perhaps a big cohort of newcomers, anxious to make their mark, might demand a reversal of this shift (a la the class of ’74). Democratic House leaders are old and an incoming class, heavy on Millennials, might join the already existent calls for a changing of the guard. Running on pledges to curb Trump’s excesses, Democratic members of the Class of 2018 might find it attractive to bulk up legislative capacity and strengthen Congress vis-à-vis the executive.
While there’s little doubt that Democrats in 2018 would focus on curbing President Trump’s power, the question of whether they would pursue impeachment remains open. The class of 1974 arrived in Washington too late to bring down Richard Nixon. But it was able to continue pushing the resurgence in congressional power that had begun during the Nixon Administration. Might the Class of 2018 similarly defend Congress against an overreaching executive?
Virginia’s recent elections may provide some insight. Surprising almost all observers, Democrats picked up 15 seats previously held by Republicans in the House of Delegates. Given that one Democrat replaced one who retired, 16 of the 49 House Democrats that will take office this month are newcomers. The freshman Democratic class looks different from the body it is joining; it is younger, more diverse and much more female. It includes the Virginia General Assembly’s first transgender member, its first openly gay woman, its first Latinas, and its first Asian-American women. While only three freshman Democrats were endorsed by Our Revolution, the organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, it is a fair bet that the new Democrats will be relatively progressive. Some have already formed a group dedicated to opposing the influence of corporate contributions, which have traditionally flowed freely in Virginia. This session will show us how a large influx of newcomers can reshape a legislative body in the Trump era.
The political landscape could easily change during the next ten months, but congressional analysts and prognosticators should start thinking now about the likely impact of a large cohort of freshmen. That is particularly true for those working on issues of legislative capacity. Should the Class of 2018 prove to be an activist class or interested in shoring up Congress’s institutional powers, they will need to understand how to use the legislative and political tools available to accomplish their goals. They should also be open to pursuing reforms that would improve legislative capacity and efficiency, and ensure that Congress remains a co-equal branch of government.