As the final races for the House of Representatives and Senate plod toward a conclusion, both bodies are taking initial steps to organize themselves for a 118th Congress of the United States that few experts expect to be particularly productive.
Republicans will control the House when the new Congress is seated in early January, though by a very small margin. The Senate will remain in Democrats’ hands, though their ultimate margin of control depends on a runoff election in Georgia scheduled for early December.
It’s an arrangement that seems more suited to partisan trench warfare than legislating, scholars who study Congress told VOA.
“Congress will experience continued partisan polarization, gridlock and dysfunction with divided party government,” James Thurber, professor emeritus of government at American University and founder of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, told VOA. “The permanent presidential and congressional campaigns will continue with ‘wedge issues’ dominating [Capitol] Hill. The budget and appropriations process will be bloody from the lame duck to the next election.”
More of the same
Asked what Americans should expect from Congress in 2023 and beyond, David King, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, told VOA, “Unfortunately, more of the same.”
King, who serves as faculty chair of Harvard’s Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress, said incoming lawmakers can expect to serve in a body where virtually all power is concentrated at the top, and where committees and individual members have little sway.
“The power in Congress will be held in the hands of a few leaders. Most of the members of Congress will stick very close to their party, because neither one can afford to lose a couple of key votes,” he said. “And the decisions around policy will largely be negotiated from the leadership’s office.”
What legislating does take place, King said, will likely come in a small number of large catchall bills that take care of basics, like establishing budgets and appropriations, so that the government can continue to operate.
“I think you’ll probably see two large reconciliation packages that manage to get most of the real lawmaking done,” King said. “Otherwise, it’ll be largely symbolic anger thrust at each other, as people prepare for some kind of decisive outcome in the presidential election of 2024.”
Some hope for progress
Not everyone has given up on the possibility of bipartisan cooperation. G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, told VOA that while difficult, it would not be impossible for congressional leaders to find areas on which they can work together.
“I do think the general thought would be, ‘Boy, we’re in for two years of nothing but messaging and preparing for the ’24 elections.’ But I do think there’s still room for achieving something. I think it’s possible that there could still be some successful legislative achievement,” Hoagland said.
A former Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, Hoagland pointed to immigration policy as an area where both parties have things they want, and a compromise might be forged. Republicans, for instance, want increased border security, and Democrats want a formalized path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as minors, and there might be room for agreement on legislation that does both.
Split control of Congress means President Joe Biden is likely to see relatively few of the legislative victories that served as landmarks during his first two years in office. But Hoagland noted that those packages, including the Inflation Reduction Act, with its huge investments in the fight against climate change, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act leave Biden with enormous amounts of work to do.
“He’s got a lot of authorities that had been granted to him already,” Hoagland said. “I think a lot of his focus may shift to just managing the implementation of the IRA and other legislation that’s already been adopted.”
Biden may also spend more time focusing overseas, said Harvard’s King, who added that when a president is stymied on domestic policy, “one thing that tends to happen is that they look for victories internationally.”
While Biden would struggle to get any new treaties ratified in the closely divided Senate, King said, “International agreements are possible. And certainly more of the kind of G-20 sort of diplomacy with the president, as commander in chief, working with other countries around the pivot that’s happening in Europe away from Russia.”
In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is expected to retain his position. On Wednesday, incumbent Minority Leader Mitch McConnell fought off a challenge by Senator Rick Scott and was reelected to his position.
Republicans on Wednesday voted on whom to nominate as the new speaker. Current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy won the nomination, but his path to leadership may not be smooth.
The entire House must vote on a speaker, and the Republicans will have only a small majority. Several dozen members of the Republican Party’s ultra-conservative wing declined to support McCarthy’s nomination. Without their votes in the full House, and facing unified Democratic opposition, McCarthy cannot win.
The most likely outcome is a negotiation in which McCarthy makes specific promises to members of his own party in exchange for their votes.
Current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has, so far, not said whether she intends to remain in a leadership role when her party enters the minority in January.
One thing that all the experts VOA spoke with agreed on is that new and aggressive investigations into the Biden administration and into the president’s family are inevitable in the House.
Republicans have already promised to institute wide-ranging inquiries into the Biden administration’s handling of the crisis on the southern border and into the business dealings of the president’s son, Hunter Biden.
Another possibility is impeachment proceedings against members of the administration who, in Republicans’ estimation, have failed to do their jobs. Some members have already proposed impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the state of U.S. border security. Some of the more radical members of the House have already proposed passage of articles of impeachment against the president.
It is unlikely that any impeachment seen as politically motivated would lead to a conviction in the Senate, for which two-thirds backing in the chamber would be needed to remove an administration official from his or her position.