by Dom Ruscio, Partner
This is the first in a series of analyses CRD Associates will publish over the next several days examining the midterm elections and their likely impact on key federal policies
By the numbers
With groundbreaking victories for female, black, gay, Native American and Muslim candidates, the 2018 midterm elections produced a night of firsts—diversifying the faces in the House, Senate and statehouses across the nation.
A record-breaking 100+ women were elected to the House of Representatives, up from 84 in the current Congress.
Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas will be the first two Native American women to serve in the House.
Former representative Marsha Blackburn will become the first woman to represent Tennessee in the Senate.
Maine elected its first female governor in Janet Mills, and Massachusetts elected its first person of color to Congress in Ayanna Pressley.
Jared Polis was elected Governor of Colorado, becoming the nation’s first openly gay governor.
Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar became the first Muslim women to serve in Congress.
Apart from those ground breaking firsts, from a national party perspective the midterm elections delivered a split verdict, ushering in a new Democratic majority in the House as Republicans expanded their numbers in the Senate.
With 12 races yet to be called, Democrats have won 225 House seats to Republicans’ 198, with many of Democrats’ 31 pick-ups centered in suburban districts. This marks the first time Democrats have held a majority in the House since 2010, and an end to two years of the Republicans’ unified control of government. Republicans will control 51-54 Senate seats, depending on the results of uncalled races in Arizona and Florida, and a runoff in Mississippi later this month.
Governing: Now the hard part
As one pundit put it, the election brought “bragging rights for everybody and nobody.” Indeed, voter anger and discontent may make a deeply divided nation even more difficult to govern.
For Democrats to take control of the House, it took a lot of wins in center- and center-right congressional districts. That’s an opportunity for Democrats to own the middle, but it’s also a challenge for their leaders to unify a caucus made up of new centrists as well as restive progressives.
For Republicans, an expanded majority means the ability to confirm judicial appointments but, in practical policy terms, not much else since they do not have a filibuster-proof majority.
For all intents and purposes, the divergent outcomes in the House and Senate may simply mean more of the same when it comes to policy battles.
The elephant in the room
For all the elation both sides may feel today, once incumbents and new members of Congress take a sober look at the budget situation, their ambitions are likely to shrink when they come to realize that just keeping the government’s lights on is a major challenge.
In a few days, the Republican-controlled Congress returns for a lame-duck session, presumably to wrap up seven unfinished appropriations bills for fiscal year 2019—Agriculture, Financial Services, Interior-Environment, State-Foreign Operations, Transportation, HUD and Homeland Security. They’ll have until December 7 to do that, when the current continuing resolution expires.
But President Trump insists that one of the spending bills, Homeland Security, must include funding for a border wall. Republicans need Democratic support to advance Homeland Security. The price for that cooperation, however, could require the president to forgo his $5 billion funding for the wall, settle for a lesser or token amount, postpone any final spending decisions until a new Congress is sworn in—or risk a government shutdown.
As if that weren’t enough, next year’s budget battles will get even tougher and more far- reaching.
A two-year budget deal that provided relief from tight spending caps expires next September, forcing defense and nondefense discretionary programs to revert back to spending limits imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Absent another budget deal, the BCAs caps mean $126 billion in cuts to defense and nondefense spending for fiscal year 2020—or about 10 percent below current spending.
If all that isn’t enough of a challenge, lawmakers will have to vote on raising the federal debt limit in the first half of 2019.
So, despite grand proclamations about investigations and subpoenas and an active legislative agenda including ethics reform, infrastructure, and prescription drug prices, Congress’s first responsibility – keeping the lights on – will not be an easy lift.