Midterm elections rarely bring good news to American presidents. Since 1900, presidential parties have lost Senate seats in more than two-thirds of all midterm elections, and House seats in all but four. In this respect, the outcome of November’s elections, which led to significant partisan seat swings for Democrats in both chambers, should have come as no surprise.
But the recent elections were unusual for midterms in one regard: They deprived an incumbent, second-term president of majorities in both the House and Senate. Most two-term presidents have either seen their parties lose control of Congress during their first term in office (Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton), lost one chamber without having ever controlled the other (Ronald Reagan), or never lost majorities in the House or Senate at all (Franklin Roosevelt).
In fact, one must go all the way back to 1918 to find a similar election outcome. That year, Woodrow Wilson’s Democratic Party surrendered both its narrow majority in the House and its control of the Senate. Wilson was left to govern with a Republican Congress for the final two years of his presidency.
History never entirely repeats itself, and certainly much has changed in American politics in the 88 years since the 1918 midterm elections. But a closer examination of the Republican-led 66th Congress suggests some political dynamics that we might see, or are seeing already, in Congress today.
One such dynamic is a greater propensity toward oversight. By one count, more than 50 resolutions were passed in the first session of the 66th Congress requesting outside testimony or authorizing investigations. A number of these investigations, such as a wide-ranging examination of the conduct of World War I, targeted the executive branch.
Minority Democrats, even if they voted for the investigations, chafed nonetheless. So focused were Congressional Republicans on finding wrong-doing that the late Rep. Edward Pou (N.C.), a prominent House Democrat, mockingly suggested that the 66th would be “known as the ‘Investigating Congress.’” The extensive attention to oversight by today’s Congressional Democrats mirrors that of their Republican predecessors; and if history is a guide, it is likely to continue.
Another interesting aspect of that Congress: Despite its attention to oversight and the presence of an opposite-party president, it did produce important legislation. The Senate’s famous rejection of the League of Nations notwithstanding, the 66th Congress enacted, among other things: a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution; a major civil service retirement bill; a reorganization of the Army and National Guard; the Transportation Act of 1920; and the Volstead Act, which enforced prohibition. Many of these measures were passed with the support of Democrats and President Wilson, suggesting that bipartisan cooperation, if not essential, may be useful to new Congressional majorities seeking to get things done under second-term, opposite-party presidents.
Finally, the history of the 66th Congress suggests that an opposite-party Congress can take political advantage of presidential vetoes, especially if they are used unwisely. Wilson did successfully veto 23 bills from that Congress (another five were overridden), but veto power did not always give Wilson, or Democrats, the upper hand.
One example of this occurred in the summer of 1920. Congress (with the votes of Democrats as well as Republicans) passed a bill repealing emergency wartime powers it had earlier granted to the president. However, after the House and Senate adjourned, Wilson pocket-vetoed the legislation. Though victorious in the short run, Wilson had given political ammunition to Republicans, who claimed that Wilson was a wartime executive with too much power and that, by electing Republicans that November, the nation could be returned to a state of “normalcy.”
There are important differences between the 66th and 110th Congresses. Wilson’s health problems limited his ability to provide strong leadership; both Congressional parties were arguably more internally divided then than they are today; and while the fighting in WWI had ended before the 66th Congress convened, today’s House and Senate face an ongoing and increasingly unpopular military conflict in Iraq. Nonetheless, the similar political environment facing both Congresses suggests that the 1919-20 period may be a useful guide to understanding today’s Congress, too.
If nothing else, Congressional Democrats can hope that history repeats itself in at least one way: In 1920, the party in control of Congress captured more seats in the House and Senate — and won the presidency as well.
Matthew Green is an assistant professor of politics at The Catholic University of America.