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Voters Reward a Do-Something Congress. Wrong, Recent Results Show

Some midterm years are policy voids, others historic. Either way, voters tend to shake things up

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Four years ago, the second session of the 113th Congress was widely identified as one of the most profoundly unproductive stretches at the Capitol in the run-up to a midterm election.

And yet the achievements of that divided Congress tower over the minimalist aspirations for this year held by the Republicans unilaterally in charge of the Hill. The limit on federal debt was raised in 2014, federal flood insurance premiums were rolled back, dozens of new waterway and environmental projects were authorized, a five-year farm bill was finished and, most notably, a generous deal was struck for improving veterans’ medical care.

But were those modest accomplishments sufficient to convince voters to either punish or reward the status quo bipartisan power structure? They were not.

That November the Democrats lost control of the Senate after eight years, and the Republicans expanded their hold on the House by 13 seats — an outcome much more readily attributed, the exit polls showed, to fading satisfaction with President Barack Obama after six years than a judgment on what Congress did or did not do.

The result four years ago, in other words, is probably more a reassurance than a cautionary tale, at least for today’s lawmakers worried about their next re-election prospects. The salve may be especially welcome this week, which marks six months until Election Day, when Congress is in recess in part because it has no genuinely pressing business at hand.

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It has long been a truism of Washington that the election years are not nearly as busy as the “off” years. And 2018 is for now on course to set a grim record, quite easily eclipsing 2014 for the least ambitious legislative agenda in modern times during a midterm campaign — just the latest reminder of how chocked the Capitol has become by polarization.

But will it matter, at least politically? If the past two decades point to the answer, it is “apparently not.” The levels of legislative intensity and accomplishment during the meat of campaign season have ranged from modest to significant — and yet at least one chamber of Congress has changed partisan hands after each of the past four midterm elections.

That means the last “stand pat” midterm was two decades ago, when the GOP stayed in full command of the Capitol even though it lost seats thanks to its highly unpopular drive to impeach a popular President Bill Clinton.

A Trump referendum

President Donald Trump, on the other hand, has reason to be worried about the intervening 20 years, which have underscored the notion that a midterm is a referendum on the president more than it is on Congress.

This Congress is not doing much to reshape the precedent. Since the belated $1.3 trillion spending plan for this fiscal year got enacted in late March with exception-that-proves-the-rule bipartisan majorities, GOP leaders have done little more than feint toward headline-worthy policy measures.

Bold conservative talk lasted only a few days about tackling the welfare system, or the unbridled growth of entitlements, or more tax code simplification. Immigration and border security, once seemingly ripe for a big deal, are effectively mothballed. The same goes for Trump’s infrastructure plan. Only the most blindly optimistic envision Congress will complete the debates Republicans promised on energy, banking, aviation, criminal sentencing and agriculture polices. And prospects for updating the ground rules for the use of military force, or setting new ground rules for social media privacy, faded soon after those topics made cameo appearances in the news.

Realistically, the GOP bosses seem resigned to spending spring and summer on business that’s supposed to be routine — advancing annual appropriations bills, knowing a fall showdown is inevitable, and Senate nominees for vacancies in the turbulent administration and on the courts.

Unless there’s an opening on the Supreme Court once its term ends in June — and Trump and Republican senators get another shot at thrilling the party base by rallying behind a replacement — none of those confirmations is likely to rise to the level of a history-making moment for the 115th Congress.

[Conservative Court Nominee Highlights Smoother Path to Bench]

The most confrontationally conservative lawmakers are irked their leaders have not been using the House and Senate floors to stage debates and “messaging votes” on issues that galvanize their most ardent fans in the electorate.

It’s a tactic majorities from both parties have deployed in recent years, in part to divert attention away from the troubles of their like-minded presidents. But at least for now, the weeks ahead look to be a time when the voters will be able to contemplate Trump’s tumultuous presidency without distraction from the Hill.

The voters spoke

The closest recent analog to 2018 may be 2010, the most recent midterm in a similar time of unified government.

Then, it was Obama and his fellow Democrats in charge on the Hill, and they generated one of the most ambitious election-year legislative programs since the Great Society. The result was two laws for the history books, the broadest expansion of health care coverage since Medicare in 1965 and the sweeping rewrite and intensification of regulations on the financial services industry, some in place since 1933. Even as late as July, Congress came together on a plan to prop up military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and confirmed Elena Kagan for the high court with 63 votes, five of them Republicans.

Beyond that there were serious, if ultimately inconclusive, legislative drives to address some of the top issues of the moment — the paucity of new jobs after the recession, the flow of corporate campaign money after a liberating Supreme Court ruling, regulation of offshore oil drilling after a mass spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But how did the voters reward the Democrats? They were stripped of power in the House, losing 62 seats, and had their wings clipped by six seats in the Senate as well.

An even more appropriate year for comparison would be 2006, when Republicans were hoping to preserve their hold on power at the Capitol despite the sagging popularity of their party’s principal, President George W. Bush.

At the time, the months of the campaign season seemed to tick by as an endless parade of partisan posturing devoid of legislative seriousness, but in hindsight that proves to be wrong. Congress extended the Bush tax cuts, updated the Voting Rights Act, revamped federal pension law and set new ground rules for the prosecution of suspected terrorists. And it conducted genuine, if inconclusive, deliberations on bills to address topics as diverse as immigration, embryonic stem cell research and K Street influence.

Still, the GOP lost 30 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate, and with them the majorities on both side of the Capitol.

The legendary surge of bipartisan cooperation after the Sept. 11 attacks was sustained into 2002 and made it arguably the most productive midterm election year in modern times, especially in a divided Congress. The biggest-ticket items were the formation of the Department of Homeland Security; the creation of an independent commission to investigate government lapses that preceded the terrorist attacks; the revival of fast-track procedures for congressional approval of trade deals; the biggest increase in regulation of publicly traded companies since the Depression, and the authorization of the Iraq War.

The electorate’s verdict on the virtue of split control of the Capitol? No thank you. Instead, they rewarded Bush by giving the GOP new control in the Senate and expanding the party’s majority in the House.

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