How Will the 116th Congress Drive the Con­ver­sa­tion?

Policy - - Contents - Sarah Goldfeder

The re­sults of the 2018 United States midterm elec­tions al­tered the power dy­namic in Washington by hand­ing con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the Demo­cratic Party. The com­bi­na­tion of the leg­isla­tive and in­ves­tiga­tive im­pli­ca­tions of that change will im­pact the Trump pres­i­dency.

At the heart of any democ­racy is a chal­lenge: how to hon­our the pref­er­ences of the ma­jor­ity while pro­tect­ing the rights of the mi­nor­ity. From the first Con­ti­nen­tal Congress in Philadel­phia in 1774, ad­dress­ing that chal­lenge has been cen­tral to gov­ern­ing what we now call the United States of Amer­ica.

Con­cerns of the ru­ral south­ern colonies (the mi­nor­ity) were ad­dressed within the Con­sti­tu­tion. The “grand bar­gain” that pro­duced two equal but dif­fer­ent houses was loosely based on the West­min­ster sys­tem, but with one house re­flect­ing the will of the peo­ple and the other, the re­quire­ments of the colonies—es­sen­tially pro­tect­ing re­gional con­cerns of a mi­nor­ity by pro­vid­ing them with equal weight of the ma­jor­ity.

In to­day’s world, the po­lit­i­cal split re­mains mostly the same: the ru­ral vot­ers pre­fer a con­ser­va­tive take on gov­ern­ment and the ur­ban, a more pro­gres­sive. The re­sults of the United States’ 2018 midterm elec­tion re­flected this divi­sion, with the Democrats win­ning the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Repub­li­cans achiev­ing mod­est (but sig­nif­i­cant) gains in the Se­nate. In ad­di­tion, many of the races for seats in both houses were won on ra­zor-thin mar­gins.

For the Democrats who won seats in the 116th Congress, they have a choice be­tween be­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive or be­ing con­fronta­tional. The mo­ti­va­tions be­hind the in­di­vid­ual choices have a lot to do with their con­stituen­cies and how they each was elected. Many of the newly elected are com­ing from red-to-blue dis­tricts, but the ones mak­ing head­lines are the four young women that won from the left. While they are rep­re­sent­ing “safe” dis­tricts, and feel that they are in Washington with a man­date to en­force change, many of their col­leagues came from those swing dis­tricts and are more po­lit­i­cally mod­er­ate and cau­tious in their ap­proach.

There is a path to­wards bi­par­ti­san co­op­er­a­tion on spe­cific is­sues that would give both the Democrats and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump some­thing to brag about. Fix­ing health care, pro­vid­ing a path to ci­ti­zen for the Dream­ers, an in­fra­struc­ture plan, and a fed­eral min­i­mum wage, for starters. Find­ing com­mon ground with Trump may turn out to be much eas­ier than it ap­pears. How this po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity plays out in the next two years lead­ing into the 2020 Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is hard to tell. When Pres­i­dent Obama faced a split leg­is­la­ture in 2010, the en­su­ing leg­isla­tive grid­lock re­sulted in the use of ex­ec­u­tive ac­tion to force move­ment on key is­sues. In his first two years, Pres­i­dent Trump has al­ready made sub­stan­tial use of ex­ec­u­tive or­ders to push his agenda for­ward. With a House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives that could prove to be even less will­ing to work him in the next two, we should ex­pect more of the same.

A Demo­cratic or blue House means a Demo­crat in the Speaker’s Chair, and all the House com­mit­tee chairs.

Nancy Pelosi has been there be­fore. In 2008, she was the Speaker of the House. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion had ne­go­ti­ated a free trade agree­ment with Colom­bia un­der the Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity Act of 2002. The Democrats were un­happy with the labour pro­vi­sions of the agree­ment. Speaker Pelosi in­tro­duced an in­ter­nal rule change that re­moved the TPA time­line for con­gres­sional ap­proval of the trade deal. As a re­sult, the Colom­bia agree­ment lan­guished un­til the Repub­li­cans took back the house, fi­nally pass­ing it in 2012 on Speaker John Boehner’s watch.

While dif­fer­ent, the con­cerns the Democrats have ex­pressed on the cur­rent U.S.-Mex­ico-Canada agree­ment are sim­i­lar to their reser­va­tions with the Colom­bian agree­ment. The crit­i­cal Demo­cratic con­stituency of the labour unions has never been a fan of trade agree­ments in gen­eral or NAFTA in par­tic­u­lar. For Democrats, this deal will rep­re­sent a chal­lenge to bal­ance the ur­ban cen­tres that rely on that labour vote (and are rep­re­sented in Congress by law­mak­ers that are the fur­thest left) with the sub­ur­ban/ru­ral dis­tricts where Democrats won by tight mar­gins and the con­stituen­cies be­lieve in the agree­ment.

Many will ar­gue that Amer­i­cans don’t vote on trade, but rather on kitchen-ta­ble pol­i­tics: health care, racial equal­ity, ed­u­ca­tion, eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties, the abil­ity to get and keep a well-pay­ing job. How­ever, cer­tain con­stituen­cies have made trade a wedge is­sue: la­bor and small busi­ness on the one hand, and farms and large cor­po­rate in­ter­ests on the other.

Many will ar­gue that Amer­i­cans don’t vote on trade, but rather on kitchen-ta­ble pol­i­tics: health care, racial equal­ity, ed­u­ca­tion, eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties, the abil­ity to get and keep a well-pay­ing job. How­ever, cer­tain con­stituen­cies have made trade a wedge is­sue.

United States Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Bob Lighthizer reached out to the Demo­cratic lead­er­ship to dis­cuss the agree­ment. Those dis­cus­sions, while la­beled as ‘con­struc­tive’, have also brought to light spe­cific is­sues that the Democrats will want to see ad­dressed.

The im­por­tance of wedge is­sues in elec­tions lies in the way that they are in­tro­duced into the con­ver­sa­tion. Wedge is­sues are typ­i­cally com­plex is­sues dis­tilled into nar­row, bi­nary de­ci­sion points. On trade, the labour unions have suc­ceeded in pro­vid­ing an ar­gu­ment as to why open­ing the bor­ders to trade has taken away op­por­tu­ni­ties and de­pressed wages for

Amer­i­can work­ers, in ef­fect, mak­ing trade a kitchen-ta­ble is­sue.

How do the Democrats then re­spond to the leg­isla­tive re­quire­ments for rat­i­fy­ing the USMCA? That will de­pend on how the White House moves for­ward. Ini­tially, United States Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robert Lighthizer reached out to the Demo­cratic lead­er­ship to dis­cuss the agree­ment. Those dis­cus­sions, while la­beled as “con­struc­tive,” have also brought to light spe­cific is­sues that the Democrats will want to see ad­dressed. If and how those are man­aged will be one part of the strat­egy to move the agree­ment for­ward.

The other vari­able in these cal­cu­la­tions is the pres­i­dent him­self. How he chooses to ne­go­ti­ate with the new lead­er­ship in the House will de­ter­mine the fate of the agree­ment. If he chooses, be­fore the 116th Congress is even seated, to over­turn the ap­ple cart and is­sue a no­tice of with­drawal from the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment, that will be seen as bad faith by law­mak­ers from both sides of the aisle. They will ar­gue that while he has the au­thor­ity to ini­ti­ate that process, he does not have the au­thor­ity to com­plete the process. Re­gard­less, the con­ver­sa­tion on what it will take to pass the new agree­ment will come to a dead stop.

Make no mis­take, for the next two years, the United States will be in full cam­paign mode. The jock­ey­ing for po­si­tion within the Democrats has be­gun, with po­ten­tial can­di­dates reach­ing out to party lead­er­ship and in­flu­encers for sup­port. Nancy Pelosi, while not un­der con­sid­er­a­tion for the nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent, is still an im­por­tant player and how she runs her cau­cus will be a key fac­tor in the 2020 elec­tion.

If the ma­neu­ver­ings of the White House at the end of 2018 are any in­di­ca­tion, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has yet to de­ter­mine a cam­paign strat­egy for 2020. Ques­tions sur­round­ing who will be the next White House chief of staff, not to men­tion whether Mike Pence should remain on the ticket, in­di­cated a level of chaos at the cen­tre of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Mean­while, the per­sonal twit­ter ac­count of the pres­i­dent never lies dor­mant and con­tin­ues to poke and prod al­lies and en­e­mies alike. The work of gov­ern­ing the United States has be­come markedly more dif­fi­cult.

Tar­iffs, a trade war with China, and a bear mar­ket could all con­trib­ute to a tra­jec­tory to­wards re­ces­sion. If the econ­omy weak­ens enough to af­fect how much dis­pos­able in­come Amer­i­cans have, Pres­i­dent Trump might have to an­swer for eco­nomic poli­cies that most economists see as prob­lem­atic. Com­bine that with re­duced pro­duc­tiv­ity and wage stag­na­tion and Democrats may have a chance of dust­ing off the James Carville’s line from the 1992 Clin­ton cam­paign, “It’s the econ­omy, stupid.”

Amer­i­cans want to vote for some­thing or some­one, and they vote for the fu­ture in ev­ery non-in­cum­bent elec­tion—which is why Rea­gan’s “Morn­ing in Amer­ica” and Obama’s mes­sage of “Hope and Change,” res­onated with vot­ers. The ques­tion for the Democrats in the next two years is whether they can find a can­di­date that ar­tic­u­lates a vi­sion of the fu­ture the vot­ers can ul­ti­mately en­dorse.

Tar­iffs, a trade war with China, and a bear mar­ket could all con­trib­ute to a tra­jec­tory to­wards re­ces­sion. If the econ­omy weak­ens enough to af­fect how much dis­pos­able in­come Amer­i­cans have, Pres­i­dent Trump might have to an­swer for eco­nomic poli­cies that most economists see as prob­lem­atic.

Sarah Goldfeder, a prin­ci­pal of Earn­scliffe Strat­egy Group, is a for­mer State Depart­ment of­fi­cial who ad­vised two U.S. am­bas­sadors to Ot­tawa, and pre­vi­ously served at the U.S. Em­bassy in Mex­ico.

Martin Fal­bisoner Wikipedia photo

Af­ter two years of Repub­li­can con­trol of both the ex­ec­u­tive branch and Congress, the Democrats swept the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the Novem­ber midterms. That will change things for Don­ald Trump.

United States Gov­ern­ment Flickr photo

Pres­i­dent Trump, Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau and Mex­i­can Pres­i­dent Peña Ni­eto sign­ing the USMCA in Buenos Aires on Novem­ber 30, 2018.

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