Wednesday, October 18, 2006

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What if the Dems take over the Congress?

Bruce Bartlett has an op-ed in today's New York Times that spells out what will happen should the Democrats take over one or both houses of Congress. Bartlett's answer: not much:

As a Republican, I have a message for those fearful of Democratic control: donít worry. Nothing dreadful is going to happen. Liberals have much less to gain than they believe....

I didnít make myself very popular by reminding people that Bill Clinton was still going to be president for at least another two years. How were we going to get these measures enacted into law over his all-but-certain veto? Flush with victory and convinced that they had a mandate from the American people to pass a conservative legislative agenda, my friends simply dismissed my concerns as defeatist.

Well, Cassandra wasnít very popular, either, but she was right, and so was I. Within a year, the conservative revolution was all but over....

For starters, President Bush will still occupy the White House for the next two years. And although his veto pen may have been misplaced for most of the last six years, he found it again this summer.

For another thing, Democrats are unlikely to get more than a very thin majority in the House. If they get the Senate as well, it will not be with more than a one-vote margin. Consequently, effective control will be in the hands of moderates who often work with Republicans on specific issues. In a delicious bit of irony, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, lately excoriated by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, may end up holding the balance of power in the Senate.

As for impeachment and cutting money for Iraq, such actions would be politically insane and the Democratic leadership knows it. They will make the White House pay a price for Iraq, but will ensure that they donít get blamed for any debacle resulting from failure to provide adequate money for our troops.

Democrats may have more success using Congressional committees to investigate accusations of wrongdoing by the Bush administration, but that will be much harder than they think. The Republicans cut thousands of committee staff positions when they took control, and it will take considerable time to find the money and staff to do any serious investigating.

Also, the Bush White House can simply use all the stalling techniques that the Clinton White House perfected to frustrate Congressional investigations by Republicans. The only thing left to worry about is expiration of the Bush tax cuts, which Democrats will certainly not want to extend. But most of them donít expire until 2010, so there is no urgency. Anyway, there is no certainty that continued Republican control of Congress would assure extension of the tax cuts. If party control were all that mattered, they would have been extended already.

In short, there is really no reason for conservatives, businessmen or investors to worry particularly about a Democratic victory in November. Congress will be on automatic pilot for the next two years regardless of which party is in control.

Bartlett's take is correct as far as it goes, but it's a bit incomplete.

It is undoubtedly true -- as it was in 1994 -- that a political party can't really execute an ambitious governing strategy from the legislative branch. However, a Democratic Congress would alter the political and policy playing field in one certain and one uncertain way.

The certain way is that the Democrats would get some agenda-setting power. Even if Bush can veto a bill, the Democrats can send up bills that might be politically popular as a way to make Republicans look bad. This is one reason why everyone inside the Beltway believes that a Democratic takeover will lead to a hike in the minimum wage. Hearings will be an even cheaper way of doing this -- and the staffing issue that Bartlett raises seems pretty minor to me.

The uncertain way is that a Democratic takeover gives Nancy Pelosi an effective veto over anything Bush wants/needs from the Congress. What's uncertain about this is the effect it will have on actual policy. Will the Dems act as deficit-cutters beyond refusing to extend some of the Bush tax cuts?

I dunno -- I'll ask the Dems in the crowd to give their provisional answers.

UPDATE: Harold Meyerson's Washington Post column addresses this topic as well.

posted by Dan on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM


Bartlett said it himself. "Nothing dreadful is going to happen." The most basic difference of having a House that is hostile to the president's policies is that it will prevent those policies from being enacted.

While the next two years are not going to be very effective at producing Democratically supported laws, they will at least stop the national hemmorhaging from Republican backed ones.

posted by: Imaginary on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

My biggest reason for desperately hoping for control of something (c'mon... just one house... please...) is a revival of Congressional oversight ability. This administration has had entirely free reign to aggrandize the Executive, and in their party loyalty Congressional Rs have been supine in defense of their branch's prerogatives. It ain't healthy for American democracy.

Naturally the Ds won't get much - if anything - passed, but a little French-style cohabitation ain't a bad idea after the last few years.

posted by: Chris Doten on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

While I think democrats, as a whole, have kind of gone nuts over the past few years, I also think that it's good to have a partisan stalemate between the White House and Congress (regardless of who has what). The less the federal government is able to actually do, the better off everyone will be.

That said, if democrats do take control, they better find a damn good candidate for President if they want me to even bother looking at the other name before I vote.

posted by: Justin on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

The Bush/Senate amnesty bill will pass, shifting the long-term electoral landscape dramatically.

posted by: Anon on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

I'm not a Democrat, but I did use to work on the Hill; from that perspective I can say with confidence that adequate staffing for oversight will turn out to be no minor issue.

Effective committee oversight isn't just a matter of being willing to ask the tough questions of administration officials in hearings. It requires that someone nail down what the tough questions are, what answers are in the ballpark of acceptability and what answers aren't, and what kind of follow-up is done after each hearing ends. Congressmen and Senators can make the decisions on all of these subjects -- that's one of the things they're elected for -- but implementing them is mostly a staff job, requiring not just enough staff but enough experienced staff. Bartlett isn't wrong to put his finger on this as a potential problem for the Democrats if they gain Congressional majorities this November.

posted by: Zathras on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

For nine good suggestions for Congressional hearings and the committee chairs that will be in place to hold them if the Democrats gain a majority in the House in November see

posted by: Barbara Ray on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

Congressional oversight is just one part of a larger shift in government - Dems will have some constitutionally defined power for the first time since 2002 (and even that was tenuous). I would be surprised if Bush's "you're either with us or you're against us" mentality will last through february given he, for the first time since pre-9/11, will have to negotiate most of his agenda with somebody, instead of only having to consider political implications down the road (or rather, have Rove consider them for him). Maybe this is finally time for him to do some of that "uniting" he's so famous for...

Also, to exaggerate a little, a "moderate house member" is a contradiction in terms.

posted by: Mike Yeomans on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

"Nothing dreadful is going to happen."

Didn't impeachment follow closely behind in Bartlett's example?

Not that I think that is likely, however, you never no what we will find when you start looking, and I expect there will and should be some looking. Clinton presided over tenuous support from even the (D) congress, and at this point oversight was still something that congress did. We have now had at least six years of an unprecedented lack of oversight, and this is during a period when policies led to the death of hundreds of thousands, if the only reports out there are to be believed, and to the US becoming a countries that has secret prisons and tortures people.
Not only will there be many years of catching up to do on oversight, but that lack of oversight creates an environment where bad actios are more likely.
Big legislation is very unlikely for at least two years, but oversight might turn out to be bigger than it sounds.

posted by: theCoach on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

Impeachment. C'mon. Impeach W and what do you get? President Cheney? I don't care how far off in the BillO'Nutjob-defined "Bush-hating-radical-secular-progressive-Pelosi-values left" someone is -- no one, but no one, in the Demo party would do anything to bring that event about!

posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

Mickey Kaus has already pointed out the most important thing that will happen, the Senate immigration 'reform' bill, with its vastly increased number of legal immigrants, its H1-Bs , its amnesty which is sure to atract even more illegals (see 1986 amnesty) , will pass. This will speed the processes that are already making the nation unrecognizable to anyone who grew up in the fifties, sixties, seventies or even eighties. It will make us become Brazil that much quicker. This is the single reason to keep that thin red line of Republican Congressman in power.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

The diarrhetic elephant in the room that Bartlett mysteriously never mentions is simply that Clinton never had us involved in a major war that we were losing, and Bush does. Regardless of whether the Dems are willing to actually cut the money for our troops, they can hold public investigation after investigation of the war (and the general War On Terror) for as long as Bush insists on remaining in Iraq -- and the longer he stays, the worse the GOP will look. (It is, after all, already clear that there is lots and lots to investigate.) If he DOES insist on staying much longer, by 2008 absolutely no Republican candidate -- not even Giuliani or McCain -- will have a chance of winning.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

I should add that the only reason the Clinton Administration was able to respond to GOP investigations with that "stalling" was, again, simply because there wasn't all that much to investigate -- and when the GOP strained mightily to synthesize something big, the public didn't buy it. There will be plenty big to investigate this time, and the public already knows it -- consider the CNN poll seven weeks ago in which voters said by 57-41 that they would regard it as "good for the country" if "the Democrats in Congress were able to conduct official investigations into what the Bush Administration has done in the past six years". There's a limit to how politically effective stalling will be in that kind of situation.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

I would go straight on down to Speaker Pelosi. ;)

Most likely not, of course, as I mention. What I was pointing out, obviously clumsily, is that Bartlett is using the '94 takeover of Republicans to show that nothing dreadful will happen, when in fact, the '94 takeover led to impeachment. It is a very, very bad analogy. I believe you are right -- that Democrats are more sane than that, but as Bruce points out, you never know what you might find in this as of yet non-oversighted mess.

posted by: theCoach on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

The uncertain way is that a Democratic takeover gives Nancy Pelosi an effective veto over anything Bush wants/needs from the Congress.

If Pelosi continues the current Republican policy of requiring a majority of a majority to bring a bill up for a vote, that would be true. Barring that, the veto would rest with Steny Hoyer, since anything with support for both the president and Hoyer would almost certainly get enough support between Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats to pass.

posted by: Scott Smith on 10.18.06 at 10:27 AM [permalink]

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