By Lee H. Hamilton
Given all the words and images devoted to the midterm elections over the past few weeks, you’d think the results had told us something vital about the future of the country. In reality, they were just a curtain-raiser. It’s the next few weeks and months that really matter.
The big question, as the old Congress reconvenes and prepares to make way for next year’s version, is whether the two parties will work more closely together to move the country forward or instead lapse back into confrontation and deadlock. I suspect the answer will be a mix: modest progress on a few issues, but no major reforms.
Why might there be progress? The president wants to enhance his legacy. More politicians these days seem to prefer governing to posturing. The Republican Party may have won big in the elections, but it still cannot govern alone: it will need Democratic votes in the Senate and the cooperation of the president. And both parties want to demonstrate that they recognize they’re responsible for governing.
This is not to say that progress is inevitable. President Obama has made clear that he believes he must act to halt deportations of illegal immigrants, even if he does so without Congress; congressional Republicans say they consider unilateral action an act of war. Meanwhile, the new Republican Senate is almost certain to give the president’s nominees a hard time; while GOP senators are unlikely to want to appear too tough on Loretta Lynch, the nominee for attorney general, the gloves will almost certainly come off for nominees who must negotiate hearings after her.
In the end, 2015 will see a mix of small steps forward and backward. There’s little chance of a minimum wage increase and it’s unlikely the budget will be passed in an orderly and traditional manner. Similarly, significant and difficult issues like major entitlement and tax reform will prove hard to budge.
On the other hand, Congress can probably manage to avoid a government shutdown, and it faces decent prospects of expanding and protecting our energy boom, promoting fast-track trade authority, and funding key infrastructure needs.
Here’s the basic truth: divided government does not have to be dysfunctional. It can be made to work, and if incremental progress on small issues is the way to get started, then let’s hope Congress and the president pursue that course.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.