BIPP: A “Blue Wave” may have taken back the House, but what will it mean for policy?

Annie Maley, BIPP Intern

Over a year ago, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, the Affordable Care Act nearly breathed its final breath. However, in a shocking and unprecedented maverick vote by Senator John McCain, the repeal of the law failed. With Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, it seemed inevitable that Obamacare would be repealed sometime within President Donald Trump’s time in office. Now, a year and a half later, Democrats have taken back the House and essentially guaranteed the security of much of the legislation passed under former President Barack Obama. While old Democratically supported legislation may be temporarily safe, what does this split Congress mean for new bills?

American politics is amidst a wave of sharp political polarization and siding with the opposite party on any issue can mean immediate defeat in the following election cycle. However, not all hope is lost for passing bipartisan legislation. In the past year, several pieces of legislation have been passed on important issues such as the opioid crisis and the defense budget with widespread support from both major parties. Although this support does seem promising, it is important to note that this cooperation occurred during a Republican held majority in both chambers of Congress. The disparity of power between the Republicans and the Democrats forced Democratic cooperation on some issues. Now that they have taken control of the House, history has shown that the likelihood of cooperation is low.

The last time there was a Republican president, a Republican-controlled Senate, and a Democratic-controlled House was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. According to GovTrack, the 97th Congress during the first year of his presidency passed 529 laws—a steep drop off from the 736 bills based by the previous Congress. The main difference between the two? The 96th Congress had a government comprised of a Democratic House, Senate, and president. The 97th Congress contrastingly had a split congress with a Republican president. It is also important to note the 97th Congress under Reagan is just one of many instances where a split Congress was much less efficient than the partisan Congress preceding it. However, looking ahead to this January and the beginning of the 116th Congress, it is beginning to seem that the House and Senate may be more gridlocked than ever before.

Since the 1990s, there has been a drop in the number of bills passed by Congress. In recent years, the number of laws passed has gone from 604 between 1999 and 2000 to a mere 296 between 2013 and 2015. Given this current downward trend in legislative productivity, combined with the fact that the United States is staunchly divided, it is only logical that a significant drop in congressional efficiency will take place. Furthermore, the added pressure on Democrats to reject Trump’s agenda going into the 2020 election suggests that they will have even less incentive to cooperate with Republicans on legislative issues. It would appear that due to the trends in divisions, lack of productivity and competitive election cycles, the 116th Congress could be one of the least efficient in history.

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