Elections Matter

Matt Glassman | November 2, 2020

On Tuesday, the United States will hold its 117th biennial federal election to fill seats in the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as its 59th quadrennial election to fill the office of President of the United States. Representatives elected will serve in the 117th Congress, from January 3, 2021 until January 3, 2023; Senators elected will serve in the 117th, 118th, and 119th Congresses, from January 3, 2021 until January 3, 2027. The elected president will serve from January 20, 2021 until January 20, 2025.

How does this familiar structure of elections affect public policy and politics in Congress?

The most basic answer is the one most people intuitively understand: the election will change the composition of the federal government. New members of the House and Senate will have different views on public policy than the departing members they replace, and different priorities for the policy agenda in the 117th Congress. Retirements in both chambers will change the leaders of various committees. New partisan leaders may be elected by the caucuses and/or the chambers. If either chamber sees a change in partisan control, chamber rules will empower entirely different actors to set the agenda, in both committees and on the floor.

Similarly, the composition of the administration will change as well. If former Vice President Biden wins office, virtually the entire political staff in the White House will turnover, as well as some 4,000 executive branch posts that are filled by political appointees, ranging from foreign ambassadors to cabinet secretaries and deputies to lower level agency appointments in the Senior Executive Service. If President Trump wins reelection, there will be less administration turnover, but still more than in a typical three month period. The post-reelection period is a natural breakpoint in an administration, and a common spot for appointees to resign and new nominees to take their place, in addition to hinted administration changes.

Less obvious are several other ways the election will change public policy and politics in the coming months. First, the election resets the time horizon for political actors. With an election looming in the short-term, political actors will often prioritize strategies that reflect the imminent judgement of the voters. With the next election now as far away as possible, those same actors will have fewer concerns about short-term public opinion, giving them more flexibility in making policy compromises or in taking up agenda items that are either less popular or perhaps politically risky.

At the extreme, defeated members and those retiring at the end of the 116th Congress will have no electoral horizon. Freed from ever having to face the voters again, such members can often be recruited to cast votes during the lame duck congressional session in November and December for public policies they would not have backed before the election. Likewise, lame-duck presidents routinely issue lame duck pardons and urge the promulgation of agency rules that reflect a freedom from voter punishment.

The new time horizon alters the outlook for returning members of Congress as well. For example, in the Senate, members who have just won reelection now know they will not face the voters for six years, a political lifetime away, and a full Congress after the next presidential election. They will have maximum freedom from electoral concerns. Conversely, a new class of Senators will instantly be “in cycle,” and may adopt strategies that more closely resemble those of House members, actively focusing on campaign fundraising and increased state attentiveness.

Representatives will be contending with an additional hurdle as they look forward: the redistricting of congressional seats in 2022 subject to the 2020 census. Some members will find themselves suddenly running for districts that are much more liberal or conservative than the one they were elected from, in some cases increasing their probability of a primary challenge, in other cases making the general election much more ominous.

The most underrated impact of the election, however, is the effect it has on the outlook of all players in the political system. The election is a cataclysmic shock to the political system, one that provides a strong signal to everyone involved about what public policy choices will likely succeed or fail in the public sphere going forward. As everyone struggles to understand the meaning of the blunt vote results, elected officials will consider their public policy opportunities. Will new ideas likely be accepted now? Is it the right time for a bold initiative? Are the conditions now right for me to run for Senate, or President?

This becomes even more important for the non-elected actors, who greatly outnumber the elected officials. Executive branch political appointees, interest group leaders, lobbyists, financiers for the parties and candidates, party leaders, staffers, and even individual citizens will all be looking at the signal the election sends, altering their influence strategies. What policies will they push for (or not)? What candidates will they support? Who will they fund? Where will they expend their resources? How will they adjust their operational strategies?

Of course, none of these actors will sit idly by, waiting to receive the signal about what the election “meant.” Instead, most of them will actively try to shape the public meaning of the election, hoping to create optimal conditions for the policies they would like to pursue, the officials they would like to empower, and the future candidates they would like to see succeed. All of this sums to a massive policy fight in the public sphere, where actors who existed before and after the election must reassess their strengths, weaknesses, possibilities, and resources as they plan new strategies in the world created by the election.

As it does every two years, the disruptive nature of the election will rearrange the composition, time horizon, and political outlook of American politics. And while the voters will have their say at the ballot box, the consequences of those votes will be shaped by the continuous public sphere fight among all actors in the political system, as they struggle to understand, shape, and respond to the meaning of the election.

Matt Glassman is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute


Categories: Congressional Policy Issues, Congressional Update, Elections, Media Center, Revise & Extend, Updates