The 116th and the 117th Congresses: It’s bad but probably not as bad as you think

Josh Huder | December 3, 2020

Historic dysfunction may well be the credo of American politics in the 21st century. Congress appears hopelessly gridlocked. Pundits have run out of adjectives to describe the polarization plaguing American politics. And maybe worse, the mixed results of the 2020 Election defy easy analysis. The House Democratic majority lost seats, the Senate Republican majority also shrunk by at least one seat, and a sitting President was denied reelection, which is historically unusual in the modern era. After reviewing the last decade in American politics and the 2020 election, it’s not unfair to ask: when will the cycle of dysfunction finally come to an end?

Yet for all the lamenting of political dysfunction, the 116th Congress will end with a decent list of significant accomplishments. It created a new military service in Space Force, ratified the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, approved a massive 2-year budget deal, passed multiple rounds of COVID relief (another of which could come in the lame duck session) including the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, repealed the Affordable Care Act “Cadillac tax”, moved towards imminent reform of financial crime safeguards, impeached the President, passed large public lands legislation, and permanently extended the 9-11 victim’s compensation fund. In all, it was among the more successful “do-nothing” Congresses.

This kind of understated success is not uncommon. Even under strenuous conditions such as divided government and polarization, Congress governs more than many assume, and further, those laws tend to be enacted by large, bipartisan majorities. The bills that become law today have broad bipartisan support compared to Congresses of the 1970s. In other words, American politics is very divisive but lawmaking remains bipartisan. Of course, these scholars count oversight and not just legislation as evidence of congressional functionality, and the list of policy areas where reform is possible is narrower than in previous eras.

The implications are more than merely academic. The 117th Congress will likely feature split partisan control of the 117th Congress (pending runoff Senate elections in Georgia), with slim majorities in both chambers working with a Democratic administration. While many commentators have mocked President-Elect Biden as naïve for suggesting major bipartisan lawmaking is possible, it will be a requirement if members of Congress and President-Elect Biden wish to accomplish anything. So what should we expect of the 46th President and 117th Congress?

We’ll likely see some combination of gridlock and understated lawmaking. Divided control of government almost certainly eliminates major political goals like expanded healthcare coverage or a significant tax overhaul. Budget standoffs will probably continue into the 117th Congress. With the discretionary Budget Control Act caps expiring at the end of FY2021, Congress could return to routine budget and appropriations processes. However, recent trends under split congressional control casts doubt on either chamber’s ability to pass a budget resolution. Failing to adopt a budget resolution jeopardizes a normal appropriations process for FY2022, which could lead to long-term or even year-long continuing resolutions. It also likely clips the wings of future COVID relief packages. The historically large Democratic proposals of the 116th Congress will be pared down dramatically, if a future package is even considered necessary. While the pandemic requires salve fit for the injury, it is useful to remember that the Recovery Act for the Great Recession was a heavy legislative lift at $787 billion. Divided government raises the stakes of political standoffs, with fiscal policy differences between the parties taking center stage.

However, there are several areas where the understated lawmaking of the previous decade could flourish. Bipartisan issues like social media regulations, criminal justice reform, financial regulations, and more could be primed for reform under divided government. Additionally, under a Democratic President, Republicans may be more willing to address unilateral executive authorities like emergency declarations, appropriations transfers, reprogrammings, and dispersal, which could receive renewed attention after several years in which Congress’s power of the purse was repeatedly challenged. Good government reforms around protections for IGs, the Vacancies Act, and other personnel issues could garner support, while measures to strengthen congressional capacity may also get a serious look. The election has merged congressional partisan incentives with President-Elect Biden’s platform of renewed government competence. With split party control, it may be that government function and operation occupy more of Congress’s attention even if funding the government remains difficult.

Whether the Georgia Senate runoffs create divided or unified control of government, narrow congressional majorities ensure that lawmaking will have to be bipartisan. The worst fears of a nation that sees politicians where the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, will not come to pass. While pundits may scoff at the notion, and it rarely grabs attention in the media, bipartisan lawmaking often significantly alters government operations and programs even amid historic polarization. Add to it that this particular election has meshed partisan congressional incentives with the President-Elect’s rhetoric, and the 117th Congress may not be as “do nothing” as many assume.


Josh Huder is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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