Three dynamics to watch in the 117th Congress

Matt Glassman | February 1, 2021

The 117th Congress began in earnest on January 20th with the swearing-in of President Biden. Here are three political dynamics to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

Party government vs. bipartisanship. The 117th Congress begins with the Democrats having majorities in both the House and Senate. This makes President Biden the fifth President in a row to begin his term in office under unified party control. And it gives the Democrats options as they consider their early agenda items: make policy concessions in the hopes of gaining support from some Republicans in Congress or try to pass more liberal policies with only support from Democratic members.

While these past administrations all engaged in the rhetoric of bipartisanship and made some initial efforts at compromise, their signature policies mostly reflected attempts at party government. Some of these attempts were successful: The Bush tax cuts of 2001, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and Affordable Care Act under President Obama, and the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act under President Trump. Others were failures, most notably the 1993 Clinton health care reform efforts, and the 2017 attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

President Biden and congressional Democrats appear to be planning for multiple contingencies. Biden’s long career in the Senate, reputation as a dealmaker, and election promises to lower the partisan temperature in Washington suggest he is both inclined and incentivized toward at least attempting to reach bipartisan deals on early legislation. At the same time, many congressional Democrats perceive this to be a fool’s errand in the current partisan climate, unlikely to draw any Republican votes regardless of what overtures or concessions are made.

An early test will be the new COVID relief bill, a policy area where bipartisanship seems at least plausible. President Biden has proposed a $1.9T plan and appears at least somewhat open to negotiating provisions rightward in the hopes of getting a large bipartisan majority. At the same time, preparations are already being made to quickly produce a budget resolution that would allow use of the reconciliation process to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate and allow Democrats to pass a party-line measure.

Narrow partisan majorities and internal party disagreement. The unified Democratic majority in Congress is extremely narrow. Democrats have a 221-211 advantage in the House, and Senate control is evenly divided 50-50 (with Democrats in control due to their control of the Vice Presidency). Somewhat paradoxically, this makes Democratic attempts at party government both more likely and less likely to succeed.

While this may seem counterintuitive, neither party has as much incentive to compromise as they would if the majorities were larger. Start with Democrats: in order to overcome the now-routine minority filibusters in the Senate (on, say, the COVID bill), Democrats would need to attract Republican votes for their legislation. If Democrats held 58 seats in the Senate, they might be able to pick off a few moderate Republicans to end debate, as they did in 2009 for ARRA; with only 50 seats, however, they will need at least 10 Republican votes, which essentially means negotiating a truly bipartisan package. Many Democrats may prefer to opt for the reconciliation process, and just try to pass a partisan package with 50 votes.

Likewise, Republicans have less incentive to compromise when the chamber majorities are this narrow. As political scientist Frances Lee has shown, periods of close party competition tend to produce more partisanship in Congress. If partisan minorities don’t have any expectation of regaining control of the chamber in the next election, they will be more willing to negotiate on policy, hoping to move legislation their direction and not worried about giving the majority public victories. A minority party with its eyes on winning control of the chamber, however, has the opposite incentive. By refusing to cooperate at all, they can either deny the majority passage of its policy program or force them to be passed on party-line votes. In either case, the minority gains a rhetorical argument for the next election, that the majority is either ineffective or too partisan.

These dynamics are exacerbated by divisions within the majority party. Like the House and Senate Republican majorities of the 115th Congress, the current Democratic majorities are not particularly unified. Party polarization has increased the ideological distance between the two parties, but it has not created two parties that are ideologically-uniform internally. While Democrats were largely united in their opposition to President Trump, as a governing majority they hold diverse views, ranging from strong progressives who now openly describe themselves as democratic socialists, to conservative moderates who hold office in districts Trump won in both 2016 and 2020. Crafting legislation that gets 218 Democratic votes in the House will itself be difficult; trying to build bipartisan legislation to attract a dozen GOP Senate votes endangers losing the votes of the left-wing of the Democratic party in the House.

Presidential leadership and presidential reform. One of the key congressional dynamics of the Trump presidency was a lack of White House legislative leadership. Unlike most modern administrations, Trump largely ceded both agenda control and the details of policy provisions to Republican congressional leaders. This was particularly apparent during unified Republican control in the 115th Congress. GOP leaders set an agenda that included many Republican priorities—ACA repeal, tax cuts, business deregulation—but famously never brought up key components of Trump’s campaign, never holding a vote on trade restrictions or a border wall. Negotiations on both ACA repeal and the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act were largely centered at the Capitol, not the White House.

Every indication is that President Biden will return to the practice of previous administrations and take on the role of legislator-in-chief. The rollout of his COVID plan underscores this return of White House centered policy-making for Congress. Input from Hill Democrats shaped its design, but the plan is unquestionably an administration policy proposal. The president’s team developed the policy, gathered support from interest groups and other stakeholders, and had Biden himself roll out the proposal publicly. Every expectation, both in the White House and on the Hill, is that the administration will be a strong player in both the negotiations and the procedural strategy for the legislation.

On a second dimension of presidential-congressional relations, however, the Biden administration may have more continuities with the Trump White House. Like Presidents Bush and Obama, Trump continued the expansion of presidential power in the post 9/11 era, and in many ways greatly enhanced it. While Trump took some executive actions that were arguably unprecedented, he perhaps more importantly regularized the use of many combative tools in executive-congressional relations, such as the use of acting officials under the vacancy reform act, the refusal to respond to congressional subpoenas, the aggressive stretching of statutory power for national emergencies and trade regulation, the firing of Inspectors General, and the blurring of lines between official activities and campaign events.

Democrats in Congress passed a large reform bill last Congress to address many of these concerns of executive aggrandizement and seek to do so again in the 117th Congress. President Biden, however, has not indicated public support for the measure. Regardless of party or past criticisms they have lodged, presidents are usually hostile to encroachments on executive power or the repeal of statutory presidential authority. Whether congressional Democrats make a serious attempt to move on reform legislation will depend on Biden’s willingness to restrict his own authority, Democrats’ willingness to hamstring their own president, and potentially Republicans’ willingness to restrict the authority of future GOP presidents in order to provide a congressional supermajority that could legislatively reform the presidency without Biden’s consent.

Matt Glassman is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute


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