Opinion article

Trump's new wall? The challenges of a Democratic House

The US midterm elections delivered control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats with the Republicans hanging on to the Senate. John Pilbrow examines what a divided Congress may mean for the Trump presidency. 

Following last week’s midterm elections, President Donald Trump faces a new challenge: a divided Congress. For the first two years of his presidency, Trump has been buoyed by support from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Yet the Republican Party’s (GOP) loss of the House adds another dimension to policymaking under the watch of his turbulent administration. Bipartisanship and compromise appear to be as important, yet perhaps less likely, than ever.

With 10 House races yet to be called, the Democratic Party has achieved a net gain of at least 30 seats, enough to bestow the Speaker’s gavel back to Nancy Pelosi (assuming she retains the support of her party’s Caucus).

At the same time, however, the GOP has maintained its edge in the Senate, currently holding a 51-46 advantage with victors yet to be declared in three Sun Belt states. By consequence, for the first time since 1987, the United States will be governed by a Democratic House in combination with a Republican Senate and President.

This divide mirrors the political landscape faced by former President Barack Obama, when he and the Democratic Senate faced a hostile Republican House between 2011 and 2015. Trump will face a similarly belligerent House once the new Congress convenes on January 3rd.

Not only will Democrats gain legislative leverage, but also House Democrats will garner greater scope to scrutinise the President and the controversies surrounding his character, his election and his controversial administration thus far.

Of greatest concern to the President is impeachment, the potential for which is an enticing prospect to Democratic lawmakers. Already, many congressional representatives have indicated a desire to pursue this course of action. This would, of course be a somewhat risky move. Impeachment is a typically divisive endeavour – as evidenced by the impeachment, and subsequent trial, of President Clinton in the late-1990s – and one that precipitates hyper-partisanship and widespread public anger at Congress.

That said, deterring Democrats – whose support base can be considered militantly opposed to Trump – from such a move is unlikely in the present climate. Therefore, aside from closely watching their legislative priorities, one eye must remain focused on the Democrats’ resolve to remove Trump from the Oval Office.

Regarding the direction of the United States’ legislative agenda, an oppositional House will prove problematic for the Trump administration. As the saying goes, one must strike while the iron is hot or as the opportunity arises to guarantee the desired outcome. That opportunity, for Trump, was the favourable 115th Congress for the first two years of his presidency, where the GOP held majorities in both the House and Senate.

Trump certainly hit the ground running upon taking office to achieve crucial components of his 2016 campaign agenda. For instance, he initiated tighter immigration policies through executive action, while delivering his promised tax cuts through congressional collaboration in the form of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Yet, as is the case for so many presidents, the first two years are far and away the easiest.

Following the 2010 midterms, President Obama struggled to lobby for, and pass, his legislative agenda in a similar manner to how President Clinton’s agenda was hamstrung by the Republican House majority under Newt Gingrich following the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994.

The Democratic House, from the beginning of 2019, will become the greatest legislative hurdle of President Trump’s first term. Democrats will certainly impede further attempts to repeal Obamacare, while also limiting Trump’s ability to pursue immigration reform. More pressing, in many respects, however, will be negotiations between Democratic and Republican lawmakers – in combination with President Trump – regarding the passage of fiscal policy.

Thus far in 2018, the United States has witnessed two federal government shutdowns, with additional legislation required to fund the government beyond December 7, 2018 (without which, the government would, again, shutdown). Consider that these two, potentially three, shutdowns occurred when Republicans held sway in both legislative houses and the presidency. One can assume that a Democratic House will add yet another layer of complexity to budget negotiations, which could result in greater economic instability unless middle ground can be found.

Bipartisanship and compromise – two longstanding principles of liberal democratic governance – have begun to fade not only in the United States, but in the larger Western world. At a time when partisanship is ascendant, the greatest challenge facing President Trump, in leading and maintaining the world’s largest economy, is to foster common ground with his opposition.

A Democratic House might hamper aspects of the President’s agenda, yet it also presents an opportunity for his presidency to exceed the expectations of his supporters while defying those of his detractors.
About the authors

John Pilbrow

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John Pilbrow is a PhD candidate in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University. John is a political scientist and historian who researches elections in the United States and political discourse within the Republican Party. Currently, his research is focused upon historical electoral trends at US presidential elections and determining methods for regional and interstate comparisons.