116th Congress: Most Partisan in History Gridlock or Compromise?

Noe Garcia

What to expect from a Democratic majority in the House, and what relationship will develop between House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and the Republican White House.

Co-authored by Jeff Berkowitz, CEO, Delve and Noe Garcia, Executive Vice President, Signal Group.

  • The 116th Congress will be the most partisan Congress in our nation’s history.
  • While many believe this will be the end of policymaking for the foreseeable future, partisanship and compromise can occur at the same time.
  • The partisan extremes will focus on messaging; the solutions-focused Members will focus on policymaking.
  • The new majority’s agenda will have two components: (1) messaging to the base and (2) legislation that can bring bipartisan support; the latter will have a real opportunity to make it to the President’s desk.
  • Despite the partisan noise, this Congress will be an opportunity to move an agenda for those that are willing to look beyond messaging and focus on policymaking.

With all the ballots cast in the midterm election and most of the results finalized, it’s important to examine what this election means, what to expect from a new Democratic majority in the House, and what relationship will develop between House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and the Republican White House.

One of the more interesting and least talked about products of this election is the staggering increase in the number of partisan policymakers in the upcoming 116th Congress. In fact, when the new Speaker takes the glavel in the House of Representatives this January, he or she will be presiding over the most partisan group in the history of Congress as illustrated by an analysis of data of party and non-party spending . It’s a reflection of the voters who elected them that are more ideologically divided than ever before.

The lazy analyst will inevitably view this new reality as proof that the legislative process is dead and that gridlock and partisanship will hold the government hostage for the foreseeable future. While this narrative may be broadly adopted, we strongly believe that the new landscape will continue to allow for real policymaking and that advancing legislation will occur despite the increased partisanship.

While it may surprise some, partisanship and compromise can (and will) happen on a parallel track. The partisan extremes usually stay on their ends of the political spectrum and message around issues important to the base. They may contribute to the debate, but they are not driving (or interested in driving) the agenda that gets signed into law.

At the same time, others will move quietly to find compromise, negotiate, and advance legislation despite the politically complicated landscape of the new Congress. It’s not that the negotiating table will disappear under the new political landscape, but there will certainly be fewer seats at that table; strong partisans are not likely to be in the room and decisions will be made by those who are focused on getting bills signed into law, not those that see the debate as the end result. Those at the table will become increasingly more influential within the legislative process, despite the lack of media attention, which will be focused on their more partisan colleagues.

Recent history holds ample precedent. 1994’s Republican Revolution ushered a class of high-octane partisans into power in both chambers, a midterm reaction to Bill Clinton’s Democratic White House. Despite two well-publicized government shutdowns in 1995, the quiet, workmanlike efforts of some Democrats and Republicans produced an impressive slate of policy achievements:

  • Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (Welfare Reform)
  • Gun Ban for Domestic Violence Offenders
  • Taxpayer Bill of Rights 2
  • Telecommunications Act of 1996
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)

2013 provides an inverted example of our present political moment: an embattled Democratic Party, led by Barack Obama and Harry Reid, controlled the White House and Senate, while Tea Party Republicans held sway in the House. Much was made of the partisan intransigence leading to that year’s government shutdown. However, as in 1995, less attention was paid to important legislation successfully passed by compromisers on both sides of the aisle:

  • National Defense Authorization Act
  • 2014 Farm Bill
  • Loan Support for Ukraine after the Invasion of Crimea
  • Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2014
  • Veterans Health Administration Reform
  • Anti-Sex Trafficking Provisions
  • American Savings Promotion Act

Of course, the new Democratic majority in the House will bring forward an agenda that parrots the themes for their successful campaign effort, which will include:

  • Immigration (Dreamers and Family Reunification)
  • Student Loan Debt
  • Climate Change (Paris Climate Accord)
  • LGBTQ Bill of Rights
  • Unwinding the President’s Executive Actions Around the Environment
  • Consumer Protections

These will be loud debates that will provide opportunities for both sides of the political spectrum to message towards their base in advance of the 2020 election. While these debates will be prominently featured in the press, they are unlikely to see the light of day in the Senate and will never get close to the President’s desk for signature.

The more important agenda to focus on, which may not be mentioned above the fold, is the one that will find compromise within this new partisan landscape. This will include:

  • FY 2020 Appropriations
  • An Infrastructure Package
  • Drug Prices
  • Middle Class Tax Cuts
  • Privacy
  • Stabilization of Healthcare Policy
  • USMCA implementation language
  • The Farm Bill (if not completed this year)
  • National Defense Authorization Act
  • Intelligence Authorization Act

For those whose goal is more policymaking than messaging, there will be opportunities to make a significant policy impact within these policy sectors. Both the President and the Democrats have expressed an interest in these issues and they both have a political incentive to govern and not walk into the 2020 election blamed for the partisanship. Even in the most divisive of times, there will always be leaders who are seeking compromise and the 116th Congress could prove to be the stage for these politicians.