March 14, 2019

What to Expect From A Divided Congress

If the recent, record-setting partial government shutdown is any indication, it may prove difficult to achieve much in the way of policy substance during the 116th Congress. Despite President Donald Trump’s call for an end to the “political stalemate” in his State of the Union, there is likely little chance of that happening in advance of the 2020 elections.

President Trump faces a divided Congress—in which the House and Senate are controlled by different parties—a phenomenon that occurs less frequently than one might think. In the 230 years since George Washington first took the oath of office, Congress has been divided just 44 of those years.

Historically, a divided Congress has produced a unique brand of conflict. A brief examination of several past examples may foreshadow the strategy of the House Democrats over the next two years. Twice before, in 1890 and 1910, Democratic majorities in the House were effective in blocking the Republican agenda and producing presidential victories for their party in the ensuing elections. Benjamin Harrison was ousted by Grover Cleveland in 1892 and Woodrow Wilson upended William Howard Taft in 1912.

Based on this obstructionist model, the House Democrats have very little incentive to grant President Trump any significant legislative victories prior to the 2020 elections. If Democrats can successfully neutralize President Trump’s agenda, they stand a greater likelihood of retaking the White House (and possibly the Senate) in 2021. For this reason, House Democrats are unlikely to accept any legislative proposals that contain less than their full policy objectives.

But beyond seeking to thwart President Trump at his every turn, House Democrats may also employ another strategy used by the Republican Party when they wrested control of the House in 1858. With the presidency of James Buchanan already under intense public scrutiny, House Republicans immediately began investigating alleged wrongdoings of Buchanan and his administration, which included bribery and patronage.

While House Republicans were not able to uncover enough evidence to impeach Buchanan, they inflicted enough damage to pave the way for Abraham Lincoln’s victory in 1860. Likewise, while the House Democrats of today may not have the power to push their agenda past the Republican-held Senate, they certainly possess the authority to investigate President Trump, and may do everything they can to undermine his bid for reelection in 2020.

In what is shaping up to be a contentious political environment over the next two years, the question becomes: will there be any windows of opportunity to achieve legislative success on issues of importance to agriculture and Western Growers members?

The short answer is… possibly.

The truth is, Democrats and the President have similar motivation to work together (at least in some areas)—they need to get reelected. Contrary to public perception, Democrats won the House not on a wave of leftists in the mold of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, but because they took a number of purple districts, like those in the rural Central Valley of California. It is here, in these mixed rural and suburban districts, where Democrats need to see some bipartisan success to maintain control of their seats.

So let’s identify three policy areas where we might see some compromise in the 2019-2020 legislative session.

First, and most obvious, is infrastructure. President Trump notably ran hard on infrastructure during his 2016 campaign, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised to deliver a “transformational investment in America’s infrastructure,” and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has committed itself to producing a $500 billion package for highways and transit, plus additional funding for airports and water projects. All of this points to fertile grounds for consensus, which could be good news for farmers. In addition to critical help on the transportation front, we may be able to use this opportunity to secure funding for much-needed water infrastructure in the West.

Secondly, and one less expedient for Democrats, is trade. Both on the election trail and while in office, President Trump has aggressively pushed his trade agenda. Undoubtedly, his tariff showdown with China will soon come to a head, and Congress still needs to grapple with ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Success on either front would grant President Trump a significant political victory and momentum heading into the 2020 elections. Here, Democrats may try to thread the needle between outright concession and full obstruction, the latter of which could lead to long-term devastating impacts on industries like agriculture (and the loss of those all-important purple districts). In light of these dynamics, it seems that some progress on trade will have to be achieved, even if the President gets most of the credit.

Finally, and perhaps the widest gap to close, is immigration. With President Trump’s emphasis on border security and interior enforcement, and the Democrats’ focus on a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, it is difficult to imagine a solution to the present impasse. While Democrats may stand to gain more by denying President Trump a political win, there may, in fact, be a narrow opportunity to cut a “grand bargain” on immigration reform, and we will be ready to push our solution for agriculture should that situation arise.

Ag immigration legislation will have to begin in the House and lean to the left. Hopefully, it will be taken up in the Senate with a version leaning right. Conferences are where the differences are negotiated with a goal of bipartisan legislative reform that the President can and will support.

If history is any guide, we are likely in for a period of political dysfunction, and we don’t have to look very far back in the rearview mirror. Recall the gridlock that mired D.C. when Republicans controlled the House and Democrats held the Senate and White House from 2011 through 2014. During those two Congresses, fewer laws were enacted than at any other time in modern history. While Democrats may now follow suit and operate in resistance mode, we will be engaged wherever common ground on our issues can be found.