This weekend as millions of Americans head to the beach for one last blast of summer, campaign operatives across the country are getting ready for the traditional kick-off of their fall campaigns. What’s at stake? When it comes to Congress — not much.
Sure, it’s possible Republicans could gain control of the Senate, but there is virtually no chance of them losing the House — and as long as they control that body, the endemic dysfunction and disarray that has become the new normal in American politics will remain unchanged.
Actually that’s not completely true. It could get worse.
If the GOP were to take control of the Senate, we’d likely see even more political brinkmanship. For example, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened to place poison pill riders on spending bills. “We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board,” says the man who could become majority leader. Compromise is not in the cards. McConnell will likely follow the same path trod by House Republicans since they took control in 2010 — political blackmail in order to get their way.
That would mean a repeat of that which Americans have become all too inured to over the last three and half years — legislative showdowns, government shutdowns, and resolutions to these various crises that, in reality, resolve nothing. But there’s more. Americans would also be able to look forward to more investigations of the Obama White House (including the possibility of impeachment proceedings), more blocks on President Obama’s nominees (including, potentially, a Supreme Court nomination), more executive actions from a president completely handcuffed by Congress, and more presidential vetoes of GOP bills that are intended to make statements and not solve problems. So basically, the most likely options for what happens post-November are the continuation of a bad status quo or a slightly worse one.
If the House were in play, things could be different. But the nation’s growing political polarization makes that an unlikely event. Only a handful of seats are considered toss-ups. And for all the anti-incumbent attitudes among the electorate, polling indicates that while Americans want to see the bums in Washington get thrown out, a majority believes their member of Congress deserves to be reelected. In a presidential election cycle in which Democrats were motivated to head to the polls, a different result would be possible; but indifference — not excitement — is the watchword for Dems this year.
The GOP’s solid control of the House should, ideally, not matter as much as it does. There have been plenty of moments when different parties controlled Congress and the White House and, amazingly, legislation was actually passed.
But today American politics has become less of a bicameral democracy and more a parliamentary one, which means that voting along regional lines, or even parochially, has been replaced by straight party-line votes. Republicans, who are supported by uncompromising extremists, vote like uncompromising extremists — that is, when they can agree among themselves, which is increasingly difficult. Democrats follow in turn — and legislating becomes purely symbolic politicking, with no expectation on anyone’s part that bills will become law or that votes matter any more than how they can be spun by political opponents at the next election.
The one outlier this fall is gubernatorial races in places like Wisconsin, Florida, Maine, Kansas, and Pennsylvania, where voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on the Tea Party Republicans who won in the wave election of 2010. These ballots actually do matter because, increasingly, state houses — for better or for worse — are the only places in America where legislative democracy still seems to exist.
But on the national level, 2014 is merely a warm-up for 2016, when Democrats will be poised for bigger gains with the likely presence of Hillary Clinton on the presidential ticket. In the meantime, serious national challenges like growing income inequality, crumbling infrastructure, a tattered safety net, and the unresolved status of millions of undocumented immigrants (to name a few) will remain unaddressed. It’s hard to find much excitement in an election that will almost certainly guarantee two more years of nothing happening in Washington.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.