trump congress
Credit: The White House/flickr

Charlie Cook makes a rather obvious point that under any reasonably likely midterm elections scenario, the next Congress is going to be weak, fractured, and legislatively ineffectual. But I think he underplays how much can change depending on the results.

In the House, it’s possible that the Republicans will maintain their majority, but if they do it will probably be a very slim one. They have a 24 seat cushion to work with and they’re almost a lock to lose 20 seats. As things stand right now, Speaker Ryan doesn’t have the ability to reliably pass his priority legislative items or to resist internal revolts. He’s not running for reelection, and it’s hard not to conclude that his decision to retire was informed by his awareness that even a good election night for his party will leave the House ungovernable. Still, the smallest amount of change will come if the GOP keeps its House majority, however small, and retains its hold on the committee chairs.  Even in that weakened condition, they could protect the president from investigations, subpoenas, and possible impeachment. And they’d still be able to craft the must-pass legislation even if they’d be more reliant on Democratic votes than ever to get the basic things done.

If the Republicans lose their majority, it’s likely that the Democrats will win a majority by only a handful or two of seats. The biggest thumping House Republicans have taken in a midterm election since the Watergate era is the 30 seats they lost in 2006.  That won’t leave much room to allow defections on controversial legislation from freshman Democrats representing previously red seats.  Of course, with the Senate’s legislative filibuster and the president’s veto, a Democratic House isn’t going to be making much law in any case. It’s the law they have to make that is going to matter. They’ll be able to craft the appropriations, and even after making concessions to the Senate Republicans and the administration, that will have a big impact on how the government is ultimately funded.

Over in the Senate, the scenario is different but similar in many respects. Cook says that the best outcome the Democrats can possibly hope for is a net gain of three seats, which would give them a 52-48 majority that is far short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a legislative filibuster or the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto. I’d argue that that Democrats might be able to get to 53 or even 54 seats, but I concede those outcomes are highly unlikely. They’d depend on every incumbent winning. They’d also depend on the Democrats winning in places like Tennessee, Texas, and perhaps Nebraska or Mississippi.  I wouldn’t put a lot of money on those scenarios even if they aren’t outside the realm of possibility.

It’s doubtful that an extra seat or two will matter much one way or the other. As in the House, the biggest change would come simply from the Democrats gaining control of the committee chairs and the agenda.  This is a much bigger deal in the Senate than in the House however because it’s the Senate that has the responsibility for vetting and confirming the administration’s appointments.  Trump has been filling up the federal courts with unqualified and extreme justices at an amazing clip, and that would stop immediately. Not only could the Democrats reject any judicial nominee they didn’t like, but they could slow-walk the process down to a crawl.  They’d also be able to stop unqualified and radical appointments to the executive branch, so we would not be seeing more people like Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos getting confirmed as bureau and department heads. Trump would also be more reluctant to fire people who are doing their jobs competently out of concern that the Democrats would have a veto over their potential replacements.

The number one thing that would change with the Democrats in control of either or both chambers on Congress is that they’d be able to hold committee hearings, call experts, issue subpoenas and compel testimony. This would obviously matter for the Russia investigation and any possibly impeachment, but it would also matter for highlighting the high level of incompetence and corruption we’re seeing across the board from the Trump administration. The Democrats could explore emoluments and stop Trump from using his hotels and golf courses as destinations for everyone on the globe who wants to influence the U.S. government.  They’d be able to put a real spotlight on some of the scandals we’ve seen like Pruitt’s soundproof security booth for his personal office and Ben Carson’s fancy dining room set.

They could get conversations started on party base priorities like the behavior of ICE or climate change, and they’d be able to explore things that are weighing on the general public’s mind like possible ways to address the too common occurrence of mass shootings, including in our public schools.

Assuming the Trump administration could function or even exist in this new type of environment, they’d be compelled to seek out some bipartisan projects. An infrastructure bill would become low-hanging fruit for them, and it’s likely that some kind of deal on DACA would be made if it is still unresolved by then.

As for consequences, there’s at least one more thing to consider. I don’t like how Charlie Cook put this, but it’s still something to think about:

Under the best case for Democrats, it’s hard to see how they could move much legislation with a small majority, especially if they decide to pursue an agenda of investigations and impeachment. We could easily see Democrats doing their own variations of what the GOP did towards the end of the Obama administration: a majority, unable to do a whole lot, wasting time investigating Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails.

I don’t think the Democrats will waste people’s time with anything comparable to the Benghazi investigations, but those investigations badly hurt Hillary Clinton’s reputation simply by their reiterative and accusatory insinuations. I’d like to think that actual substantive investigations can be even more damaging to a presidential candidates’ chances, and it seems like a safe bet that a Democratic Congress will be able to raise a lot of doubt about Trump’s suitability for reelection.

So, I agree that we shouldn’t expect the midterms to break our gridlocked politics or to result in some burst of legislative activity, but the outcome still will matter greatly in a wide array of areas. The worst outcome would give us the status quo. If the Democrats fail to take either chamber of Congress, it will ratify everything Trump and the Republicans have been doing and convince them there is virtually no outrage they can commit that will cause them substantial political pain. That will be consequential, too.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at