The 2018 Midterms and Implications for Policymaking in the 116th Congress

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As many expected, the 2018 midterm elections delivered Americans a divided 116th Congress, but what this means for policymaking as we approach the 2020 presidential election remains uncertain.

Whereas the 2016 election came with its fair share of surprises, the 2018 midterm results proved to be decidedly predictable. As expected, Democrats regained control of the US House of Representatives while Republicans retained control of the US Senate.

All 435 members of the US House of Representatives were on the ballot in November. In the outgoing Congress, Republicans hold 235 seats, Democrats have 193 seats, and 7 seats are vacant, meaning that Democrats had to gain 23 seats in order to regain control of the chamber in January. FiveThirtyEight's default election forecast projected that the Democrats would pick up an average of 39 seats in the US House of Representatives; as of this blog post, Democrats have gained a net 40 seats, with Republican incumbent David Valadao (CA-21) conceding in his reelection race to Democratic challenger T.J. Cox on December 6. Democrats have thus regained control of the House, flipping the chamber after eight years of Republican control.

Across Capitol Hill in the US Senate, the stars aligned fairly differently for Democrats in the upper chamber. Of the 35 Senate seats on the 2018 election ballot, 26 were held by Democrats or senators who caucus with the Democrats; Republicans held only nine. As the Senate consists of 51 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and 2 independents (who caucus with the Democrats) in the 115th Congress, Democrats needed to successfully defend all 26 of those seats and flip two of the nine held by Republicans in order to take control of the chamber. Complicating things further was the fact that many Democratic incumbents were running in traditionally Republican states that President Trump won in 2016. As a result, FiveThirtyEight projected that Republicans would maintain control of the Senate and maybe pick up a seat or two. In reality, they picked up two additional seats, strengthening their Senate majority.

What the midterm results lack in shock value, though, they make up for in record-setting statistics. Approximately 116 million Americans cast ballots on November 6, which is the highest voter turnout of any nonpresidential election in history. And in what some have described as a "pink wave," the 2018 midterm election was a historic cycle for female candidates. A record 256 women ran for Congress, and a record 116 won; in fact, women won more than 60 percent of the seats Democrats flipped in the House. The 116th Congress will comprise a fairly large freshman class (101 in the House and 10 in the Senate), half of whom have never held an elected office.

So, what does Democratic control of the House and Republican control of the Senate mean for policymaking?

On its face—and in a political climate viewed as highly partisan—it may appear that a divided Congress will chill policymaking even further. However, while all predictions are purely speculative, the 2020 election may prove to be a motivating factor for both parties to reach agreements on at least some major issues. Consider, for example, that in 2020 the Senate election map virtually flips in terms of fortune—Senate Republicans will be forced to defend nearly twice the number of seats as their Democratic colleagues. And while many of those seats are in traditionally red states, 2020 is a presidential election year, which typically spells higher Democratic voter turnout. Therefore, Senate Democrats will likely be aggressive in their efforts to regain control of the chamber, and Senate Republicans will be equally motivated to look for ways to fend them off. Both will thus be eager to accumulate at least some achievements to tout on the campaign trail.

This, combined with the fact that President Trump may well be on the lookout for legislative accomplishments of his own ahead of a possible reelection bid, may prompt some cooperation across party lines. Infrastructure is often cited as the primary area for such cooperation, given that both the President and Congressional Democrats have long identified it as a priority and that Congressional Republicans may see a bill in this area as a way to help their "purple state" candidates. Trade is another area where a significant number of Congressional Democrats may find at least some common ground with the Trump Administration, although the President might have to work hard to bring along Congressional Republicans in such a scenario. And while immigration has been a major flashpoint between the parties since the start of the Trump Administration, a deal in which border wall funding—a major Trump priority—is traded for permanent protection for DREAMers (i.e., undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children)—a major Democratic priority—may now once again be viable with the midterms behind us and a possible Trump reelection campaign still months away.

Perhaps the only sure thing at this point in time, however, is a major increase in investigation activity in the House. One party regaining control of the House of Representatives while the opposite party controls the White House would normally mean an uptick in oversight of the administration. The polarized environment we find ourselves in today, though, likely means that an even greater number of committee chairs will decide to actively exercise their investigative authority than what we've seen in analogous situations in the past.

To quote our friends in the financial services field, "Past performance does not guarantee future results," so we will have to see how the various speculations bear out in the coming year. As always, EDUCAUSE will be sure to keep members apprised of actual developments as they occur.

Kathryn Branson is an associate with Ulman Public Policy.

© 2018 Kathryn Branson. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.