4 Things You Should Know About the New Congress

Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images News

Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images News

The new session of the now-heavily Republican Congress has convened.

November’s midterm elections significantly reshaped the political makeup of both houses, giving the GOP a small majority in the Senate and a much larger presence in the House of Representatives. In this 114th Congress, 54 of 100 senators and 246 of 435 representatives will be Republican. While the party does not hold enough seats in the Senate to overturn a presidential veto, which Barack Obama has said he will use much more frequently this year, the 43 new Republican representatives who joined the House in early January give the party its largest majority since the Great Depression. For Republicans, capturing majorities in both houses for the first time since the 2005 through 2006 legislative period means GOP lawmakers now have to show constituents they are able to govern effectively. Currently, the approval rating of Congress stands at just 16%.  That rating is better than the all-time low of 9% recorded in late 2013 and marginally higher than the final, 14% rating, of the 113th Congress.

Cooperation is a key part of effective government, and poll data consistently shows that the American public sees the lack of an effective government the most concerning problem facing the United States. Over the past year, only a roughly 37% share — or even less, at times — of Americans have expressed satisfaction with the federal government, according to Gallup’s weekly measure. Gallup’s annual Mood of the Nation poll, conducted in the first week of the new year, provides a broader snapshot of how American citizens view the government, its efficiency, and its leadership. While this year’s figure is slightly about the 2014 results, the figure is still  staggering. The research firm has been measuring this sentiment since 2001, and last year’s result was the highest percentage of dissatisfaction on record.

Washington has promised not to “govern by crisis”

Republicans are attuned, at least in their rhetoric, to this dissatisfaction. “This election was not an endorsement of either party, it was a condemnation of, yes, the president’s policies, but also of government dysfunction,” Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo, who defeated a Democratic incumbent in Florida, told the Associated Press ahead of the new congressional session. “I hope we can be different. … I hope we focus on getting things done.” That sentiment is not constrained to the Republican party’s freshman class; in a separate press conference following the midterm elections, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and President Barack Obama acknowledged that the American public was disgusted by Washington’s habit of “governing by crises,” a phrase that dates back several years and refers to the practice of allowing policymaking to take place during a crisis manufactured by political partisanship and an impending fiscal deadline. The goal McConnell set for his new Republican Senate majority — “Don’t be scary” — is simple, yet it is also a pathetic indictment of Congress’s public image.

That slogan is being tested as Congress deals with the February 27 expiration of the short-term continuing resolution financing the Department of Homeland Security. The $1.1 trillion omnibus spending package, passed in the middle of December, funds the government through the end of next September — except for that department, which oversees key immigration agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services. Republicans chose to write a separate measure funding the Department of Homeland Security with a clear intention: gaining an edge in the battle over immigration reform. With the Republican’s Senate majority will be in place, the party will have a tool — unlike in December — to combat Obama’s much-despised unilateral order that defers deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants. By threatening to withhold funding for the Department of Homeland Security, Republicans can ensure that language blocking the deferred departments would be included as a rider.

Hopes for a functional Congress, of course, are far different than realities. While cooperation is ostensibly a top priority, there are items on the Republican agenda on which compromise with Democrats seems unlikely, as the debate over funding the Department of Homeland Security makes clear. And Obama and McConnell were both careful to add caveats to their promises to compromise. In post-election press conferences, each politician set out their limits; each pointed to the fact the other must move closer to the center. What was actually promised in the wake of November’s midterms was that lawmakers would make an effort to work together to find “what areas of agreement there are” and see if “some progress for the country” can be made, as McConnell noted. Agreements between Republicans and Democrats may be possible on overhauling the U.S. tax code, increasing infrastructure spending, and inking free trade treaties. But the tasks topping the Republican agenda are some of the most contentious issues in American politics. Responding to Obama’s unilateral decision to defer deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants and restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, approving the Keystone Pipeline and rolling back environmental regulations, and repealing the Affordable Care Act are key Republican missions. Lasting resentment over Obama’s choice to use executive action to pursue contentious policy changes unilaterally means Republicans want to fight the president on a range of issues.

These are the contentious issues on the Republican party’s agenda:


Public Opinion on the Affordable Care Act, December 2014

Health care: In an opinion editorial published in the immediate aftermath of November’s midterms, McConnell and newly re-elected Republican and House Speaker John Boehner, wrote the Republican leadership was “renewing [its] commitment to repeal ObamaCare.” A vote on a full repeal of the law has already taken place in the House, a vote that was largely symbolic because the Senate is unlikely to pass it, and Obama would surely veto such a bill if it reached his desk. Sill, Republicans do want to weaken the health care reform. Legislation has been proposed to make it easier for small businesses to avoid providing coverage to workers and to exempt companies from covering employees who work fewer than than 40 hours weekly — up from the current 30-hour cutoff.

Immigration: Not only have House Republicans made the funding of the Department of Homeland Security contingent on language derailing Obama’s executive action, but the House may advance legislation aimed at reforming U.S. immigration laws. The bill proposed by Republicans representatives will be very different from the Senate bill that failed to pass the House in 2013. That bill drew vast criticism for offering undocumented immigrants what conservatives call amnesty. By comparison, the legislation likely to be proposed in this current session of Congress will seek to strengthen border security and immigration laws while making immigration easier for high-skilled workers and farm laborers.

It is important to note that the funding bill passed the House, but it is not expected to be approved by the Senate or be signed into law. The Senate has taken up consideration of the bill three times, and three times it has been filibustered by Democrats, just as House GOP leaders expected. Boehner has claimed that “the House has done its job.” But by attaching the poison-pill riders to defund Obama’s immigration policy, House Republicans chose to take a political stand rather than moving the ball forward, thereby jeopardizing the operations of the 24,000-employee department that oversees border and airport security, the Secret Service, and a number of other important government programs. It can be argued that Obama himself also deserves blame for creating another legislative crises, but a CNN poll found that a slight majority, or 53%, of respondents would blame congressional Republicans if the Department of Homeland Security shuts down for lack of funding. Thirty percent say Obama would deserve blame, and 13 percent believe both would be responsible.

Budget: GOP lawmakers in the House want to balance the U.S. budget within the next 10 years, and while Senate Republicans have not committed to that timeline, the party’s leadership is committed to curbing federal spending. With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, GOP lawmakers will be able to use their power to pass or derail must-pass spending measures to fight Obama’s most-hated policies, most-notably business and anti-pollution regulations.

Keystone: Both the House and the Senate have passed legislation approving the Keystone Pipeline — a project the GOP says will create more jobs for American workers and lower energy costs. Of course, the White House has pledged several times to veto the Keystone XL Pipeline bill, and the actual impact it would have on both American job creation and energy costs is much debated. For example, a report from the United States Department of State shows 42,000 jobs would be created from the construction of this particular segment of the American pipeline. Of those, 3,900 would be in construction and 26,000 would be in the area of goods and services. After the pipeline is finished, only 35 employees would be needed as well as 15 temporary contractors.

But has Obama made the most of partisanship?

The wave of new Republicans serves as an inflection point in Obama’s presidency. He entered the White House with Democrat majorities in both the House and the Senate and his promise of political change at the forefront of the national consciousness. As political scientist Mark Schmitt noted, the 2008 Democratic primary was a test of the theory of change; Hillary Clinton presented Obama as naive, suggesting to the American electorate that she knew how to navigate the conflictual nature of American politics and could “work” for change, not just “hope” for it. By comparison, Obama promised to change politics by ending that tendency toward conflict. And Obama has indeed brought change: the health care reform law, the largest stimulus in American history, and the Dodd-Frank financial reforms were all passed under his guidance; his administration brought the Iraq war to a close and killed Osama bin Laden; and the president issued his infamous executive order on immigration. But as Reid Cherlin, a former White House press staffer, wrote in an article for Rolling Stone, the irony is that his administration has “managed over six years to accomplish much of what Obama promised to do, even if accomplishing it helped speed the process of partisan breakdown.”

Partisan breakdown is undoubtedly the key feature of American politicians, producing a massive victory for Republicans in the midterms. That leaves Obama beginning the final quarter of his presidency just as he “began several other chapters of his presidency: seeking to recover from disaster,” as NPR noted. One element of that recovery plan is putting aside the years of mistrust between Republicans and the White House. But that will be challenging. “To suddenly claim you’re going to work with members of Congress after years of ignoring them is rather ludicrous,” Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Speaker Boehner, said of Obama to Reuters. But McConnell is committed to making the GOP less scary to the American people. “I don’t want the American people to think that if they add a Republican president to a Republican Congress, that’s going to be a scary outcome. I want the American people to be comfortable with the fact that the Republican House and Senate is a responsible, right-of-center, governing majority,” he stated.

This is what the new Congress looks like:

The incoming congressional freshman will make Capitol Hill more gender and racially diverse than ever, with 104 women and nearly 100 black, Hispanic and Asian lawmakers in the House and the Senate. These new members of Congress include the youngest woman ever elected to the body, 30-year-old Elise Stefanik of New York, and the first black Republican woman, Mia Love of Utah. Not only will young lawmakers like Stefanik bring new blood to Congress, but she and Democrats Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who is 36, and Ruben Gallego of Arizona, who is 35, represent a new generation of Americans: the millennials. Of course, GOP lawmakers in the House and the Senate do remain overwhelmingly white and male, but patterns are shifting.

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