There's less than a month until the midterm elections, and, despite an uptick in Republican enthusiasm following the spectacle of the Kavanaugh nomination, it still seems likely that Democrats will capture control of at least one chamber of Congress. And as Election Day draws nearer, we can expect both parties to cast the stakes in increasingly apocalyptic terms. But what would a Democratic Congress actually mean for the future direction of the country?
First, despite the hopes or fears of both sides, we can forget about the big-ticket items on the Democratic left. We are not going to see single-payer health care, guaranteed jobs for everyone, or free college. While the loonier elements of the Democratic party have been campaigning on the idea of “Make Venezuela Great Again,” most of the party is united on little more than opposition to President Trump.
And, even if some of the more extreme Democratic proposals made it through the House, they would then have to face the Senate, which, as we all know, is where bills go to die. Republicans are still favorites to keep control of the Senate, however narrowly, and even if they don’t, the Democratic majority will be far short of the 60-seat threshold to break filibusters.
Moreover, even if the Democrats were able to kidnap Mitch McConnell and replace him with an accommodating clone, President Trump would still have the veto. After all, this is a president who thrives on “fighting.” What better way for him to excite his base than to turn every Democratic proposal into a dramatic showdown?
One exception to this, unfortunately, is liable to be increased spending and bigger deficits. While it is difficult to imagine a more spendthrift Congress than this one (spending is up 7 percent over last year, for instance, and next year’s deficit will top $1 trillion), but history suggests that the combination of a Democratic Congress and Republican president tends toward even greater profligacy.
Of course, once they are in the opposition, House Republicans might suddenly rediscover their opposition to big spending (it's surprising how that works), but I wouldn't hold my breath. Certainly, President Trump has shown no inclination to curb excessive spending. And some Democratic initiatives, like a gigantic infrastructure boondoggle, may be particularly appealing to this president.
A Democratic Congress may be able to slow President Trump's deregulatory efforts but won't be able to stop them. That's because, following the lead of his predecessors, he is accomplishing many of his goals through executive actions. Democrats will continue to learn that if you live by the pen and the phone, you die by the pen and the phone.
The one thing that a Democratic Congress can absolutely do is . . . make Donald Trump's life miserable. Impeachment is not going to happen, but a Democratic House would have investigatory and subpoena power. Elijah Cummings would likely become chairman of the Oversight Committee, Adam Schiff would take over at Intelligence, and Jerry Nadler at Judiciary. Consider it a full-employment opportunity for White House lawyers. From Russian collusion to emoluments to the myriad scandals of the Trump cabinet, administration officials can expect to spend so much time testifying before Congress that they might as well move cots into the halls of the Capitol.
The one thing a Democratic victory will definitely not do, unfortunately, is bring an end to the tribalism and polarization that is bedeviling American politics. With some 400 or so Democrats running for Congress, and Trump being Trump, we can expect the name-calling and nastiness to continue pretty much unabated.
Of course, elections have consequences, as we are so frequently reminded. But the reality is that the Founding Fathers designed an American system of government that is resistant to radical change. Whether you are demanding change or fear it, those consequences are likely to be far more modest than the rhetoric suggests.