US midterm elections reflect polarization as Republicans add Senate seats and Democrats control the House of Representatives.
By Susan Froetschel*
US voters dismissed fears of globalization, increased turnout for the midterm elections and handed Donald Trump a divided Congress as anticipated by many analysts.
Overcoming districting maps that favored Republicans, Democrats will control the House in January, while Republicans strengthened their control of the Senate. Campaigning for Republican candidates, Donald Trump advised voters to pretend that he was on the ballot, and the nation split as the midterms became a referendum on the president’s performance.
US foreign policy will not change overnight due to the executive branch’s special powers – including the ability to issue executive orders, make appointments, enter treaties and veto legislation. Voters called for a new direction from Washington that emphasizes social protections, scientific evidence and respect for human rights rather than tax-cuts and gimmicks, denial about a changing climate and disregard for regulations. Turnout of young adults was higher than in midterms of previous years, but still trails the percentage rate of older voters.
Congress remains divided. Party leadership in each chamber determines control of committees and, in turn, the legislation that moves forward and areas requiring investigation. The House must set priorities among the multitude of possibilities: Russian meddling in the US elections, the US military role in Syria and Yemen, murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, oversight of sanctions against North Korea and Iran, inhumane treatment of immigrants as well as egregious conflicts of interests between various Trump administration officials and Russia, Saudi Arabia and a range of industry leaders. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 US presidential campaign may draw more protection and attention. The House can perform its duty as a check on the US presidency.
Legislation requires approval of both chambers, and the US midterms decided all 435 seats of the House and 33 of 100 seats in the Senate. The House of Representatives with two-year terms reflects the popular mood. All bills for raising revenue originate in the House, per the Constitution. The number of House members assigned to each state varies depending on population, ranging from 53 for California and 32 for Texas to one each for seven states. The US Senate, with members serving six-year terms, provides more continuity: Terms last six years, and each state has two senators regardless of size. In addition to introducing and approving legislation, the Senate has the responsibility to provide advice and consent on treaties, which require two-thirds majority approval of all present, and major appointments with a simple majority. The House holds the power to initiate impeachment proceedings against officials, including the president, while the Senate adjudicates the House decision with removal of the impeached person requiring a two-thirds vote. No action will be taken in this area until Mueller concludes his investigation.
Congress will scrutinize Trump’s every move on the world stage, especially as he meets with the Russian president in mid-November and the Chinese president at the November 30 meeting of the world’s 20 largest economies.
A bigger worry may be patching relations with traditional allies like Canada and Europe. With a divided Congress, allies will continue to monitor trends, counting on their constituents to view the election outcome as a rejection of the two-year US test of populism, and temper similar movements in their own countries. The European Union could resist fragmentation, holding Trump at arm’s length until the administration regards that set of long-time allies as partners and demonstrates readiness to cooperate on shared concerns that include managing mass migration, preventing terrorism, reducing inequality, mitigating climate change, preserving social protections, and financing government policies.
Most US voters have come to realize the value of US cultural, economic and security connections with the rest of the world. Foreign companies hire almost 7 million US employees, up 22 percent from 2007. About half of sales of S&P 500 companies come from overseas, reports S&P Dow Jones Indices. Overall, US farmers export more than 20 percent of their products overseas – and more than half of all walnuts, cotton, almonds, sorghum, rice and soybeans. The US agriculture industry still maintains strong support for Trump – with losses for Democrats in Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri – due to subsidies, crop insurance and other policies that curtail open trade. Still, imports from China and other nations keep prices low and inflation at bay. Foreigners, led by China, also hold about half of the US public debt at low interest rates.
During the final days of the campaign, Trump rallied supporters by targeting immigration and a caravan of several thousand migrants that originated in Honduras. The United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world, reports the Pew Research Center, and immigrants account for 13.5 percent of the US population, or nearly triple the share in 1970. And while voters pointed to health care as a leading concern, the foreign-born represent more than 25 percent of the nation’s doctors.
About 40 percent of voters still support Trump policies, and many worry about jobs, complex technologies, competition, change and a loss of culture. Political leaders have their work cut out to ease so much anger. Social protections could help reduce fears, and the next set of leaders in the House will likely focus on domestic issues like health care, education, job training, and retirement security and other social protections while countering the Trump agenda. Such work, though, is of little consequence if voters perceive that the protections are quick fixes and unreliable. Such programs become sustainable only if Democrats become the party of efficiency and fiscal responsibility.
US public debt stands at $21 trillion. Rising interest rates reduce money for projects favored by Republicans and Democrats, and that contributes to polarization. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts that the public debt will be 100 percent of GDP by 2028. “Lawmakers would have less flexibility to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges,” notes the Congressional Budget Office. “The likelihood of a fiscal crisis in the United States would increase.” Deficit spending and rising interest rates challenge US ability to save and invest in new programs. Trump and the Democratic-controlled House will test one another when the debt ceiling must be lifted in spring of 2019.
Democrats must use all tools of analysis and persuasion to convince constituents that their proposals can result in savings – whether preparing for climate change with conservation and a gradual shift to renewable energies or reducing immigration pressure by encouraging strategic foreign aid, family planning, education and development. Trump has relied on separation of families and a military approach, dispatching 15,000 troops to the US border with Mexico to greet the caravan. History suggests such military interventions contributed to a legacy of poverty and violence motivating Central Americans to flee their homes. For example, the US supported military interventions in Honduras to support plantation owners in the early 20th century and established joint US-Honduran programs for combatting Nicaragua Contra rebels in the 1980s.
The president, ever eager to gain attention, could present distractions including military attacks. Crafting US policies, though, he will find few willing partners among allies who must worry about their own domestic affairs and constituents. Or, Trump, who does not seem to have any core ideological belief, could yet surprise Democrats in Congress, already suggesting in one television interview that he regrets his tone. By moderating tone and working with Democrats on immigration reform, trade limits or infrastructure investment, he could argue that cooperation was part of his plan all along to make America great again.
*Susan Froetschel is editor of YaleGlobal Online.