Editor’s note: Terry F. Buss, PhD, is a professor emeritus and fellow at the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration.
Yesterday, Americans sent mixed signals in midterm elections about President Donald Trump’s performance over his two years in office. Congressional House of Representatives flipped from control of Trump’s Republican Party to the Democrats. The Senate remained in control of the Republicans.
What does this portend for Trump’s agenda over the next two years? Four things: (1) a win in appointing federal judges despite Democrat opposition; (2) substantial gridlock in passing any Trump or Democratic legislation through Congress; (3) near total obstruction of Trump’s ability to govern; and (4) efforts by Trump to bypass Congress, and increase his executive powers, perhaps illegally.
Judicial appointments, including those on the Supreme Court, by Trump are much more likely to prevail in defending challenges to his authority or decisions by Democrats and advocacy groups. The Senate must concur on Trump judicial appointments, and it has more than enough Republican support to prevail.
Under President Barack Obama, Democrats controlled the courts, protecting his policies from being overturned. Trump, using the Republican Senate judiciously, has effectively begun to replace Democrat judges with Republic-leaning ones.
Legislation originating in the Democrat House will be blocked in the Republican Senate, and Republican legislation will be obstructed in turn. Trump’s Congress, controlled by Republicans, was the least productive in US history.
Congress is likely to show meagre results, having been unable to compromise during 8 years under Obama and 2 years under Trump. It is easier to block opponents, but nearly impossible to compromise. Many Democrats ran in the midterms on issues like free health care, university education, and housing, and other far-left issues. No Republican could ever agree to these.
To make matters worse, numerous Congressional Democrats are now aggressively running for president to replace Trump in 2020 elections. They are using Congress as a media platform for their campaigns. Congress has turned into a media show rather than a legislative body.
The Democrat House has the power, and inclination, to obstruct decisions, authorities and policies pursued by Trump to thwart him in running government. Democrats have announced their intent to launch criminal investigations, aggressively monitor the administration, and ultimately impeach Trump for criminal behavior. The Republican Senate can protect Trump on impeachment, but not much else. Democrats want to divert Trump’s attention from governing.
House Democrats will try to rebuild Obama’s failing national health care program, their party’s major midterm issue. They have failed over the past decade and will not likely succeed.
Democrats will reverse Trump’s income tax cuts. They will not use these taxes to reduce the $21 trillion debt, but add to it. There may be no way to stop them.
Democrats also will try to remove national border control to flood the country with illegal immigrants under open borders. They will also impede Trump’s efforts to curb illegal immigration. For Republicans, illegal immigrants are Democrat voters.
But, Trump has veto powers over Democrat efforts to enact legislation. It requires a two-third vote of both Houses to overturn a Trump veto, something that rarely succeeds in history.
Obama faced the same gridlock when Republicans regained control of Congress. Obama, in response, began making decisions, many illegal or unconstitutional, to bypass Congress. Obama acted dubiously in committing to the Paris Climate change treaty, Iran nuclear weapons treaty, and immigration policies.
Using Obama’s approach, Trump easily reversed these policies: they did not have the force of law. Trump has shown no restraint in using his authority.
Trump has considerable powers in international affairs – including trade – and national security. Congress will have difficulty stopping Trump from abandoning trade agreements, like the Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, especially important to Vietnam and SE Asia. Trump can unilaterally impose economic sanctions on countries as evidenced by his recent actions against Iran, North Korea and Russia. Trump can commit US troops to combat as he did in Syria and the Middle East. Trump has free reign over relations with other countries: he is exercising it on China.
The midterms produced results that will further divide America along ideological, racial, gender, immigration status, age and patriotism. Division is extreme, much of it centered not only on Trump policies, but on his dysfunctional behavior; and Democrats have swung to the extreme left. Everything has become politicized in a zero-sum game. Compromise will be more elusive than ever.
Unfortunately, American governance will become more unstable and gridlocked, not a good thing in a chaotic, dangerous global environment. Equally problematic is that the US economy is the strongest in the world, but widespread discord will make it difficult to exploit opportunities presented. A new president to replace Trump (or Trump himself) in 2020 will face an unprecedented mess.
Regardless, America will face critical critical governance issues for years to come.