Last week the 113th Congress met for the first time, with Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in charge of the Senate. The Obama administration is optimistic that it can work its will over this legislature, driving a hard bargain on sequestration and the debt ceiling and pushing through reforms on immigration and gun control.
This is extremely unlikely. In fact, for a host of reasons, expect the new Congress to resemble the one that just finished—mired in stalemate with the president, lurching from one short-term, ad hoc budget deal to the next, with none of the biggest issues facing the country being addressed.
The most significant impediment to legislative action is ideological division. With 234 House Republicans and 55 Senate Democrats, the 113th Congress will be the most ideologically polarized in recent memory. That offers a poor prospect for governmental action.
Compounding this is the mandate of congressional leadership. Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House speaker John Boehner are both responsible to their majorities. In other words, it is only in rare instances that Reid would allow a bill on the Senate floor that a majority of Democrats opposed, and similarly Boehner with House Republicans (though there are exceptions, like the recent fiscal cliff bill). This means that any major piece of legislation will have to attract the support of most House Republicans and most Senate Democrats—a monumental task in this time of stark ideological divisions.
One might be tempted to think that, because the partisan divisions in Congress today mirror those in the early Reagan years (when the GOP held the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House), bipartisan breakthroughs are still possible. Yet during the Reagan years the Democratic House majority depended entirely on conservative, Southern Democrats, whose districts Reagan had won handily.
That points to another substantial impediment—the political geography of the House of Representatives. Reagan had leverage over House Democrats in the early 1980s because his victory over Jimmy Carter had been geographically broad. Many congressional Democrats, especially from Dixie, knew that Reagan had won at least a plurality in their districts, so they had reason to fear him. Barack Obama’s victory in 2012, while slightly larger than Reagan’s in 1980 in terms of raw vote percentage nationally, was much narrower in geographic terms. In fact, Obama won reelection having carried fewer than 218 congressional districts, while approximately 215 House Republicans represent districts that Mitt Romney won.
This is a consequence of President Obama’s driving minority turnout to unparalleled levels: African-American and Latino voters are often clustered in minority-majority congressional districts, thanks to the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act. Add these districts to the “gentry liberal” ones in and around major cities, and the result is that Obama overwhelmingly carried a minority of congressional districts, while Mitt Romney narrowly won a majority of districts (at least 225, with 4 still to be determined).
At first blush, this might seem to be a trivial point, but what kind of influence does President Obama have in a district that voted 55-45 percent for Mitt Romney? What sort of political rebuke can he possibly deliver to a recalcitrant Republican from a district such as that, especially in light of the fact that no incumbent party has ever gained a significant number of House seats in a president’s second midterm? Put simply, most House Republicans need not fear that defying the president will result in their defeat in 2014.
If political muscle won’t be enough to force legislative breakthroughs, then a deft touch might do the trick. Perhaps the president could play coy dealmaker, in the manner of Lyndon Johnson. Here, however, President Obama has proven himself to be quite incompetent, more a Jimmy Carter than an LBJ.
One of the messages of Bob Woodward’s Price of Politics is that Obama made a grand bargain on the debt ceiling harder to reach, not easier. And in the wake of last week’s tax deal, Speaker Boehner reportedly told his caucus that he is done negotiating with the president one-on-one. For a president who, as a candidate in 2008, promised to bring people together, Obama seems to lack the temperament to broker a big deal between the key players in Washington.