With a looming sense of a debacle in the U.S. midterm elections, some Democrats are rationalizing a silver lining: It may not be a bad thing if Republicans win control of at least one chamber of Congress on Nov. 2.
Then, the argument goes, the opposition would be responsible for governing decisions, and their positions -- privatizing Social Security, rolling back health-care benefits and giving huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans -- would backfire.
The Democrats would come roaring back two years later. The model is President Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, two years after Republicans took over Congress.
Those who were there in the mid-1990s have a different view. “It would be an unmitigated disaster for us,” says Tom O’Donnell, a Democratic political consultant. He was top aide to Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader in that earlier period, and remembers the nightmares it caused him.
Few Republicans are worried about the burdens of responsibility; they relish the prospect, confident they will win a majority in the House and at least come close in the Senate.
A majority in the House would give Republicans three potent weapons; the power to frame the legislative agenda, control over some important funding decisions (though not entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare) and the means to subpoena and investigate the executive branch. Any Democrat who believes this is benign should call Bill Clinton.
In the House, the majority party decides which bills come up and which bills don’t. President Barack Obama’s priorities won’t be those of the presumptive Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner of Ohio. Instead, look for votes on many of the divisive social issues, red meat for conservatives, and enough proposed constitutional amendments to make the founding father James Madison blush.
When bills come up, it’s the majority party that sets the ground rules, and determines which amendments or provisions are germane. If a tax bill is considered, almost a certainty, the minority party is especially disadvantaged, as amendments usually aren’t permitted.
Even if they capture the Senate, too, Republicans wouldn’t be able to fulfill their pledge to repeal the Obama health-care plan. The president’s veto pen would prevent that. There are provisions -- including banning insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of pre-existing conditions or giving seniors more generous prescription-drug benefits -- that many Republicans have no interest in repealing.
Still, they can wreak havoc with the measure’s implementation by denying money for creating insurance exchanges to help 30 million uninsured Americans get coverage; not funding the Department of Health and Human Services or new enforcement agents for the Internal Revenue Service and nixing complicated rules and regulations. Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, with the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, unsuccessfully sought to dilute some rules last week.
Similarly, it’s a political loser to try to repeal the financial-regulatory overhaul, a move that would enable Wall Street to go back to the pre-crash days. Some Republicans are already plotting to deny funding for items such as additional enforcement staff for the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates derivatives.
A top target will be the new consumer financial protection agency, which many Republicans opposed. It almost doesn’t matter if Elizabeth Warren is tapped to head the agency; she would be summoned to Capitol Hill so often she wouldn’t have time to run it.
She would be only one of the more prominent subjects. “Every member of the administration will be hauled up before Congress a lot,” says former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat.
The power of subpoena is awesome. It was oft-used in the 1990s, especially by Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican who incessantly investigated the Clinton administration. A favorite issue was his theory that Vince Foster, the White House counsel who committed suicide, was murdered. He also released a selectively edited audiotape of a former Clinton aide who was in prison. This began a downfall that culminated when he was torn apart in a television interview with the late Timothy J. Russert.
If Republicans take the House, next year’s Dan Burton will be Darrell Issa. Smarter than Burton, the California congressman has the same gotcha goals.
Already in his sights are marginal issues ranging from whether the White House tried to dissuade a few Democrats from primary challenges by holding out job offers -- as if that’s unusual in politics -- to a controversy over whether the Black Panthers intimidated a few voters in Philadelphia several years ago.
Issa has insisted he’ll conduct important investigations even if they lead to Republicans. A good test for him would be to go see the new documentary, “Tillman,” about the National Football League star Pat Tillman, who, after Sept. 11, gave up a multimillion contract to go fight for his country. He was killed in Afghanistan and awarded a Silver Star for bravery, and was used as a poster child to rally support for the war during President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.
The courageous Tillman family, however, insisted on finding out what actually happened. They discovered that the young Army Ranger was killed by friendly fire; the family believes that Pentagon higher-ups, including General Stanley McChrystal and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, lied about it. There’s still more to find out and it would be a credible and important topic for the Issa investigative agenda.
As for 2012, Obama’s re-election prospects will depend more on the shape of the economy and his opponent than on what congressional Republicans do next year. If, like Clinton in 1996, he gets a robust recovery, House Republican chairmen such as Issa or the lawmaker who would head the Judiciary Committee, the immigration-bashing Lamar Smith of Texas, will be irrelevant.
Finally, those Democrats who see that silver lining in losing the House and forcing responsibility on the opposition, should remember that Congress remained in Republican hands in that 1996 election. Two years later, in a lame-duck session, that House majority voted to impeach Clinton for lying about sex.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)