Alone at last.

An Election in Search of Meaning

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg View columnist. He founded Ritholtz Wealth Management and was chief executive and director of equity research at FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He blogs at the Big Picture and is the author of “Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy.”
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Fill in the blank: Today's midterm elections are about _____.

Most people won't be able to answer that question. Obamacare? It's the law of the land. Quantitative easing? Its over, and besides, Congress didn't control that. Go down the list of hot button issues -- ISIS, Ebola, voter ID laws, deficits, tax policy, immigration, abortion and just about anything else you can think of in terms of actual policy making won't be affected.

Despite all the sturm und drang about control of the Congress, whether the Republicans capture the Senate, or the Democrats retain it, not much will change in our national priorities. Regardless of the outcome, don't expect more or less legislation to get passed.

Indeed, there isn't all that much at risk in the midterm elections, at least on the national level. The present split Congress is the least-productive in U.S. history. Regardless of the election's outcome, the 114th Congress is unlikely to be any more productive than the 113th.

Certainly, a few things will change. The Congressional Budget Office, the non-partisan analytical service of Congress, will move away from data-driven analysis toward a more ideological (i.e., biased) approach.

Republican control of the Senate will have a significant impact on appointments to key chairman seats: Appropriations, Budget (especially Commerce, Science, and Transportation), Energy and Natural Resources, Environment and Public Works, and Judiciary will shift. Legislation won't change much, but the rhetoric will. Look for deniers of anthropogenic global warming to be appointed to key committee seats. The bombast will no doubt be overheated, but little of substance will change.

On the other hand, local elections, which usually have low voter turnout, have the potential to result in significant change. The local issues range from encouraging to amusing to absurd. Consider the following:

• Marijuana decriminalization or legalization is on the ballot in a number of states.

• Tax policy is hotly contested. Given the mandatory balanced-budget rules of states, this will be an intriguing development to watch during the next few years.

• Voter ID laws have been passed by many states, and often struck down by courts. However, a few are still in effect, notably Texas, and will be closely watched.

• Increases in minimum-wage laws are on the ballot in several states and cities.

• Referendums on restricting fracking and oil and gas exploration are on a few ballots.

• Restrictions on abortions have been passed in numerous states. They are unlikely to be changed, and may even become more restrictive, depending upon local outcomes.

• Gay marriage is on a few ballots, but the courts have turned it into a civil liberty and human-rights issue, bypassing or overturning many state legislatures and initiatives.

• In Arizona, school boards are removing any and all reference to reproduction and contraception in science books. Local boards are up for re-election.

And here is what isn't on any ballot:

-- Increased funding for the National Institutes of Health or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to deal with outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola, cholera or malaria.

-- An increase in the gas tax (frozen since 1993) to properly fund the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Hence, there will be little in the way of repair or upgrades to the nation's crumbling highways, bridges and tunnels.

-- A plan to refinance the federal debt into a 50-year bond issue at a market rate (probably between 4 percent and 5 percent).

-- The proper balance of regulation and oversight versus independence and economic liberty for banks and Wall Street securities firms.

-- A commitment to fundamental scientific research.

There are many other items worth discussing and debating, but unfortunately our attention spans are too short and our priorities are elsewhere.

Welcome to the midterm elections. Now go vote.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Barry L Ritholtz at britholtz3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net