Voters' Only Hope Is a Democratic Congress

Trump has shown he can't work with Republicans.

Trump has shown he can't work with Republicans.

Source: Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

This was supposed to be the year that Republicans consolidated their control of the federal government and enacted their policies uninhibited. But that "year of governance" has turned into the year of elections.

Why have Americans become transfixed by elections -- in California, Kansas, Georgia and Montana? Because with the new Republican coalition showing itself unable to govern, Americans must look ahead to some future arrangement that could change the dysfunctional status quo.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. After his electoral win in November, Donald Trump laid out an aggressive plan for his first 100 days in office, which he called his "Contract With the American Voter." In it he called for renegotiating trade deals, reforming the tax structure, and repealing and replacing Obamacare. With Republicans holding a large majority in the House, plus a small majority in the Senate, some version of Trump's aggression plan seemed like a reasonable possibility.

But looking back, it's hard to point to any significant legislative wins. The effort to repeal and replace Obamacare fell short. Old trade deals remain in place. The timetable for tax reform continues to slip further into the future as Republicans struggle to come to an agreement on what they want and how to pay for it. Even the prospects for avoiding a government shutdown have become uncertain as the Trump administration pushes to include funding for a border wall in the spending package, which would likely eliminate the possibility of garnering any Democratic votes.

The inability of the ruling party to govern is what has led to so much fascination with special elections. From 2011 to 2016, a Republican Congress blocked a Democratic president. People could understand the stasis. Now it looks like a Trump presidency working with a Republican Congress will struggle to pass legislation as well.

While it's only been a few elections so far, special elections in California's 34th congressional district, Kansas' 4th, and Georgia's 6th have all shown sizable swings toward Democrats. An upcoming special election for Montana's lone House seat looks to be competitive, even though in 2016 a Republican won by 16 points. Should this pattern follow through to 2018, Democrats could retake the House, removing both House Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Freedom Caucus as bottlenecks on the legislative process.

Could a Democratic House majority, even one led by former and perhaps future speaker Nancy Pelosi, work with Trump? It may be hard to envision today, but then again, a few months ago it seemed implausible that Republicans holding the White House and Congress would be unable to govern.

There are pragmatic reasons both Trump and the Democrats would want to work together, at least on one issue: Obamacare. Trump would like to blame Obamacare's implosion on Democrats, but voters rarely blame the out-of-power party for anything. Ultimately, Obamacare risk lies with whoever controls government. If Democrats control the House again, they and Trump will both be motivated to salvage the program and avoid blame.

Voters are desperately interested in special elections this year because a new Congress is their only hope for anything to happen in Washington.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Conor Sen at

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