Blog No. 50. The 2014 Election and the 114th Congress

The 2014 elections produced an outpouring of commentary and analyses from the Cacophony of Pundits (Cf. Pride of Lions, Murder of Crows). The products of the Cacophony began with explanations to why the elections came out as they did and proceeded to consider the prospects for cooperation between President and Congress going forward. Given the volume of the punditry, it may be difficult to provide observations that readers will not have already come across somewhere else. Nevertheless, we will attempt to provide, as briefly as possible, our own perspectives.

The Results of the 2014 Election

Perhaps the silliest debate after the election was whether or not it represented a Republican “wave.” The question seems to be a semantic quibble, and even those who are attracted to the metaphor should be reminded that once waves hit the beach, they disappear into the sand. So it may be with the Republican wave of 2014. The combination of factors that produced the Republican success this year may be unique: a President with low approval ratings and estranged from significant elements of his own party, an electoral map putting many more Democrats at risk than Republicans, retirements of key Democratic Senators, and recent events that arguably reinforced claims of incompetence (ISIS, Ebola.) Moreover, beyond the fact that mid-term elections generally provide gains for the party that does not hold the White House, the demographics of eligible voters who actually made it to the polls this year (older, whiter) clearly favored the Republicans. In short, the Republican wave may have been only one element of a “perfect storm” for the Democrats. In any case, it is not surprising that the Republicans did well, but little of that will carry over to 2016.

For the moment, however, Republicans did quite well, even a bit better than anticipated. We had been widely expected to increase our numbers in the House and to win control of the Senate. The latter required a pick-up of six seats and we gained seven with two more in prospect when all the dust has settled (Lousiana and Alaska), bringing their total to 54. That was a considerable accomplishment but it still left Republicans in the Senate six seats short of the 60 required to break a filibuster and bring legislation to a vote. For many RINOs, the most disappointing loss was the narrow defeat of Scott Brown in New Hampshire. Brown is a moderate (endorsed by the Republican Majority for Choice) and would have added a second Republican to the New England delegation, joining Susan Collins of Maine. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the night was the success of Republican Governors, particularly in Red States: Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts and in Purple states, Ohio and Wisconsin (both carried by President Obama in 2008 and 2012). Republicans also did better than they had in 2012 with groups that still favored Democrats but by lesser margins: Latinos, women and younger voters.

Another result of interest was the success of the referendum in Washington State requiring background checks and otherwise regulating the transfer of guns. We had supported the referendum, but note that two subscribers to RINOcracy.com, who are Washington residents, support background checks but expressed concern as to the breadth of the law set forth in the referendum. We respect their concerns but, on balance, believe that passage of the referendum was an important step forward. It will be interesting to see if any serious problems appear as the law is implemented.

Issues of abortion and contraception did not appear to play a major part in the election. In this area, we follow and generally support Republican Majority for Choice (RMC). Although its title may strike some as an oxymoron, RMC provides an articulate, growing, and highly informative voice on behalf of both women’s rights to choose and traditional Republican values. RMC reported the following results for the 2014 election:

Anti-Choice Ballot Measures Defeated:
Colorado Personhood Amendment 67
North Dakota Personhood Measure

For the Senate:
Senator Susan Collins (ME)
Senator-elect Shelley Moore Capito (WV)

In the House:
Congressman Charlie Dent (PA-15)
Former Congressman Robert Dold (IL-10)
Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11)
Congressman Richard Hanna (NY-22)
Carl DeMaio (CA-52)

Gubernatorial Candidates:
Charlie Baker (MA)
Bruce Rauner (IL)

We wish that the list of successful pro-choice Republicans were longer, but modest as it may be, we thank the RMC for publishing it.

Finally, one subject that has received relatively little attention since the election is the effect of campaign spending. Since the decision in Citizens United, political spending has been the subject of frequent attacks by liberals arguing that it has seriously wounded the democratic process by allowing moneyed interests to “buy” elections through donations of unlimited amount to independent groups. And in the run-up to the 2014 election there was a good deal of dismay expressed concerning the record amount of campaign money that was being raised and spent. (After the election, a contrarian view of the amount was expressed by George Will and by an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, both pointing out that the total amount of campaign spending was modest in comparison with the annual expenditures on product advertising by some corporations.)

Nevertheless, there has been relatively little clamor after the election contending that the Republican spending was the cause of the Democratic debacle. For example, The New York Times, a fierce critic of Citizens United, published a “morning after” editorial on November 5, offering a variety of reasons for the Democrats’ poor showing but making no mention of campaign spending. The news section did make a pass at the subject with a story entitled “Outside Groups With Deep Pockets Lift GOP.” The article made no direct claim that election results had been determined by spending by outside groups, but managed to imply as much:

Koch groups appeared to be the biggest outside spenders on television in Arkansas, Iowa and Louisiana, airing a combined $25 million in ads. Republican candidates won Arkansas and Iowa, and a Republican is favored to win a runoff in Louisiana.

American Crossroads and its affiliated nonprofit group spent $50 million on political advertising, and at least $20 million more on so-called issue ads, a spokesman said. The groups dominated outside spending in Alaska, where the Crossroads groups put about $7 million into television advertising, and Colorado, fielding close to $14 million, which helped crush Senator Mark Udall, the Democrat who was once favored to win.

The article offered no figures for particular races, and those numbers, compiled by OpenSecrets.org, present a much more mixed picture. Aggregating money spent for each candidate with money spent against his or her opponent, Republicans did outspend Democrats in Arkansas and Iowa, but were outspent in Lousiana. And in Colorado, where Senator Udall was “crushed,” spending on his behalf exceeded that for his challenger, Cory Gardner, by more than $2 million. Moreover, even where successful candidates have outspent the loser, it does not necessarily follow that their financial advantage made the difference at the ballot box. 

In Blog No. 34, “McCutcheon and the Quagmire of Campaign Finance,” we suggested that while the amount of money spent on campaigning may well be unseemly, the impact of the spending, and the threat it poses to democracy, seemed to have been exaggerated. We also suggested that eventually large donors might well conclude that their return on investment was rather poor and voluntarily reduce or end their participation. Nothing in the 2014 elections has changed our view.

The 114th Congress

The 114th Congress will convene on January 3, 2014. President Obama and Republican leaders, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have all expressed a desire to work together to produce legislation on important matters. The coming weeks will test not only the sincerity of their professions but the strength of their political will to give them life. It will not be easy.

In Blog No 44, “Congress: Slouching Toward November,” we suggested that Republican pursuit of the Senate might recall the example of a dog chasing a car and the question of whether the dog would know what to do with the car if he caught it. While George Will is not a subscriber to RINOcracy.com, he addressed the example in a Washington Post column published the day after the election and rejected it. Republicans, Will trumpeted, “know what to do with what they have caught.” He went on to suggest “six measures concerning “practical governance and constitutional equilibrium.” Will acknowledged that these and similar measures might result in a “blizzard of vetoes,” but claimed such vetoes would serve a constructive purpose in “framing the argument about progressivism.” Apart from the question of whether a focus on framing an argument represents a sound priority, Will appeared to overlook the fact that President Obama will not even have to veto any particular measure unless it commanded the 60 votes required to bring it to a vote in the Senate.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner set forth their own priorities for the 114th Congress, but their essay, “Now We Can Get Congress Going,” was long on aspiration and short on specifics. It mentioned as priority issues tax reform, the national debt, and the global terrorist threat but without indicating what their approach to those important matters would be. Also conspicuous by their absence were any references to immigration and the financing of much needed investment in roads and bridges and other elements of the nation’s infrastructure. In short, it was a road map of limited value. Probably the most important specific item McConnell and Boehner mentioned, was construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. That proposal (which we favor) was also cited by George Will and is one that might actually gain sufficient Democratic support to make it to the Senate floor and pass. But it will take a lot more to constitute a credible agenda.

Understandably perhaps, McConnell and Boehner also declined to acknowledge the difficulty of obtaining a consensus among their own ranks, as well as gaining sufficient support from Democrats, particularly in the Senate. Justice William Brennan often said that the most important rule of constitutional law was the “Rule of Five,” referring to the five votes required to have a majority of the votes on a case before the Supreme Court. For McConnell, the Rule of Sixty will control (except when a bill technically qualifies for the somewhat exotic procedure of “budget reconciliation.”) We assume and hope that he and his colleagues are already giving thought not only to reining in the disruptive energies of Senator Cruz, but also how to get from 54 to 60. For John Boehner, the arithmetic is easier, but still a challenge. There are 435 seats in the House, resulting in a majority consisting of 218 votes. Republicans have won 244 seats and lead in three more, which would give them 247 and a seemingly comfortable margin of 29. In the House, however, extreme conservatives are even more fractious than in the Senate and Boehner has generally followed a policy of declining to bring to the floor any bill that does not command a majority of the Republican caucus.

There are at least two or three potential developments that could make cooperation between the parties, or between Congress and the President, even more difficult or even impossible. One such development would be a decision by the Republicans to devote a major portion of time and energy to quixotic attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety. The Wall Street Journal piece by McConnell and Boehner was somewhat confusing on this score. It began by pledging to “[renew] our commitment to repeal ObamaCare, which is hurting the job market along with Americans’ health care.” Two paragraphs later, however, the writers spoke of amending a specific provision of the Affordable Care Act that defines full-employment as 30 hours a week, rather than the traditional 40, in specifying the workers who must be offered insurance coverage. The focus on that particular provision appeared to concede tacitly that repeal of the ACA in its entirety is not feasible.

There may be other individual provisions of the ACA that could be amended or stricken. One such is the tax on medical devices, cited by George Will, a levy that a number of Democrats as well as Republicans have found problematic. But any legislation that strikes at the heart of the ACA will receive no Democratic support, and if somehow passed by way of the budget resolution process, would be vetoed by the President. In the meantime it will serve only to divide and to provide a distraction from serious legislating.

A second development that could impair or destroy opportunities for bipartisan cooperation may stem from the sweeping “executive action” on immigration that the President insists he will soon take. We sympathize with the President’s goals in this area and understand his impatience, but we believe that creating protections for illegal immigrants that the law does not authorize, and that Congress has thus far declined to provide, would be a serious mistake. Although we support comprehensive immigration reform generally, and in particular the bill passed by the Senate, we think that acting outside the law and in defiance of Congress would be a major setback to reaching agreement on immigration, and most likely, a range of other issues.

A further development with the potential for major conflict between the President and Congress could arise from the negotiations with Iran, which are scheduled to conclude by November 24. If an agreement is reached that involves the lifting of sanctions, there is a limit to what the President can do without Congressional approval, and if the proposed agreement is one that is widely regarded in Congress as unacceptable, a highly divisive battle might well unfold. For our part, we have some inclination to give any proposed agreement the benefit of the doubt as we regard the alternatives to be unattractive or, in the case of military action, potentially disastrous. Nevertheless, the President must spare no effort to consult with Congress and gain their support.

Finally, we cannot close without expressing, as we have done previously, our disappointment and concern at the apparent lack of interest on the part of either the administration or Congress to undertake a comprehensive review of our military capabilities and budgets in light of the growing challenges we face in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia. We believe that the threats in those regions deserve our serious attention, and we hope that with John McCain poised to become Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that attention may be forthcoming.

One thought on “Blog No. 50. The 2014 Election and the 114th Congress

  • You may be right that big money had little effect on deciding who won in the recent mid-term elections, but it no doubt had a decisive effect on the quality of the debate in those election campaigns — as both sides felt obligated to hew to party lines reflecting hard-line views of the big money sources. Campaigns have become so ridiculously expensive (thanks to the seductive attraction of all that money) that it may be a long time before it is ever safe again to run a campaign based on thoughtful approaches to controversial issues.

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