The Bumpy Road Ahead in Congress

Chip Griffin

December 1, 2000

The 2000 elections leave Congressional Republicans—and conservatives in particular—in a very difficult situation. With both houses of Congress nearly equally divided, the GOP is nominally in control, although in reality they have no meaningful control over the actions of the Congress.

The Republicans will have the advantage on purely partisan votes—the election of the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, for example. On these occasions, Representatives and Senators will almost certainly cast votes on the basis of party affiliation only.

But when it comes to actual legislation and votes that have real policy meaning, anything goes. The moderate Republicans, in particular, will have a pivotal role to play on every bill that passes through each body. The power that this small group of politicians will wield is immense. Moderate to liberal GOPers will have the ability to hold any measure hostage to their own interests.

While one must first look to these Republican members, conservative Democrats will also play a very important role. On some issues, it will be possible for the Republican Majority to hold the upper hand, if it can replace defecting members of their own caucus with an equal or greater number of right-leaning Democrats.

What is the practical impact of the Congressional situation, then? The reality is that conservatives are faced with the almost inevitable prospect of seeing some “bad” legislation enacted into law. In conservative policy circles, there is already much discussion of how to ensure that laws that are likely to pass (a patients’ bill of rights and federal prescription drug coverage are the two most prominent examples) end up being enacted in the least objectionable form possible.

At this writing, there is no definitive resolution of the presidential election. But the bottom line is that the inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will not matter all that much from a legislative standpoint. In the likely event of a George W. Bush administration, the new Republican president would be very likely to sign bills that are pressed by the Democrats in order to foster a bipartisan image. In the less likely possibility that Al Gore somehow convinces a court to install him as the next President, he will be obligated to pander to the liberal special interests within his party who formed the core of his support during the prolonged post-election fight.

At the same time that the legislative situation remains completely unpredictable, there will be a long-running subplot, as rumors will swirl about the health of Senators and the possible party-switching plans of Representatives. Much like the pool of reporters that follows the presidential motorcade and keeps a 24-hour vigil on presidential trips as part of the “Death Watch,” political pros in Washington will start their tongues wagging every time that Strom Thurmond or Jesse Helms sneezes. Similarly, any meeting between a moderate Republican and any leading House Democrat will prompt immediate speculation about the possibility of a decisive party switch that would land control of the chamber in Dick Gephardt’s hands.

The news, though, is not all bad for conservatives. Tax cut legislation remains a possibility, though not on any grand scale. As part of the perceived effort at bipartisanship that both parties so crave in the current environment, the marriage tax penalty elimination is likely to finally be enacted into law—though in what form remains to be seen.

And Republicans can feel comfortable that just as things are difficult for them to achieve, the Democrats are not in an ideal position to press forward with legislation either. They, too, must fear the defection of their troops and must be particularly certain not to alienate conservative Democrats whom they will need to stealthily advance their agenda.

But Democrats clearly have the longer-term upper hand. Assuming George W. Bush remains victorious in the end, there is a better than even chance that the GOP will lose control of both houses of Congress in two years. Historically, the president’s party loses at least a few seats in each legislative body during these “off-year” elections, and the simple fact remains that the Republicans have no seats to give.

And in two years, the Democrats presumably will remain with raw feelings about the treatment of the Clinton Administration by Congress and can reasonably be expected to retaliate with aggressive investigations of any possible improprieties of the first two years of the new Bush Administration.

So where does this leave Republicans and conservatives? Quite clearly they are in a delicate, unpredictable situation. The best minds of both groups will have to come together in the coming months to lay out a careful strategy that attempts to thread the needle, politically speaking.

One can never assume that all hope is lost. As the weeks following Election Day 2000 have proved, anything can happen. But conservatives must know that the road ahead will be bumpy. The moderates of both parties will have more influence in the coming years. And conservatives must work all that much harder to communicate ideas to the grassroots and develop support from the ground up to influence those moderate politicians.

Check your shock absorbers, fasten your seatbelts, and hop in for the ride.

Chip Griffin is the President of Griffin Strategy Group, a political and public affairs consulting firm.