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The Midterm Stakes: A Brief Primer
Remember Sliding Doors, the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow movie in which the heroine’s fate heads in different directions depending on whether she does or doesn’t make it onto a subway train? The United States is looking at a similarly split fate. If Republicans hold the House of Representatives, they will claim a mandate for the party to expand Trump’s refashioning of American politics along nationalist, authoritarian lines. If Democrats pry the chamber from their hands, it would signal a rebuke to the excesses of the Trump era and provide them the tools to slow the unraveling of democratic norms.
But what exactly are we signing up for in either case? The parties have been specific enough in stating their intentions that we can lay out a broad road map for where the country will head.
If Democrats take the House, they’ll win the ability to control committees and launch investigations.
If Democrats take the House, they’ll win the ability to control committees and launch investigations. Expect to see a lot, not just into the marquee Russian collusion and obstruction of justice allegations but also into a range of other topics including campaign finance violations, tax evasion, violations of the emoluments clause — and who knows what else, once rocks start getting turned over. “What are YOU hiding, @realDonaldTrump?” Elizabeth Warren tweeted. “Release your tax returns — or the Democratic-led House will do it for you soon enough.”
Trump has colored outside the lines in so many ways that it’s not hard to imagine one investigation or another won’t turn up some kind of crime or misdemeanor. But to actually remove Trump from office requires not just a majority in the House but also a two-thirds vote in the Senate — an improbability in the current political climate. Of course, those chances would improve if House investigations (or a report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller) reveals vivid evidence of Trump crimes; Nixon, too, retained the support of his Republican legislators until the evidence of his malfeasance became too overwhelming to overlook.
If Republicans keep the House, not only will committee chairs continue to suppress investigative efforts, but Trump will have the political cover to shut down the Mueller investigation.
If Republicans keep the House, on the other hand, not only will committee chairs continue to suppress investigative efforts, but Trump will have the political cover to shut down the “rigged Witch Hunt” of the Mueller investigation, as he has previously pressed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to do. Going forward, the White House can reasonably expect little legislative oversight of its dealings. Republicans will not only control the political game, they will be able to change the rules in their favor, for instance, by supporting gerrymandering and voter suppression, and perhaps even by rewriting the constitution.
If the Republicans keep the House, the already beleaguered Affordable Care Act will face final extinction. If the Democrats take the House but not the Senate, they’ll be able to block legislation but not to pass it without bipartisan support.
If the Republicans keep the House, the already beleaguered Affordable Care Act will face final extinction. Obamacare has been under direct assault from all three branches of government for the last two years; the only reason it exists at all was that during the 2017 vote to repeal it, John McCain switched sides at the eleventh hour. Now he’s dead, and presuming the Republicans keep the Senate as well as the House, few will be inclined to stand up against Trump’s long-stated desire to undo his predecessor’s crowning achievement.
If the Democrats take the House but not the Senate, they’ll be able to block legislation but not to pass it without bipartisan support. That means that while many on the left would like to replace the ACA with Medicare for All, that won’t likely be possible given Trump’s vociferous opposition. The best they’ll be able to do is protect Obamacare as best they can and see if the political pendulum swings further their way in 2020.
Supreme Court nominees are confirmed by the Senate. But the House could initiate impeachment hearings if a Democratic-led investigation finds evidence.
Abortion rights are underpinned by Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that held it unconstitutional for states to restrict or criminalize abortion. During his 2016 presidential run, Trump promised that if he was elected that decision would overturned: “that will happen automatically, in my opinion, because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.” He came one step closer to fulfilling that pledge with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, who joined fellow Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch to become part of conservatives’ 5–4 majority on the court. Maine Senator Susan Collins voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, she said, because he told her he felt that Roe v. Wade was “settled law” and that therefore she felt he would not overturn it. As soon as an abortion-rights case comes before the court — several state-relevant state laws are currently under review — we’ll find out if Collins’ assessment was correct.
How does party control of the House affect all this? It doesn’t, directly; Supreme Court nominees are confirmed by the Senate. But the House could initiate impeachment hearings if a Democratic-led investigation finds evidence that Kavanaugh committed perjury, sexual assault, or some other disqualifying crime. Actual removal would require an (unlikely) two-thirds vote in the Senate, but the disgrace might be damaging enough to the dignity of the court to force Kavanaugh’s resignation. That’s a long shot, but it would put the court back in a 4–4 balance — at least until Trump got an opportunity to fill another seat, which given the advanced age of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not so far-fetched.
A Republican House is definitely not going to do anything to further gun control. It’s not clear if a Democratic House will be able to do much, either.
A Republican House is definitely not going to do anything to further gun control. Not only have many Republican candidates run explicitly pro-gun campaigns, but the Trump campaign received $30 million from the National Rifle Association, money that might have been funnelled from Russia.
It’s not clear if a Democratic House will be able to do much, either. While Republicans warn of a gun-rights apocalypse should Democrats take the House — “They will take away your Second Amendment,” Trump told a conservative audience during speech in February — the Dems are unlikely to get any substantive legislation through both Houses of Congress without Republican support. And even if they could get legislation through the House and the Senate, they will lack supermajority to overturn a Trump veto.
If Republicans keep the House, expect to see core Trump political initiatives expanded. If Democrats take the House, none of the above will happen.
If Republicans keep the House, expect to see core Trump political initiatives expanded: the stripping away of environmental and consumer protections, the elimination of taxes for the wealthy and corporations, the disenfranchisement of minorities and other traditional Democratic voters, harsher treatment for immigrants, and the expanded politicization of the civil service.
If Democrats take the House, none of the above will happen. Trump’s political initiatives will be derailed, and both the executive branch and the industries that have been benefiting from Trump’s laissez-faire policies will find themselves under significantly sharper scrutiny. And beyond these tangible effects might lie something larger — a historical inflection point. The last two years’ erosion of decency has sown rage and despair among a broad swath of Americans. With Republicans in charge of all three branches of government, many people have felt paralyzed and helpless at the gradual undermining of civil society. If Democrats take the House, their anger will have an outlet. And it could emerge as a ferociously transformative force.