Midterm Elections Dominate Washington's Agenda

Gridlock is the order of the day.

By Larry Kiern 2014-10-14 14:35:00

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2014 edition.)

As the summer sun boils the nation’s capital, its political leaders remain sharply focused on the approaching midterm elections. In this heated environment, each policy proposal, whether executive or legislative, is judged primarily for its immediate electoral impact. 

Tempers Flare During the Long Hot Summer

At a press conference on July 10, Speaker of the House John Boehner erupted and denounced President Obama for mishandling the recent surge of undocumented immigrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Speaker declared, “He’s been President for five-and-a-half years.  When is he going to take responsibility for something?” The Speaker boiled over following the President’s charge that the real cause of the problem is inaction by the Republican-led House of Representatives on the bipartisan immigration bill passed by the Senate in June 2013.

Tempers are heightened this year by narrow electoral margins, which could tip control of the Senate to the Republican Party, and the lower turnout typical of midterm elections. This means that each political party stakes out positions denying the opponent any advantage before Election Day while also galvanizing its own political base to motivate turnout. 

The maritime industry will therefore not likely see material progress on its important agenda items unless opposing interests craft a compromise that will be judged a win-win, like rescuing the Highway Trust Fund, which will run dry by August, thereby stalling highway projects and laying off thousands of construction workers. As a senior staffer for the Senate Commerce Committee recently noted about key maritime legislation in the Senate, we are in a “unanimous-consent environment.”

The dynamic was further illustrated by the recent announcement by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is in a tough re-election campaign, that he would attach policy riders to appropriations bills to fund the government that would reverse regulatory measures adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency that he considers part of the Obama Administration’s “war on coal.” 

In response, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) signaled he would not bring the appropriations bills to a vote on the Senate floor. Thus, despite agreement by the parties earlier this year to the top-line funding limit of the federal government, the basic legislation necessary to fund specific government programs appears once again to be falling prey to the polarization separating the parties.

The Midterm Elections

Recent political history teaches that midterm congressional elections can differ materially from presidential elections. Most recently, the 2010 midterms were widely interpreted as a repudiation of the policies and leadership of President Obama and congressional Democrats, whom the President admitted took a “shellacking.” Republicans scored a net gain of 63 House seats, recapturing control of the House, and achieved a net gain of six seats in the Senate. Notably, the Tea Party wing of the party achieved significant influence on the party’s direction.  

This midterm reversal occurred just two years after the President had achieved an historic election victory in 2008, beating Republican Senator John McCain by almost eight percent of the popular vote, and after Democrats in Congress had increased their margins of control, particularly in the Senate, where they briefly enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority for the first time since President Jimmy Carter. Such dramatic political reversals in so short a time are not uncommon in midterm elections. The president’s party has lost congressional seats in all but three of the last 26 midterms, a phenomenon known as the “midterm penalty.”

This year, political commentators are debating whether the midterm penalty will occur because of turnout or policies. And the answer is both, not to mention factors not widely reported in the national media. For example, this year’s midterms include key Senate races featuring well-established political families, who embody more than the ideological issues highlighted by the national media.  

National vs. Local Ties

When recalling former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill’s admonition that “all politics is local,” one is reminded that senators like Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Pryor (D-AR) have historically enjoyed support because of special relationships they have cultivated within their states’ unique electorates. Each is from a prominent political family and each has enjoyed political support in large measure because of personal ties developed over many years that are separate and distinct from national trends. 

One cannot help but be struck by the endorsement longtime Louisiana Republican Boise Bollinger offered Mary Landrieu in April, declaring in a television advertisement filmed at his shipyard, “I’m with Mary. She does big things for Louisiana.”

In 2012, President Obama lost Louisiana to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney by almost 18 percent of the popular vote, and he lost Arkansas by 24 percent. Both states are reliably “red” with congressional delegations dominated by Republicans. Yet both Senators Landrieu and Pryor have polled competitively with their opponents in the run-up to this year’s midterms. Their viability embodies strong local ties not typically emphasized by the national media.

Thus, control of the Senate may well turn on factors other than those noted in the press.  This year there are eight Senate seats in play that could determine the outcome. Six of the eight are Democratic seats, including those held by Senators Landrieu and Pryor. To gain control of the Senate, Republicans must achieve a net gain of six seats. This is the same margin they achieved in 2010. But such gains appear more difficult this year as most experts have concluded the outcome is just too close to call.

The midterm elections are also subject to events yet unknown. Like the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008, which led to a seven percent swing in the presidential election polls that endured to Election Day, unforeseen external events may again play a role. The potential impact of future events in Iraq and along the U.S. border with Mexico remains to be seen. And the diverse state electorates that will actually determine the outcome of key Senate races remain subject to such events and may react differently than a national electorate would.  

Political commentators have speculated widely on the subject. Attention has focused on the possibility that a Republican-controlled Senate would end the President’s hopes of confirming future judicial nominees and would pass legislation aimed at repealing the Affordable Care Act and blocking environmental regulations. One commentator has gone so far as to say that a Republican-controlled Congress bent on confrontation would revive the Obama presidency and aid Hillary Clinton’s potential candidacy. There is little published opinion that a Republican-controlled Congress would foster compromise. Such is the prevailing partisan mood.

Taking the Initiative

But national political gridlock does not equate to no change at all. One of the ironies of the standoff between the parties is how President Obama has turned demands for more budget cuts against his opponents. First, of course, the President’s budget prioritized cuts to defense programs favored by Republicans. Second, he used his opponents’ demand for cuts to help justify executive decisions not to enforce certain laws they favor, e.g., immigration and drug enforcement. In frustration, Speaker Boehner has announced he will sue the President for not enforcing the law.

Additionally, states are fostering change in areas where the federal government remains gridlocked. Two years ago, few political pundits predicted that marijuana consumption would be legal in two states, decriminalized in 17 states, and allowed for medical use in 23 states. Today, 22 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wage rates greater than the federal minimum wage. And while Congress has been unable to act on President Obama’s call for an increase in the federal minimum wage, 11 states and the District of Columbia have enacted hikes this year alone. 

In New York, Governor Cuomo has recently called for a further hike of that state’s minimum wage, which already exceeds the federal level. And major cities like San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego and Chicago have raised their minimum wage rates farther above the federal level.

Whether one supports or opposes these initiatives by the President, states and cities, the fact that they have succeeded is notable compared to the gridlock in Congress. Thus, while most predict continued gridlock on federal legislation with resulting negative impact on industries like maritime, which need national rules to facilitate commerce, other important changes are occurring. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.