The Biden Administration successfully passed four mammoth spending bills in Congress that exemplify a radical change in US Government philosophy, from a market fundamentalism approach that the US has pursued for the past four decades to an active government intervention in promoting industrial policy, with an added protectionist dimension, contradicting past US defense of free trade. Biden was able to implement this major change of direction because the Democrats controlled, even though barely, the House and the Senate for the two first years of his mandate, 2021-2023. Now that the Democrats have lost control of the House to Republicans, can Biden continue to pursue his policies, or will the new balance in Washington for the next two years seriously jeopardize his agenda?
In the US political system, every new law must be passed by both chambers of Congress, the Senate and the House, and then signed by the President (except in rare cases when Congress overrides a Presidential veto). Beginning in January 2023 and for the next two years, Democrats control the Senate and the Presidency but Republicans control the House, meaning only bipartisan legislation will be passed. Given the extreme partisanship that has increasingly separated Republicans and Democrats, it is virtually certain that for the next two years Washington will be faced with gridlock, no major new piece of legislation will be passed. Other than seek legislation on the few areas of possible bipartisan agreement, what will Congress and the Biden Administration do?
In the absence of major legislation, both Parties will be focused on a single goal: winning the 2024 election, that will overshadow everything, every action taken by each Party will be decided in view of its impact on the election of November 2024.
The Democrats will focus on the accomplishments of the first two years of the Biden Administration, with two parallel objectives: executing and defending the ambitious programs put forward in their four massive spending bills and, as important, seeking to prove to the American public that their new, aggressive government involvement in the economy is good for the country and good for each citizen. This will not necessarily be an easy task, when Biden’s approval rating has stayed in the range of 40%, with more than 50% of American disapproving of his Presidency. A Washington Post and ABC poll taken shortly before Biden’s State of the Union speech on February 7 found that 62% of Americans think he has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing”. This view does not correspond to reality, and Biden in his speech emphasized his accomplishments, in infrastructure, climate, gun control and rebuilding American industry. But the Democratic Party is traditionally poor at selling its accomplishments; there is not much reason to believe Biden will be better than his predecessors at this critical marketing exercise, particularly in a country that is so evenly divided between two opposing Parties.
Much will also depend on the choices made by House Republicans, led by Kevin McCarthy. Will he be willing to work with Biden to find areas of possible bipartisan agreement, or will he solely position House Republicans as active opponents of anything the Administration proposes? It is interesting to note the parallel between McCarthy’s position in the House today and Biden’s in the previous Senate, in both cases a Party with a very thin majority is forced to give enormous power to a small minority, the extreme right wing voiced by Marjorie Taylor Greene in today’s Republican House can be compared to Joe Manchin’s power to negotiate legislation in the previous Democratically controlled Senate. McCarthy’s power has been significantly diluted by the concessions he gave to this vocal minority, the far right elements, to win election as Speaker and the aggressiveness of his right wing does not bode well for likely agreement between the Republican House and the Administration.
Republicans in the House will do everything they can to weaken Biden, particularly as indications today are that he is likely to run for re-election in 2024, they will no doubt launch numerous investigations aiming to implicate the President in scandals around his son’s actions in Ukraine and otherwise attacking the Administration in every possible manner, we can predict an atmosphere of virtual trench warfare for the next years between Republicans in the House and the Biden Administration. McCarthy’s will also try, but will not succeed, to dismantle the economic and social welfare architecture that Biden has constructed through his four major bills. Republicans control only the House, they cannot block or annul bills that have been passed nor pass new legislation that would invert the direction of US Government economic policy, but they can delay the execution and otherwise complicate the Administration’s job of accomplishing the numerous programs in the bills. And they will, as they have announced, use the requirement for the House to approve an increase in the Federal Debt limit to seek spending cuts by the Biden Administration that Biden has said he will not accept.
But McCarthy’s position is not easy, House Republicans are not unified, some moderate members would gladly work with Democrats to pass bipartisan bills in areas such as combating inflation, border security, dealing with China or government accountability. Some observers believe Biden will be able to put together a new majority in the House, combining moderate Republicans with Democrats. I think that is very unlikely, the right wing of the House Republicans currently appears to be controlling the agenda, with Trump in the background supporting them. The other risk for McCarthy is that the Republicans become blamed for government gridlock; if the Republican Party is seen to be run by fire-breathing extremists, for example if their position on the Federal Debt limit leads to a major financial crisis, Republicans may well be punished in the 2024 election
It is a strange time in US politics, an inversion of the recent past, with the Democrats presenting an unusual unified front behind the leadership of Biden and the Republicans appearing in disarray, a right wing fully supporting Trump and many others wishing to distance themselves from the previous President, without wanting to say it loud enough to attract the wrath of his numerous supporters. And Republicans do not agree on a clear economic agenda. McCarthy has today totally aligned himself with the Trump faction, his position will change, or not, depending on developments within the Republican Party in the selection of their Presidential candidate for 2024.