Both parties searching for midterm magic

The two parties on the Hill are madly scrambling for issues, themes and gimmicks they hope will resonate with voters in next November’s midterm elections for control of Congress. Call it the search for a magic midterm elixir. The Democrats now hold razor-thin majorities in both bodies that could easily flip to Republicans given the fate of a president’s party in non-presidential election years. 

What may have changed that historical dynamic in just the last month has been the May 2 leak of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion reversing the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision, and the May 24 mass killing of 19 elementary school students and two adults in Uvalde, Texas.   

There is little Congress can do to block or influence the Supreme Court’s final judgment beyond channeling the strong vocal protests of abortion rights activists and engaging in some symbolic legislative attempts to enshrine the Roe doctrine in law.  

On the issue of gun violence, on the other hand, there has always been an abundance of firearms control measures waiting in the wings for action when the timing is right. And that is exactly what happened last Thursday when the House Judiciary Committee marked-up a 41-page gun control bill titled, the “Protecting Our Kids Act” (H.R. 7910). The measure, with six titles, will likely be fast-tracked through the Rules Committee and onto the House floor this week with limited general debate time and few, if any, amendments allowed. 

Congressional Republicans, in the meantime, have been relying primarily on running against the Biden administration’s inflation-charged economy and what they perceive as his loose immigration policies. Moreover, they have been riding cultural issues such as what is taught to young students in grade schools about race, gender, and American history. That may be a fitting platform for local school board candidates but an anomaly for national candidates from a party that has long touted the value of federalism — of devolving power to the people at the state and local levels. 

It has been an interesting turn of events in just one month’s time and, if anything, should be fair warning that there will probably be more twists and turns over the next five months before the votes are actually cast. If there is anyone acutely aware of the vicissitudes of American election-year politics it is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Not only has she been raising buckets of money across the country for her endangered House incumbent members, but also for candidates challenging sitting Republicans or running for newly created or opened House seats due to reapportionment and retirements.   

According to a Politico Playbook article on May 19, one of the House Democrats’ campaign strategies is to “pass everything, even if it’s doomed.” The article called this Speaker Pelosi’s “spaghetti-at-the-wall strategy” to see what sticks. The Speaker already knows that most of those bills will go nowhere in the Senate which is notorious as the place where good (and bad) House bills go to die. 

But it does give her House Democratic members cover to say on the campaign trail, when some obscure issue suddenly pops-up: “Oh, I voted for legislation to solve that problem six months ago. Unfortunately, I have no control over the inaction of my Senate colleagues.”   

That tactic may not overjoy Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). But he is already well practiced at blaming his Republican colleagues for blocking almost everything the majority party wants by using the threat of a filibuster that requires 60 votes to overcome. 

President Biden is doing his best to keep his party in control of Congress by campaigning relentlessly across the nation for Democratic candidates and on issues like gun violence and inflation. He does not have the power to do much about the latter — that’s the Federal Reserve’s wheelhouse. But a term popularized nationally decades ago was “jawboning” — using the presidential bully pulpit to pressure the private sector to take more responsible actions to hold down inflation. And that approach is now on display with the president’s cross-country anti-inflation tour begun last week. 

The last six months of a two-year Congress are always the most interesting and unpredictable as the body struggles not only to process its normal workload, including the 12 regular appropriations bills, but also to take innovative and bold actions to deal with issues that arise during campaign season.     

The results are usually mixed, with some unresolved matters punted into the next Congress.  But, as long as there is robust conflict marked by successes and failures, we can take some solace in knowing this is something the Founders fully  expected when they designed a system with both separate and shared powers, checking and balancing each other at every step of the way. 

Don Wolfensberger is a Congress Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.