Washington tends to work best when one party controls both Congress and the White House. It’s most gridlocked, usually, when control of Congress is split.
The Congress of the past two years demonstrated the first principle. By any honest measure, President Donald Trump and his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate got a lot done in 2017 and 2018.
Still, Congress’ achievements were mostly overshadowed by Trump’s polarizing politics — the current shutdown being Example A. Trump’s unpopularity led directly to Democratic victories in November’s House elections, and the new Democratic majority that takes control there today.
The Democratic base, which styles itself “the resistance,” will pressure the incoming speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, to focus her caucus’ energies on investigating Trump and his administration, and will look skeptically on legislative compromises.
Watch: Pelosi seeks a return to regular order, like many before her
Recent history is foreboding. The years when Republicans controlled the House, and Democrats the Senate and White House, from 2011 through 2014, were some of the most dysfunctional in the history of the republic.
Fewer laws were enacted in those two Congresses, 284 and 296, than at any time in modern history, while the deficit reduction law of 2011 continues to hamper appropriators while doing little to restrain spending.
By contrast, the Congress of 2017 and 2018 enacted more than 388 new laws, with some final measures, like the criminal justice bill, yet to be tallied.
Still, the shutdown is already casting a dark shadow on 2019’s prospects.
The Democrats in charge of the House will seek to reopen the government this week, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he won’t bring up something Trump won't sign. A protracted shutdown could lead to a contentious year focused on immigration policy, with Trump seeking to secure funding for a border wall and to rile up his base and Democrats in resistance mode.
But perhaps the new Congress will reach a quick deal with Trump to reopen the government. Congress need not repeat the failures of the past. The bipartisan lawmaking of 2018, on a new farm bill, overhauls of financial regulations and criminal sentencing, and the October law to combat the opioid epidemic indicate that Democrats can find opportunities to work with Trump.
Democrats this year plan a push for “good government” overhauls of campaign finance and lobbying rules that the Republican-controlled Senate will largely spurn. Still, there is bipartisan support for tightening Justice Department oversight of foreign agents, for example.
With another presidential election year just around the corner, there is also cross-party support for directing more help to the states to secure their voting systems from foreign interference. And the Senate vote last month to break with Trump’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen could signal a more confrontational approach by Congress toward the administration’s foreign policy.
Meanwhile, the seemingly never-ending string of data breaches at companies and government agencies may finally force Congress to step in with national standards to protect consumers.