With the elections of 2006, we have once again witnessed the swing of the pendulum of public opinion from the political right to the political left. For the first time in nearly 12 years, the next Congress will have a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. The impact of this election is even more dramatic considering that political control shifts not only from one party to the other, but also within the committees of Congress as new Chairs establish new agendas for action. The public pendulum is thusly magnified by the political system.
Since 1994, Republicans have essentially controlled both houses of Congress. Before that, Democrats primarily controlled Congress for many years. When the public elects a President of one party, they often choose a Congress of the other party in the next election to keep a check on that President. Our Constitution established that system of checks and balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches that continues to operate to this day. It seems that the public wants a few more checks and a little more balance.
Ever since President Nixon and the Watergate break-ins, we have watched a perennial game of “gotcha” politics as the political pendulum has moved back and forth between the left and right wings of the political parties. With the powers of committee chairmanships and the accompanying subpoena powers, Democrats went after Nixon, Republicans went after Carter, Democrats went after Reagan, and, Republicans went after Clinton. Regardless of your political persuasion, it is easy to see how the system has functioned in recent history. Are we now to expect that Democrats will go after Bush? I hope not. We need to get past “gotcha” politics and stay focused on the issues that challenge our future.
According to recent polls from the last election, about 47 percent of voters consider themselves to be moderates, 32 percent claim to be conservative and 21 percent identify with the liberal label. Many of those newly elected members of Congress won their seats by appealing to moderates unhappy with Republicans. Most of those new Senators and Representatives are more moderate than they are liberal or conservative, but they participate in a system that supports power to those in the majority with seniority. Democratic members with the greatest seniority will be chosen as committee chairs. What actions are they likely to take?
Just like the Republicans in 1994 with their “Contract for America,” the Democrats have lined up their opening agenda for the new Congress. Democrats plan to open the new session with changes in the lobbying rules and passage of all the recommendations of the 9-11 commission in addition to passing a minimum wage increase, cutting student loans in half, requiring government negotiations with pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices for Medicare, promoting stem cell research and instituting pay-as-you-go requirements so that future tax cuts or spending increases will have to be offset. Whether President Bush signs or vetoes any of those initiatives will be subject to the fine print or to the politics of the next presidential election.
What remains to be seen is how far any of these new committee chairs will go to seek retribution for the War in Iraq or to undo tax cuts or to revisit spending and budget decisions. While their direction right now may not be clear, the loyal opposition will certainly engage their opportunities to ask tough questions and demand answers to questions that have gone unanswered for some time. They will also offer their own recommendations for change.
If there is any lesson from history, it is most likely that we will witness a substantial stalemate between Congress and the White House for the next two years. Yes, there will be a few issues where they can find common ground and agree on agenda items. However, it is more likely that we are actually opening the debate to elect our next President. With a majority in Congress from one party and a President from the other party, we will witness an energetic debate that will help to set the course of our future. As business owners, we have a lot at stake in this debate. It is most important that we stay tuned, get involved, stay engaged. Participate! Our future depends on it!