The great obsession these days is to guess which political party will take over Congress in November. The consensus: The House of Representatives will soon be in Republican hands and the Senate will remain narrowly Democratic.
The key word is narrowly. No one doubts that Republicans will gain seats in both the House and Senate. But the margin of majority either way probably won’t be more than a few seats - and that’s the important fact.
Washington is headed for a two-year period of trench warfare as a result of the November elections. When it comes to legislation, neither party will gain or lose much ground except in rare instances. President Obama won’t be able to pass sweeping expansions of government authority and outlays as he did in his first two years. Republicans won’t be able to force wholesale reversals of those policies.
The pundits’ focus on control, in other words, is misguided. No one will be in charge - in a decisive way - whether the GOP takes the House, the Senate or both. The margins will be too narrow to matter, especially with a president willing to wield his veto pen.
The situation is beginning to dawn on the capital, and, no doubt, many barrels of ink will be spilled after the midterms trying to sort it all out.
But why wait? Here is an early guide to the post-election analysis:
The big question after the election is: What will the president do? Congress, on its own, won’t be able to do much. That’s the consequence of narrow majorities (either way). But Mr. Obama can change the equation by moving to the middle and, for the first time, trying to engage Republicans in a serious and broad way.
President Clinton did that successfully after his first two years in office and a midterm debacle that brought Republicans into power on Capitol Hill. Back then, starting in 1994, Mr. Clinton famously “triangulated” both parties, championed some groundbreaking though moderate-leaning legislation, and managed to get re-elected two years later.
We hear that Mr. Obama is not planning to mimic that masterstroke. Instead, his aides are studying ways to circumvent Congress and execute massive policy shifts without resorting to legislation. They want to govern by executive fiat - for example, by imposing limits on greenhouse gas emissions via regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency.
This is a very bad idea. All sorts of industries that make and distribute energy will be pushed to the breaking point without the soothing compromises that Congress inevitably produces. The impact of sudden regulation likely would be huge and decidedly negative, which is something the nation’s already weak economy cannot stand.
There’s a reason the Founding Fathers imposed checks and balances on the way the branches of government dealt with each other. Restrained authority works best in a democracy because it provides better results to the majority of citizens.
President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made a mistake when they used excessive executive power to crack down on terror suspects, and Mr. Obama would be acting improperly if he were to do the same on environmental matters.
That’s the macro view. On a more minute level, control of Congress does make a difference in at least one way: The majority party sets the agenda for the legislature’s many committees and, in that way, dictates the terms of public debate on issues large and small.
For instance, there would be a night-and-day difference if liberal Democrat Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California continued as chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee or if a Republican - virtually any Republican - had the same job.
Chairmen set the committee schedules, decide what issues are discussed - or not discussed - and, perhaps most important, choose what questions are investigated or ignored.