The smart money in Washington is on Republicans to take control of the House of Representatives after this fall’s elections and on 2023 and 2024 seeing joyless political trench warfare with little to show for it.
But how bad will that gridlock actually be? If history is any guide, it will mean only about half as many laws will get passed in the first year of the new regime compared to the previous year.
Since 1955, when Democrats took the House in the first midterm election of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, the number of laws enacted in the House after the party opposite the one holding the White House takes control — Democrats taking it with a Republican president or vice versa — has fallen by 52.4% the following year, according to an analysis by HuffPost.
That drop-off in lawmaking productivity gets even worse when looking at the more modern era of the House, counting just the flips since Newt Gingrich led the GOP to a win in 1994. Since then, the drop-off in the first year of the House being flipped is 60.3%.
To be fair, not everyone agrees that lawmakers making more laws means more productivity. Famously, former House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said that was exactly the wrong way to look at it when he was asked in 2013.
“We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal. We’ve got more laws than the administration could ever enforce,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
And whether more laws are enacted isn’t just up to Congress. The president has to sign them, as well. But the prospects for getting much done, which presumably would include at least making a few more new laws (or passing laws repealing old laws) post-2022 are dim.
“We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal. We’ve got more laws than the administration could ever enforce.”
Liam Donovan, a principal at the Bracewell lobbying firm, said it was hard to see a divided government do more than keeping the lights on and thus there’s more cooperation now, before a possible midterm change.
“Part of the reason you’ve seen as much cooperation as you have this Congress beneath the surface is that that’s gone in January. Balance of power changes, personnel changes, political incentive changes,” he said.
And it’s not like Republicans are exactly campaigning on finding common ground with President Joe Biden. They have been pretty blunt about wanting to be a check on what they say has been an overreaching White House and power-hungry Democrats.
And if nothing much beyond bills to keep the government funded or avoiding a debt default are the only items to get done, Republicans have another way to pass the time until 2024: investigations of Biden and his administration. Possible oversight probe targets include Hunter Biden, the president’s son; southern border policy and the military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The idea that the next two years will be spent waiting for the 2024 election has been enough to deter some Republicans from seeking to move to Washington. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican recruited to run against Democrat Jeanne Shaheen for the Senate, is a prime example. Sununu, son of a New Hampshire governor and brother of a former U.S senator and representative, said in January he didn’t want to go to Washington to just be “a roadblock.”
Sununu told The Washington Examiner he had talked with current GOP senators who explained they did not expect much to happen if they won control of that chamber.
“They were all, for the most part, content with the speed at which they weren’t doing anything. It was very clear that we just have to hold the line for two years. OK, so I’m just going to be a roadblock for two years. That’s not what I do,” he told the Examiner.
The history of recent flips in the House has borne out that expectation.
According to the Résumé of Congressional Activity, a monthly summary published in the Congressional Record listing various measures of lawmaker activity, there were 105 bills enacted from January 2019 to January 2020, the first session of Congress with Nancy Pelosi as speaker and Democrats in control during the Trump administration.
That was a 68.1% decrease from 329 laws in the same period from January 2018 to January 2019, the last year Republicans held both chambers of Congress.
In 2011, when Boehner took the gavel from Pelosi and Democrat Barack Obama was in the White House, the drop-off was similar. Only 90 laws were enacted from Jan. 5, 2011, to Jan. 3, 2012, a 65.1% drop from 258 the year before.
In 2007, Pelosi became speaker for the first time after Democrats successfully campaigned on a six-point agenda in the 2006 midterms, setting up a divided government for President George W. Bush’s last two years. Only 180 laws were passed in 2007, down 42.5% from 313 in 2006.
In 1995, the first year of the Gingrich “Republican revolution” during President Bill Clinton’s first term, only 88 laws were enacted, a 65.5% drop from 255 in 1994.
The smallest drop-off after the House flipped was seen in 1955, the first year of a 40-year unbroken string of Democratic control that ended with Gingrich and his “Contract with America.” That year saw 390 laws enacted, only a 20.9% drop from 493 in 1954, when Eisenhower enjoyed a Republican-controlled Congress.
So, with Republicans currently needing only five seats to swing control of the House their way in the midterms, things are looking up for those who share Boehner’s view about how many laws lawmakers should be making.