Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Governing After the Midterms: Intransigence or Productivity?

Timothy Sherratt


By Timothy Sherratt

December 1, 2014


Despite the strong reactions to President Obama’s decision to take unilateral action on immigration, government will survive the dire forecasts of its reduction to executive diktat. The pull of 2016 and the Republican leadership’s successful resistance to the party’s right wing, together with the spoils of victory and a scarcity of realistic options for responding to the president’s action, should combine to prevent a major conflict between Congress and the White House. Some fruitful policy making may even result.

Given six years of quasi-gridlock, the midterm results did not make President Obama a lame duck. They may even have liberated him from those in his own party less willing to reach across the aisle. The president’s unilateral action on immigration did not diminish the Republicans’ need to demonstrate that they can govern constructively. This is the top priority. While the president has angered Republican leaders, they will vehemently resist any talk of government shutdowns or attempts to impeach.  

There is reason to think that President Obama may survive his executive action on immigration given the incentives for Republican leadership to lead the party firmly away from intransigence towards productivity. What will guard against spillover effects from the immigration struggle is that each of the congressional committees is a separate fiefdom with its own dynamics, and Republican committee chairs will be eager to put their own imprint on their respective policy domains, especially in the Senate where the G.O.P. assumes control in January. For some of those Republicans, among them Senators Paul, Rubio, Cruz and a few others, presidential aspirations for 2016 will lend extra urgency to these efforts.

So, Senator Hatch at Senate Finance will want repeal of the medical device tax whether or not Senator Inhofe at Environment and Public Works successfully steers the Keystone XL Pipeline to the president. The new House Ways and Means chair, Paul Ryan, will press for renewing Trade Promotion Authority, which “fast tracks” trade agreements through a simple up-or-down vote in Congress. President Obama will support such a move irrespective of attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Bipartisan support for tax reform can survive Republican intransigence on judicial appointments.

Immigration legislation may be lost from the 2015 agenda in light of President Obama’s action. In time, the president may regret “poisoning the well,” as Majority Leader Elect McConnell warned. But as the months pass and the presidential primaries preempt the legislative calendar, Republican action on education to expand school choice programs, popular with Hispanic voters, may move forward. Having won 36 percent of the Hispanic vote last month, up from 2012 but still below the 38 percent they won in 2010, Republicans will be eager to make fresh inroads on a demographic they looked to have surrendered to the Democrats.

But even if the American political system continues to function much as it has for the remainder of the president’s term, perhaps even a little more constructively, the dismal 36 percent turnout in last month’s elections serves as a reminder of the depth of citizen frustrations. The country needs to see government functioning well and responsibly. It needs to see its leaders making reasonable accommodations of the kind that produced a bipartisan immigration bill in the Senate last year. Representative democracy should secure a basic trust from citizens that their views are heeded in the deliberations that shape laws they must then obey. When citizens absent themselves from the primary means of voicing their opinions, government may continue to function, but its moral authority will be diminished.


-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”