The Republicans’ win on Election Day has radically affected the partisan dynamics in Washington. With the Republicans now holding a two-seat majority over the Democrats in the Senate and enjoying their largest majority in the House since World War II, the traditional pushback against the president’s party during his second midterm election — referred to by some as the “six-year itch” — and frustrations about the president’s agenda seem to have created a situation in which the president will be facing lame duck status for the final quarter of his tenure.
Marked by Democratic incumbent Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) falling to their Republican challengers, the GOP’s strong performance has relegated the congressional Democrats to a role defined solely by the power to assert the filibuster — a role the Republicans have been forced to occupy since 2007. This, however, may be only temporary, and many believe that in the next two years, the Republicans must make the case for retaining leadership if the party is to stay in power past 2016.
“The question of if 2016 will be a reversal of 2014 depends entirely on what the Republicans choose to do with this leadership opportunity,” said John Horst, author of “Community Conservatives and the Future: The Secret to Winning the Hearts and Minds of the Next Conservative Generation.”
“However, from a practical point of view, 2014 was simply an example of the numbers working out for the Republicans. They will not in 2016 — the races and the electorate will both be against the Republicans. The Republicans must be careful that they do not take more from the 2014 election than is actually there.”
In fact, the Republicans’ success may be less a victory for the Republican base than an indication of the Democratic base’s failure to show up to vote. The 2014 elections had a voter turnout of just 36.4 percent, per the United States Election Project, making them the lowest participated federal election since 1942. The midterms also saw the continuation of a trend of diminishing voter participation, which has been dropping since the 1964 midterm high of approximately 49 percent.
Further, of those who voted this year, 75 percent were white. According to Wall Street Journal exit polls, enthusiasm from the Asian and black communities for Democratic candidates dried up from 2012 and the average voter was both older and wealthier than the average 2012 voter.
Despite this, the 2016 election is expected to yield a turnout of more than 50 percent of eligible voters, with the Democratic and independent bases both traditionally expected to appear in stronger numbers than during midterm elections. Coupled with the fact that the Republicans will be forced to both defend 20 of the 33 Senate seats up for election that year and deal with the potential re-election of the slate of Tea Party senators who were elected in the 2010 Republican sweep, this will make the Senate Republicans extremely vulnerable in 2016 and likely to lose the majority.
With this in mind, many are looking at the Republicans’ policy decisions during the next Congress as an indication of whether the party can effectively draw enough moderate Democratic and independent voters in order to successfully campaign for the White House and continue to have control of the Congress. With most Americans having an unfavorable view of the Republicans — 55 percent, compared to 47 percent who have a similar view of the Democrats, according to Pew Research — it is a commonly-held belief among many political analysts that the Republicans cannot hold onto power without a significant attempt toward bipartisanship.
“If the GOP in the next two years offers a contradictory slate of limited government and paternalistic, interventionist programs, they might not only lose the elections in 2016, they might lose their party” said Edward Hudgins, director of advocacy for The Atlas Society, a libertarian think tank.
“Millennial generation voters tend to like economic opportunity but they are socially liberal and thus tend to lean against the GOP. They will be the majority of voters in the future.”
Net neutrality and the Republicans
Immigration reform and net neutrality represent two early tests of the congressional Republicans’ commitment to bipartisanship.
Net neutrality, in its most basic definition, is the concept that every bit of information on the Internet should be treated the same and granted the same levels of priority. In practical terms, it means that an Internet user should be allowed unfettered access to all content on the publicly-accessible Internet without additional costs or requirements. It also means that one Internet content provider can offer that content equal to another provider without having to pay for preferred access. This concept has been instrumental to the Internet’s growth and serves as the cornerstone of how the Internet functions today.
However, many of the larger Internet service providers, including Verizon and AT&T, have argued that they should have the right to dictate how their infrastructure is used. For example, the major ISPs maintain that they should be allowed to charge major bandwidth users — such as Netflix or Google — more for their domination of the Internet pipelines. This additional charge would constitute an “inconvenience fee” for other users forced to cope with a diminished download stream. Other suggestions the ISPs have offered include tiered pricing based on monthly bandwidth use and priority access for specific content, such as XBox Live traffic over Comcast’s network.
In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of Verizon and struck down the 2010 Federal Communications Commission rules that required equal treatment of all Internet content. Without ruling the broadband providers to be “common carriers” — communication utilities ruled essential to everyday life, such as the landline telephone network, the court ruled that the FCC rules subjected broadband to common carrier requirements.
To accommodate the exploitable loophole created by the court decision — the ruling effectively gave the ISPs free reign to treat Internet traffic as they choose in the absence of rules — the FCC issued a proposal that would allow the broadband providers to charge major bandwidth users more for access, granted that the ISPs do nothing to hinder normal Internet access. This suggestion — known as paid prioritization — was largely panned, resulting in more than 3.7 million comments to the FCC, with 99 percent of those comments being critical of any planned opposition to net neutrality. Support of net neutrality was bipartisan, with both conservatives and liberals supporting it in large numbers.
Following Election Day, President Obama called on the FCC to draft rules that would recognize broadband as a common carrier, ensuring that net neutrality would be the law of the land. “Simply put: No service should be stuck in a ‘slow lane’ because it does not pay a fee,” the president said in a statement released by the White House. “That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth.”
Cable and telecommunications lobbyists and executives immediately decried the president’s request, stating that net neutrality and government intervention would stifle investment in broadband development. Despite strong base support for net neutrality, the congressional Republicans followed the lead of the telecom lobbyists.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a potential candidate for president in 2016, tweeted: “‘Net Neutrality’ is Obamacare for the Internet; the Internet should not operate at the speed of government.”
“Net neutrality puts gov’t in charge of determining pricing, terms of service, and what products can be delivered. Sound like Obamacare much?” Amanda Carpenter, Cruz’s communication director, elaborated in a separate tweet.
These tweets came despite the president explicitly stating: “I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services.”
Cruz’s comment was preceded by previous calls from Democrats — which received, on average, 1.2 times the average telecommunication contribution compared to other members of Congress, according to MapLight — and telecom-supported Republicans for the FCC to reject adoption of “common carrier” rules.
Immigration reform and “faithfully executing” the laws of the land
The last time immigration was reformed in the United States was under President Ronald Reagan, who signed into law an amnesty agreement which allowed illegal immigrants who have been in the nation for at least five years to gain legal status. At the time, the agreement affected 40 percent of the foreign-born population in the U.S. It was met with two executive orders — one issued by Reagan and another issued by his successor, George H. W. Bush — that extended the amnesty to family members of the amnesty-granted immigrants.
President Obama has hinted that he is prepared to issue the long-awaited executive order that would — in the same vein as the Reagan agreement — offer significant amnesty relief to many illegal immigrants that have been living in the U.S. long-term. This order will come despite a pending lawsuit against the president over his use of executive action, the possible threat of a government shutdown, and potentially, the introduction of impeachment hearings.
The order would also come in spite of the president’s own warning. In 2013, during a Telemundo interview, the president said of extending “Dreamers” protection to other groups, “If we start broadening that, then essentially I’ll be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally. So that’s not an option.”
“Dreamers” are individuals who were brought to this country illegally as children and raised here. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, the proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act), and other pieces of legislation have been drafted to offer them a path to citizenship.
Yet Congressional Republicans’ continued blockage of immigration reform, as well as the lobbying of immigration advocates and possibly frustration among Democrats following a failed attempt to reduce the Republicans’ House majority on Election Day, have given the president reason to push forward.
The proposed orders are thought to extend enforcement of DACA to extend to up to five million addition immigrants — primarily, the families of already-protected DACA applicants — and allow for the issuance of work permits. This is likely to cause an interbranch war, as the congressional Republicans feel that the president must respect the intentions of Congress in the enforcement of federal laws and the use of executive orders violates the constitutional requirement that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” With the courts unlikely to agree to referee a fight between the executive and legislative branches, it is unclear where this fight may go.
The hard road ahead
These potential pitfalls are just a small sampling of what awaits the Republicans in the next Congress. Fights over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — particularly, over the medical device tax — and questions on corporate tax reform, marriage equality, judicial appointments, the potential auditing of the Federal Reserve, sequestration and social program spending all await congressional consideration and all represent potential landmines in the path of the Republicans’ argument toward bipartisanship leadership. With many Republican candidates having campaigned on partisan terms for many of these issues — such as promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act — the Republicans may be painted into a corner when it comes to courting the moderates needed for the party to continue to hold onto power.
However, with the Republicans continuing to struggle with a fractured base — divided among the religious right, the mainstream establishment and the libertarians — the question of whether the GOP can unify itself to agree to a single course of action is suspect. Such cohesion seems even more unlikely when the question of bipartisan outreach is factored in.
“So what does the GOP’s internal conflict mean for its external offerings?” mused The Atlas Society’s Hudgins, reflecting on the Republicans’ short-term strategy. “There are some proposals upon which the factions can agree, that enjoy widespread public support, and could even garner votes from some congressional Democrats. For instance, approving the Keystone pipeline from Canada is popular with labor unions and free marketers alike.”
Yet, considering the GOP’s trouble in growing its base, particularly among young voters, Hispanics and blacks, Hudgins added: “The Republican Party’s death spiral might have slowed in the 2014 election. Or perhaps the low voter turnout simply gave more weight to the party’s shrinking base. But if its internal conflicts continue, if it does not adopt a consistent agenda, the GOP could slip into the dustbin of history.”