What now? The answer is quite a lot.
It remains to be seen whether the change-over in the U.S. Senate, putting both chambers of Congress in the hands of Republicans, will do anything to alter the modus operandi of the Obama presidency -- which means the President’s willingness, or unwillingness, to roll up his sleeves, build relationships with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and hash out meaningful deals.
Given the DNA the President has displayed so far, the tendency has been the other way, taking him only so far, before lurching to the left when a deal might be at hand, consistent with his prior brief record in the U.S. Senate. But with two short years of his presidency to go, the question remains: Will President Obama be content to leave his legacy where it is -- mostly Obamacare -- and coast, doing little except issue Executive Orders, regulate, and veto whatever might come from Republicans in Congress? Or will we see a different man emerge, more Clintonesque, more Reaganesque as he desired, more akin to the one the country saw on the stump in 2008? We don’t know. The word “legacy” can be a powerful incentive so the President’s ability to grasp the weight of its meaning in a true historical context will be paramount going forward.
What does the Republican victory mean for and does this change anything in Congress? It changes everything. We can expect Congress to move more significant legislation in the next session than we have seen in many years – first a budget, then items like tax reform, a new energy policy, trade authority, education reform, and various measures on immigration. The path, timing and exact content of those bills will depend on what the President does as activity ramps up. In fighting to leave whatever additional legacy he can to his controversial health care plan, which the Republican Congress could try to strip if he refuses to work with them, what kind of deals will the President make? If the President decides to go on the defensive, expect Congress to send him even more bills to veto, believing this was not only their charge, but that the next election will be the referendum on their plans, their record, their policies, and the obstructionism of a Democratic White House.
The Republicans taking over the Senate also provides Congress with true oversight and budget control authority. Just as important as whatever legislation a Republican Congress may propose will be the level of oversight and accountability applied to federal agencies if they overstep their bounds, trying to legislate when they should be applying what Congress instructed, or demonstrate lapses. While not always the fault of our the executive agencies when Congress gives great latitude in the rulemaking process, the oversight aspect of this is one of the most significant changes for businesses who have felt the weight of government’s long arms. If agency officials believe they might be hauled before Congress to testify, it can put a damper on their policy ambitions. Subpoena power in Washington is huge, and so is the power of the purse, which Congress will use to their advantage. We shouldn’t underestimate either one. If the President decides to govern unilaterally and veto everything, we can expect oversight and appropriations to be used as a tool to put a check on the executive branch.
The 2014 election was clearly a repudiation of the President’s policies and the philosophy of government that continues to grow the leviathan, hamper businesses, job creation and economic growth, and create uncertainty that is the worst enemy of all of the above.
In the area of new legislation, the all-Republican Congress means items will move forward. For agriculture, where there has traditionally been more bipartisanship, the change may not be as dramatic, but you can expect many Republicans leading in these areas to get results. Look to the areas of child nutrition legislation, Feed the Future, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, and forestry management legislation to have bipartisan potential, as examples.
Where the Obama agencies have crept into uncharted territory – in dietary guidelines, implementation of food safety legislation, food labeling requirements, and in EPA authority, to name a few but the list goes on -- Congress is now in a position to ask more questions, exert budget pressures, and affect behaviors.
In short, the 2014 election has created opportunities that haven’t existed for years. There will be a marked change in business in Washington, a new breath in the U.S. Congress that has been stymied by gridlock for some time. Will the legislative branch be colored by presidential ambitions in 2016? Perhaps. Will a bunch of things happen in Congress only to be met with vetoes? Probably. Will Obama transform to make the most of the remaining two years? We’ll see…But the dynamic has been altered as of this morning, and many folks are perking up to welcome the development.
When I worked with Bob Dole for many years, he often recited Ronald Reagan telling him, “if you can get 90% of what you want, then it’s a good deal.” You could keep your principles, Dole would say, and still work with one another while not confusing “civility with weakness, or compromise with surrender.” The true currency of leadership for the former Senate Majority Leader has always been trust -- achieved by “keeping your word” -- and believing that nothing you do matters very much if you forfeit trust. “Those who don’t keep their word may or may not stay in office,” Dole would tell audiences, “but they almost certainly lose the moral authority that lies at the heart of true leadership.” It is up to the now Republican-led House and Senate, and the President, to exhibit true leadership.