2016 – A year of congressional elections as well

Måndag, 18. Januari 2016

While the presidential elections are usually in the spotlight, the congressional election is significant because Congress is the legislature in the US political system.

The next US presidential election is taking place on November 8, 2016. At the same time, all 435 House members and one third of the Senators will be elected for the 115th Congress (2017–2018). Due to the election cycle, the two branches of government are elected at the same time but separately as the separation of power system implicates. While the presidential elections are usually in the spotlight, the congressional election is significant because Congress is the legislature in the US political system. That said, in a checks and balance system, the president also has a part to play through his power to veto "acts of Congress”.

The most interesting question in 2016 elections is related to the Senate majority after the elections. Currently, the Republicans hold 54 seats and the Democrats 44 – 2 independents caucus with the Democratic Party. The Republicans will be defending 24 seats, compared to the 10 seats being defended by the Democrats. Given the amount of open seats, the fate of the majority in the next Senate seems to remain open until the end. While the Republicans bear the burden of defending more open seats, they have the advantage of the current majority position.

Another interesting question is, of course, what kind of changes in politics can we expect after the elections? Currently, there is a divided government in the US, with the Republican Party holding majority in both chambers of the Congress whereas the White House is ran by a Democratic President. One symptom of the so-called "gridlock” between the executive and legislative branches of government has been President Obama's use of executive orders to address "controversial” issues, such as climate change, immigration and more recently on guns. On the whole, however, the number of executive orders issued by President Obama is not over the top when considered in the longer run: during his first term President Obama issued 147 executive orders, whereas President George W. Bush issued 173, President William J. Clinton 200, President George Bush 166 and President Ronald Reagan 213 during their first terms. President Obama's second term number is also lower than compared to Bush junior, Clinton and Reagan at the moment, but of course this number does not count 2016 actions on the whole yet.

The relationship between the two parties has been problematic for a while – characterized by worsening "rancor and suspicion” to use President Obama's words in his recent State of the Union Address. The Affordable Care Act (or ObamaCare) was passed mainly by Democratic votes and the Republicans have tried to repeal it – or its parts. This is at odds with the long-held assumption of crossing the party lines to find a majority, to reach an agreement and to pass legislative measures. Relations within parties have also soured, particularly so among the Republicans who seems to be divided by the moderate Republicans and the less-compromise-prone factions – the Tea Party movement and the House Freedom Caucus. For example, Paul Ryan (R-WI) was recently chosen as the speaker of the House when the previous Speaker, John Boehner (R-OH), resigned due to lack of legitimacy in his own party. However, the election of Speaker Ryan could implicate a somewhat new era, by his focuses on the unity of the GOP rather than disunity and returning to the regular order of congressional actions.

In the United States, there are some interesting election patterns to keep in mind. Because of the "non-competitive” or "safe” seats in the House that are unlikely to switch due to the practice of gerrymandering – the changes in power relations are likely to be less dramatic, although there are other aspects to take into account as well such as how the presidential election outcome will correlate with the other results. It seems also, at least according to some views, that split-ticketing has become rarer recently – meaning that "voters are choosing candidates of the same party for the White House and Congress”. Whether this is the case in the upcoming elections remains to be seen. The activation of voters is also another significant aspect. According to the Bureau of Census, the 2014 Congressional "election turnout rate” was only 41,9%. It should be noticed, however, that the last elections were midterm elections. From the year 1978 onwards, the voting rates have been higher in the years of presidential elections compared to the congressional elections years.

During the election year, in addition to the domestic politics issues central to the Congressional election debates, there are broader international issues requiring Congressional attention. In 2016, Congress is most likely to vote on the trans-pacific free trade agreement (TPP). It will be interesting to see how this experience will have an impact on the other important trade agreement negotiations between Europe and the US (TTIP). In addition, related to foreign and security policy, the fight against ISIS is likely to remain on the agenda. Paul Ryan has asked publicly the majority leader of the House, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), to "set up listening sessions” so that the members would have an opportunity to air the views on the possible Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). President Obama submitted his draft proposal for the new AUMF to Congress already in 2015 but Congress has not really proceeded with the issue so far. But, as always, timing is important in politics and the agenda may also change rapidly.


The column is part of a series of FIIA columns on the US presidential elections.

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