Looking Forward to an Exciting Lame-Duck Session

Despite Democratic gains in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, Election Day outcomes were far from the big blue wave that liberals promised

Though Democrats managed to flip the House, the loss of at least 30 Republican seats is in line with historical averages. Generally speaking, the president’s party loses around 30 seats in a midterm year. In fact, since the start of the 19th century, only two presidents have ever avoided losing seats in the first midterm election of their presidency.

Though the media are loath to admit it, Democrats underperformed on Tuesday, and Republicans did better (far better, in some cases) than expected, limiting their House losses while gaining up to four seats in the Senate. And all this occurred in spite of these midterms being the most expensive on record, the rise of progressive superstars like Robert Francis (Beto) O’Rourke in Texas and Andrew Gillum in Florida, and a record get-out-the-vote effort by an energized liberal base.

The overall takeaway here is clear: wishing (and rioting, protesting, marching, running people out of restaurants, threatening violence, generally being indecent) doesn’t make it so. Progressive values still aren’t cutting it, particularly in red states and middle America.

But what else did we learn from these elections? Here are five key takeaways.

The House GOP is going to get more Trumpian, whether they want to or not.
House Republicans may have lost their majority, but on election night, Trump backers and conservatives did well. All eleven candidates sponsored by the House Freedom Fund—a PAC focused on electing House conservatives—ran the table, winning all their races. All these members are expected to join the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which is primed to make this already powerful negotiating faction in the House significantly more influential.

This is especially true given that the loss of many House moderates has reduced the size of the GOP conference as a whole. In a smaller GOP conference—and one without as many moderates—an expanded freedom caucus would have increased leverage, and an enhanced ability to influence policies in a conservative direction.

Moreover, freedom caucus founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), is campaigning for minority leader. Even if he doesn’t win against the heir-apparent, current Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the freedom caucus will likely gain significant concessions about how the House is run in exchange for votes.

But should Jordan manage to overtake McCarthy, expect a more strategic, articulate, and positively pro-Trump agenda than we’ve seen from House Republicans in years.

Democrats are still talking about impeachment. Good luck with that.
Likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent the months leading up to the election trying to tamp down talk of impeachment, calling it “not a priority” and “not a policy agenda.”

But senior members of her own party apparently have a different idea. On Wednesday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was overheard on an Acela train extensively outlining Democrat considerations for investigations and impeachment of both President Trump and Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Pelosi may wish she could change the subject, but her progressive base wants to do anything but. A September CNN poll revealed that 79 percent of self-described liberals want President Trump impeached (according to exit polls from Tuesday’s election, just five percent of Republicans do). And if we learned anything from the total meltdown surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, these self-identified liberals are, for the Democratic Party, the tail that wags the dog.

It goes without saying that impeachment would be unsuccessful and likely end in disaster for Democrats. A successful impeachment requires the House to charge the president, and the Senate to convict him with 67 votes. While the Democratic-majority House may decide to charge the president with “high crimes and misdemeanors,” it’s highly likely the Senate will never take action.

As House Republicans learned in 1998, overreaching on impeachment in lieu of actually legislating can put you out of favor with the voters very quickly. Just ask Newt Gingrich—though the theatrics of impeachment and investigations are tempting, a robust legislative agenda is what gets you reelected.

That said, if Democrats want to pour gasoline all over themselves and light an impeachment match, far be it from me to stop them.

Congressional Republicans may want to forget about immigration, but the voters didn’t.
Though Republican leaders keep trying to tell themselves otherwise, their base does not support amnesty. And the Republicans who made a very public show of doing so earlier this year were punished for it.

Recall the amnesty discharge petition effort in June, where a group of House Republicans, led by Reps. Curtis Curbelo and Jeff Denham, attempted to force the House to vote on a bill to provide amnesty to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The procedural move forced a showdown with GOP leadership, and ultimately resulted in a series of votes that went nowhere.

But Curbelo and his allies made themselves very prominent supporters of amnesty—a policy that the Republican base still does not support. And on Tuesday, seven of the 23 Republicans who aligned themselves with that effort lost their races (six of the 23 signers were retiring). The electoral losses included Curbelo, despite Paul Ryan making a special campaign trip for him. Jeff Denham, who also led the amnesty effort, squeaked by in a 50-49 race.

Though their support for amnesty was likely not the only factor that led to the defeat of those seven Republicans, it almost certainly played a role. More than half of Republican voters surveyed in June said they’d be less likely to re-elect a Republican who voted for amnesty. On Tuesday, voters told us those polls were right.

The GOP’s failure to repeal Obamacare is an ongoing issue, and helped Democrats win.
In what should be a surprise to no one, Obamacare is still a massive failure. More than 2 million people lost their coverage this year due to rising costs, and a shrinking marketplace. In states across the country, co-ops are failing and individuals buying coverage on the exchange have only one or two choices. There’s a reason health care continues to rank as a top worry for American voters.

Republicans knew that government-run health care was going to be a failure, which is why they spent eight years promising to repeal it. Except after two years with unified control of the government, they still haven’t. Rather, they’ve repealed the individual mandate. A good step, but not nearly enough to address Obamacare’s failing mechanisms or remove the stain of their culpability in permitting a health care situation that will only get worse.

It is exactly this inaction—and the failing health care system that is resulting from it—that gave Democrats their biggest talking point of the midterm cycle. “Republicans are coming for your healthcare,” they said. “If you think it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse.”

This entire Democratic message easily could have been prevented if Republicans had just done what they spent eight years saying they would do. Repeal the law. Then reform the system.

Which leads me to my last point.

The lame duck session matters.
When the current Congress returns next week, they need to do one thing: run through the tape. November and December represent the last gasp of a unified Republican government, and what Republicans do with it matters. Whether it’s healthcare, building a wall, defunding Planned Parenthood, or passing more tax cuts, the GOP needs to unite behind specific priorities and go to the mat.

They should take a lesson from Democrats, who, on the cusp of losing their majority in 2010, shot for the moon. They went hard in on repealing don’t-ask-don’t-tell, passing the DREAM Act, and locking in higher spending. While they failed on the latter two, they succeeded in the first.

The fight matters. And lame ducks can be home to significant action if a party is determined enough to see the fight through.

Photo Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

About Rachel Bovard

Rachel Bovard is senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute and Senior Advisor to the Internet Accountability Project. Beginning in 2006, she served in both the House and Senate in various roles including as legislative director for Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and policy director for the Senate Steering Committee under the successive chairmanships of Senator Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), where she advised Committee members on strategy related to floor procedure and policy matters. In the House, she worked as senior legislative assistant to Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-Il.), and Congressman Ted Poe (R-Texas). She is the former director of policy services for the Heritage Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelBovard.

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