Democrats in Power?

Although Republican fortunes seem to have picked up a bit from their mid-August lows, Democrats are still in a strong position to take control of the House of Representatives in the November elections.

Both Republicans and Democrats are using this possibility to motivate their bases and raise money. Democrats say they will use the power of the purse to force the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq and the investigative power of House committees to issue subpoenas and compel testimony in order to get to the bottom of alleged administration wrongdoings.

Republicans point out that many of Congress’ most left-wing members would likely become committee chairmen because they are now the ranking minority members by virtue of seniority. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial pointed especially to black Democrats John Conyers of Michigan, who would likely take over the House Judiciary Committee, and Charles Rangel of New York, who would become chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Republicans are trying to frighten the business community, which has been shifting some of its contributions to the Democrats. They are forecasting new waves of government regulation and anti-business tax policies if the Democrats get control. At the same time, the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, has promised fiscal restraint in the event that she becomes speaker of the House in January.

The way I see it, neither the Republican nor the Democratic scenario is likely to emerge in the event of a Democratic victory. There are many reasons why.

First, everyone has to remember that we don’t live in a parliamentary democracy. Control of one or even both houses of Congress does not confer much power in our system of government. President Bush is still going to be president for another two years and can veto anything sent to him by Democrats in Congress that would do any real harm to the economy.

Republicans deluded themselves that they could simply ram their agenda into law after they took control of Congress in 1994. But Bill Clinton’s veto pen effectively neutered them. So unless Democrats get a veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate, there is little reason to think there will be much of a change in policy except at the margin.

Of course, Democrats could be confrontational — holding up appropriations for, say, the Defense Department to get their way. But we all know what happened when Newt Gingrich tried something like that on Medicare in 1995: Clinton won, hands down.

The Clinton experience also shows how limited Congress’ investigating power is. Bush can easily stall any Democratic fishing expedition for documents or other proof of Republican malfeasance on the war or anything else. Clinton’s stalling tactics on Whitewater and other Republican investigations show the White House exactly how to do it.

Secondly, it is very unlikely that Democrats will get control of both the House and Senate, and there isn’t much you can do with just one house. Ronald Reagan had to contend with a Democratic House for all eight years of his presidency, and it was not a serious hindrance to his ability to govern.

Furthermore, Democratic control, if it happens, is likely to be by the skin of their teeth. Effective control may rest with the few relatively conservative Democrats who have a record of cooperating with Republicans on many issues. In other words, the Democrats will have their hands full just keeping all their members on the reservation and preventing defections to the Republicans on key votes.

Finally, the current Democratic leadership is not really up to the job of leading a serious challenge to Bush and the Republicans. I don’t know any Republican who doesn’t give thanks every day that Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Pelosi are the Democratic leaders. They are so ineffective that they really do half the Republicans’ job for them.

More than likely, not much of anything will change if the Democrats get control of the House or even if they get the Senate, as well. Presidents seldom get much of anything accomplished in their last two years anyway, and there is no reason to think that Bush is an exception. There is simply no time left to do very much except try to clean up the unfinished business. That won’t change even if Republicans keep control.

It’s inevitable that over the next year more and more attention is going to be focused on the 2008 presidential election. Members of both parties are going to be looking to their nominees for leadership and direction. What is really going to matter is control of Congress in January 2009, when the next president is inaugurated. Between now and then, Congress will just be treading water regardless of party control.