Predictions are hard. As baseball legend Yogi Berra once mused, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But armed with a few key assumptions, it’s possible to piece together thoughtful, if not guaranteed, scenarios for what to expect out of our nation’s capital next year.
It’s safe to say the direction of federal policy, and the political appointments that will shape our country for years to come, hinges on the outcome of the November elections.
Control of the Senate is unquestionably in play. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warns there are roughly eight Senate races he would compare to “a knife fight in an alley.”
Though most media analysts predict a Democratic wave and a new Senate majority, it may not be quite so simple because they tend to overlook the importance of one state: Alabama.
If retired Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville defeats Alabama Democratic Senator Doug Jones, and the latest publicly released poll (Morning Consult; 7/24-8/2; 609 AL likely voters) gives him a 17-point lead, then the map becomes more difficult for Democrats.
The Alabama win would take the Republican majority to 54, putting more pressure on Democrats to hold Michigan, and convert Arizona and Colorado. Even if they succeed, the result gets them to 48. They still need two more if Mr. Biden is elected President, or three if the Republican incumbent is re-elected.
If the GOP holds their majority firewall in Maine (Susan Collins), Iowa (Joni Ernst), and Montana (Steve Daines), it is conceivable Democrats would be forced into winning at least two of three from North Carolina and the pair of Georgia seats both present on the 2020 ballot. This assumes that Kansas (Roger Marshall in the open seat), Kentucky (Mitch McConnell), and Texas (John Cornyn) all become obvious GOP wins before the election.
There is a path for a Democratic majority, but the road becomes rockier if Republicans convert Alabama and hold Maine, Iowa, and Montana. Should Democrats win any of these states, and Maine looks the most vulnerable at this point, then their chances of creating a new majority rise exponentially.
As Larry Sabato, one of the country’s preeminent election analysts, writes, “If the Democrats manage to seize the Senate majority in 2020, the relatively pro-Democratic map in 2022 could insulate the party somewhat if Joe Biden is elected president and a midterm backlash benefiting the GOP emerges.”
“Relatively pro-Democratic” is a gross understatement. Assuming Republicans can hold all 22 of their seats up in 2022—a mighty tall assumption — the twelve Democratic-held Senate seats on the ballot that year offer few, if any, promising targets.
And then there’s the House. A Democratic wave this year would strengthen the Democratic Party’s grip on the House not just for the next two years, but for years to come.
Why? A wave would likely result in Democrats picking up a considerable number of state legislative seats in November. Just as the Republican wave of 2010 helped Republicans solidify their House majority via redistricting following the 2010 Census, Democrats would benefit throughout the 2020s from a wave coinciding with the 2020 Census.
Should the Democrats win, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi believe they will maintain unified government for at least four years, what might they hope to achieve?
Pelosi will be 81 in March and Schumer turns 70 this November. They may view the next two years as their best — and perhaps personal last — opportunity to enact a sweeping Democratic agenda. That agenda, of course, consists of a mixture of politically nourishing policies designed to please the increasingly-radical Democratic base while strengthening the Democratic hold on political power. (Think “Green New Deal.”)
But to advance much of their agenda, Senator Schumer must be willing to sideline the Senate’s legislative filibuster. Otherwise, Senate Republicans will block Schumer and Senate Democrats at every turn.
Democrats would claim dysfunction; Republicans would argue they are defending minority rights.
Senate majorities come and go. For that reason, Republicans and Democrats have traditionally been unwilling to eliminate the filibuster outright. That doesn’t mean the filibuster is invulnerable to change.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweaked the filibuster in late 2013 to allow a simple majority to advance executive branch nominations and federal judicial appointments. Majority Leader McConnell further tweaked the filibuster in 2017 to allow a majority to confirm Supreme Court nominations.
Schumer knows neutering the legislative filibuster would come back to haunt Senate Democrats when they revert to minority status. But, secure in the knowledge that Democrats will likely own the Senate majority for at least four years—and, better yet from their perspective, under unified government — Schumer may decide his best option is to kneecap the filibuster.
The worst kept secret in Washington, D.C. is that, given the legislative filibuster, the majority party in the Senate lacks true control unless it can command or, more often, cobble-together 60 votes.
Regardless, not every Senate Democrat supports axing the filibuster. Indeed, Democrats can advance certain elements of their agenda using “reconciliation.” That’s the tool Republicans used to advance tax reform on a strictly partisan basis three years ago. What reconciliation giveth, reconciliation can taketh away.
But, as the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out: “With Mr. Obama’s blessing this [kneecapping the legislative filibuster] will become conventional wisdom among liberal intellectuals, and woe betide a Democrat who disagrees.”
Side-lining the filibuster could easily result in the largest burst of legislative activity on Capitol Hill since 1965, following Lyndon Johnson’s landslide presidential election. Democrats held 68 of 100 Senate seats in 1965, so they had the votes to overcome filibusters and pass virtually any legislation they wanted. And they did.
The lopsided outcome of the 1964 elections made LBJ’s “Great Society” programs possible.
Similarly, if Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez enact elements of their “Green New Deal” next year, it will be because the 2020 elections, combined with a decision to neuter the legislative filibuster, handed them the opportunity to do so.
James Carter served as deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury and deputy undersecretary of labor under President George W. Bush. Earlier, he was a special assistant to OMB Deputy Director Alice Rivlin under President Bill Clinton. Jim Ellis is the founder of the Ellis Insight election analysis service and Senior Political Analyst for the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC).