After two years of the unified bill passing, the US has a split Congress – a Democrat-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But should the rest of the world have anything to worry about? Thomas A. Bryer, a professor at the University of Central Florida and Kaunas University of Technology (KTU), says that the new session that started in January has decisive power not only for the US but also for the world economy.
On 3 January the new session of the US Congress started with Democrats having a majority in Senate and Republicans controlling the House of Representatives. The divided government, which exists in the executive and legislative branches being controlled by different parties, is speculated to change some things in the White House and the governing president will face resistance to his legislative agenda, including his foreign policy.
Thomas A. Bryer, an expert in political science, explains, that originally, the Senate was designed as a body to be removed from the direct will of the people, and senators were chosen by legislative bodies in their respective states. This changed with the enactment of the 17th amendment to the US Constitution in 1913, allowing the people to directly elect their senators in the same manner as they do their representatives to the House of Representatives.
“Still, senators are elected to 6-year terms, as compared to the 2-year terms of the House of Representatives. This is supposed to allow senators more freedom to act deliberately and with deliberation, freed from the political need to get re-elected. In recent years, the Senate has lost its image of a deliberative body, as partisan politics have intruded on the ideal of building consensus”, says a professor at the KTU Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities.
He comments that each chamber, the Senate and House, has unique responsibilities, but both are needed for any bill to be sent to the President of the United States for signature. In the context of the recent change in party control of the House, both chambers have oversight authority and the power to convene hearings on any public matter, including the policies and practices of the president.
“The Congress must pass spending bills and agree to changes in the tax system. These cannot be done by the president acting alone unless specific authority was granted to the president to spend money on an emergency basis or to respond to a specific national need. The next two years will be challenging, or at least burdensome, to President Biden, as he will have to endure numerous investigations launched by the House of Representatives under its oversight obligation”, says Bryer.
Just a few weeks ago, Kevin McCarthy was elected official speaker of the House, and other elected representatives were sworn in as members of the 118th Congress. Yet the road was bumpy – it took 15 rounds of voting to finally swear in the California Republican. Undoubtedly, such chaos negatively affected people’s opinions of those in power.
According to the Pew Research Centre, as of May 2022, only 20% of US citizens trust the federal government. This is near a record low. By contrast, when citizen trust was first recorded in 1958, 73% of citizens trusted the federal government.
“There are two things that will likely happen in the next two years that will potentially lead to even lower levels of trust. First, the House Republican majority will be unable to stand together to pass any new bills; second, their inability to function as a policy alternative to the president and Democrats will be replaced by partisan attacks under the guise of oversight of the president. Moderates in the Republican Party may join with moderates in the Democratic Party to pass legislation, thus leading to more trust and confidence in the government. This is unlikely, given that partisan politics will shape the next presidential election in 2024 for which ambitious politicians have already started campaigning”, a KTU professor notes.
Donald Trump already announced his campaign for a second non-consecutive presidential term last year and is one of the biggest McCarthy supporters. Although Bryer believes that McCarthy’s victory itself will not likely have any effect on the presidential election, the benefit to Trump will be in the power given to extreme right members of the Republican Party.
“These Republicans can be a mouthpiece for Trump, introducing legislation to his liking, convening hearings and launching investigations that might embarrass President Biden, and so on. By challenging President Biden and weakening his position to advance policies Democrats and moderate independents want in the United States, a window certainly opens for Trump to emerge as a viable alternative for voters. If not Trump, who has plenty of legal and political baggage, the newly empowered extreme conservatives will allow for other “MAGA (Make America Great Again)” Republicans to emerge as potentially strong competitors to Biden, such as the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis”, Bryer reckons.
According to him, such a candidate can be a potentially strong competitor to Biden.
This chaotic start of the new House casts a shadow on McCarthy as well. It might seem that the House of Representatives that fails to elect a leader so many times does not trust him enough, so why should the citizens?
“Most citizens in the United States do not know anything about Speaker McCarthy. He has, until now, had little power and no authority in US policymaking. Citizens were first introduced to him during the contest for Speaker of the House. I will be surprised if he survives as a speaker for the duration of this Congress, which will end in January 2025”, states Thomas A. Bryer.
Upon being elected, McCarthy gave a speech about compensating for the policies approved by Biden. Will the House of Representatives with the Republican speaker ahead prevent the Democrat president from approving relevant bills?
“There will not likely be any new major policy victories for President Biden. His first two years in office have been highly successful, with landmark laws in infrastructure, technology, economic policy, and more. Left undone is a new law protecting voting rights, abortion rights, and civil liberties. With a Republican-controlled House, these are not likely to advance in any meaningful way. They might pass the Senate and come within a handful of votes in the House, but they will not likely pass”, says Thomas A. Bryer.
Bryer comments that one concern for the world is brinkmanship on the question of the US debt ceiling. Currently, the US government has borrowed more than it is authorised to by Congress. To keep the government operating, programs functioning, and employees paid, Congress must vote to raise the debt ceiling. If this does not happen, there will be repercussions for the US economy and these will trigger consequences for the global economy.
“The difference of a handful of votes in the House of Representatives can be the difference between ongoing economic recovery and global economic crisis. The stakes are high for the speaker and the president to negotiate smartly within a highly politised environment. If the speaker compromises, he could very well be out of a job. If the president compromises, he could face a more difficult path to re-election if he chooses to run”, says the expert.
Just before last year’s House elections, McCarthy said that the GOP is likely to oppose more aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia, because of more important issues closer to home. However, the KTU professor believes that the House of Representatives can only question the importance of support, but will not obstruct it.
“It is possible the House of Representatives will block further spending in support of Ukraine. It is unlikely to happen, as moderate Republicans remain steadfast in their support of Ukraine and their opposition to Russian aggression. The House will likely launch committee hearings and investigations related to spending that has been authorised, which will require the president to clearly demonstrate the value of money spent in support of Ukraine”, says Thomas A. Bryer.
Although republicans that hold the majority in the House of Representatives are sceptical about NATO too, the House of Representatives has no say in the US role in the treaty organisation, thus the fear that the US will invest less in NATO is unfounded.
“The House of Representatives has no authority to extract the United States from NATO, but they do have the power of the purse, or the power to spend or not spend money. It is highly unlikely that efforts will be made to threaten US investment in NATO. Republican leaders might convene hearings as part of their oversight role. Ultimately, there is no reason to expect any major change to US involvement in NATO or support for Ukraine, unless support for Ukraine is used as a point of leverage to extract concessions from the president during the negotiations to raise the debt ceiling”, he says.