Editor’s Note: Jeffrey A. Rosen served as acting US attorney general and deputy secretary of transportation during the Donald Trump administration, and as general counsel and senior policy adviser at the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration. He is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the institute. The opinions expressed are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Recent Democratic rhetoric and the longer history of Congress and midterm elections remind us that parties on their way to losing congressional majorities often talk the following way about their legislative agendas:
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York declared last week that the party-line passage of the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act “will endure as one of the greatest legislative feats in decades” and that the current Congress has had “one of the most productive stretches in recent Senate history.” President Joe Biden’s pollster, John Anzalone, told Politico that “we’re on the offensive” and that the Democrats’ spending bills would boost them in the midterm elections.
But experience suggests that these kinds of congressional activities do little to change the trajectory of midterm elections. In 2017 and 2018, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, they enacted a string of legislative victories – despite Democratic resistance.
Included were Department of Veterans Affairs personnel reform, a farm bill, a water infrastructure bill, an aviation bill, a NASA modernization bill, an opioid treatment bill, music digital copyright reform, the First Step Act criminal sentences reform and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act reconciliation bill. Two new Supreme Court justices were also confirmed during that time.
But neither those legislative achievements nor the strong economy was sufficient to enable Republicans to hold the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. They did maintain a narrow majority in the Senate.
Looking further back to 1977 and 1978, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when the problems of inflation and high energy prices resembled the current administration’s woes, Democrats also controlled both houses of Congress.
During that time, they and the Carter administration established the Department of Energy, the Office of Personnel Management and the Federal Labor Relations Authority. They also reorganized the civil service, enacted new natural gas regulations, a trade bill, airline deregulation and approved the Panama Canal Treaty. Yet in the 1978 midterm elections, with a President whose approval rating was at 49%, the Democrats lost 15 House seats and three Senate seats.
Today, Democrats again control both houses of Congress and the White House. They are touting this Congress’ legislative enactments, nearly all of which involve massive federal spending – a Covid-19 bill, an infrastructure bill, a semiconductors bill, a veterans health bill and the Inflation Reduction Act. The Senate also confirmed one Supreme Court justice.
None of these seems likely to be historically consequential in policy terms, but they are record-breaking in the size of their spending and have contributed to inflation. The result is a worsening US economy that has already contracted for at least six months.
It seems fair to suggest that in terms of legislative enactments, Schumer can reasonably be compared to Sen. Robert Byrd, the majority leader in 1978. Each used their position to enact a modest number of bills that expanded the size and reach of the federal government. So, will today’s legislative acts boost their chances in the looming midterm elections as the nation struggles with record-high inflation and energy prices, and with a President even less popular than Carter was?
History suggests the answer is no.
The passage of the far more consequential Obamacare bill in 2010 did not forestall Democrats losing 63 House seats and six Senate seats that year. And it is perhaps a telling statement about today’s politics that recent legislation has had virtually no impact on Americans’ everyday concerns: gas and food prices, real estate or rent costs, increase in crime, illegal crossings at the Mexican border and the educational impact of remote schooling from Covid-19 lockdowns. Today, the public remains sour on the Biden economy, and, by proxy, his party, despite all the spending hype.
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But every election has unique factors of its own. No former President – since Theodore Roosevelt toyed with running for the 1920 Republican presidential nomination – has loomed so large over a midterm election as Donald Trump has. Democrats will also attempt to drive up turnout – which tends to sag in midterms – by leveraging key issues of the moment. They will emphasize culture war concerns (abortion rights and gun control) to their advantage with certain groups of voters.
Schumer – an experienced and savvy politician – knows that in past years Congress passing more bills has not been sufficient to overcome public dissatisfaction with a President. But whether he and his party can do anything else to overcome Biden’s unpopularity is anything but clear. Many pundits are forecasting a repeat of the historical pattern for one or both houses of Congress.
But we could be surprised. Maybe this year will stand out from past examples. It is good to recall the words of famous college basketball coach Adolph Rupp, who said, “That is why we play the game, to see who wins.”