Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Republicans finally got some good news about the midterms. They have gained control of the House of Representatives.
This outcome will bring a bit of relief to a party that was walloped in the midterms. After weeks of speculation of a Republican red wave, Democrats were the party that came out on top. Democrats have retained control of the Senate – and will possibly expand their majority in December – they performed well in state legislative and gubernatorial elections, and they defeated many election deniers.
Given President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings, inflation and market turbulence as well as concerns about crime – combined with the historical trends of the opposition party usually doing well – these results were surprising.
But whether it is a ripple or a wave, any shift in the balance of power, even with the narrowest of majorities, will be extremely consequential. Even though Republicans did not gain the kind of seats seen in other “shellackings,” such as the GOP gains of 54 seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010, the House will now be a very different place for the Biden administration in 2023 than it is right now.
While the size of House majorities matters, the majority rules in the lower chamber. In contrast with the Senate, the rules of the House enable the party in power to move legislation effectively regardless of whether there is any support from the other side of the aisle. The kind of dilatory tactics that any senator can deploy against majority leaders, such as the filibuster, are not readily available in the House (though Democrats would do well to remember how much they accomplished since 2021 with a 50-50 split in the Senate).
When control of the House switches hands, as happened to President Barack Obama in 2010, the new balance of power profoundly reshapes the political playing field for the administration. With Republicans in control of the House, the Biden administration will likely encounter a combination of investigations, conservative-agenda setting and obstruction.
Investigations: House Republicans plan to launch a flurry of investigations to keep allegations of scandal front and center over the next two years, which will make it difficult for Biden to focus attention on the policy issues that matter to his administration. Republicans already have laid the groundwork for hearings into Hunter Biden and his business deals, hoping to use the President’s son as a mechanism to tarnish the administration’s image.
Just as Republicans, as House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy once admitted, used the Benghazi hearings to damage Hillary Clinton’s national standing, Republicans will seek to do the same with Biden’s son, promoting a narrative of corruption that they believe would be effective in 2024. Federal prosecutors believe they could charge Hunter Biden with tax crimes and a false statement, but the US attorney in Delaware hasn’t made a final decision, CNN reported last month, citing sources familiar with the matter. The younger Biden has not been charged with any crime and has denied any wrongdoing in his business activities.
Impeachment hearings are also likely, including on the President and other top administration officials. (Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have been mentioned.)
Agenda setting: With control of the House, we would expect to see Republicans put legislation up for debate and a vote, even if there is no chance of passage. The goal will not be to obtain legislation but rather to force Democrats into politically difficult conversations and to mobilize the Republican base. Though less powerful than the President, the House speaker and majority leader have immense power to shape the national agenda.
After the 2006 midterms, when Democrats retook control of the House, they pushed the conversation toward issues such as changing course in Iraq, reforming national security and increasing the minimum wage, which were a rebuke of what President George W. Bush had done. The Republican House will devote its energy to questions such as crime, inflation, voting restrictions, Afghanistan and Ukraine as well the education wars that, they believe, will help them politically.
Obstruction: A hostile House majority has the power to create legislative gridlock. Unless there is some surprise change in strategy, Republicans will make certain that Biden can’t move any more bills through Congress. In contrast with the first two years, when Biden managed to build a historic legislative record – the American Rescue Plan, the infrastructure bill, the Inflation Reduction Act and more – he will probably be hearing crickets in 2023 and 2024.
Biden might find a few areas where he can work with Republicans on their own terms, as President Bill Clinton did on federal spending cuts with the Republican Congress in 1996, but the President’s ambitions for legislation dealing with issues such as immigration reform and climate change will have trouble finding traction. The GOP will attempt to use its newfound power to make Biden look like an ineffective President.
Despite all the media speculation about whether the election will push Republicans away from Trumpism, the safe bet is that in the House the answer will be resounding no. They will dive deeper into the sea of red. The next speaker and majority leader won’t be able to afford angering the new generation of renegades, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia or the new senior spokesmen of the GOP, such as Ohio’s Rep. Jim Jordan, whom former Speaker John Boehner once called a “legislative terrorist.”
Of course, Republicans might subvert themselves, as many believe happened in 2022. With great power comes great responsibility, as Spider-Man liked to say. Given that they are in control, the Republicans will face the risk of Democrats blaming them for the problems the nation faces and given their opponents even more material to characterize them as an extremist party that can’t handle, or doesn’t want to, the challenges of governing. President Harry Truman’s attacks on the 80th “do-nothing” Republican Congress were pivotal to his upset victory over Thomas Dewey in the “polls were wrong” 1948 presidential election.
Regardless of the risks, the 2022 midterms were certainly not a total failure for the Republicans. When one party takes power from another on Capitol Hill, even in one chamber, the change has been considered a victory by most political observers. In this midterm, the inflated expectations about how Republicans would perform, some of which were driven in the final weeks by conservative-leaning polling groups, have masked some of the success that the party did enjoy. Rather than thinking of the midterms as a mission accomplished, Republicans would do better preparing for the fierce political battles that lie ahead, which will only be tougher as a result of the midterm outcome.