John Dickerson: GOP control of Senate might crack gridlock

05/30/2014 12:00 AM

05/29/2014 5:11 PM

Congress has historically low approval ratings. Gridlock and partisanship are the main reasons Americans are so critical. But when you look at polls of public attitudes about Congress, the majority holds opinions that would do the least to change this situation it hates so much.

People either want to split party control of Congress, which would perpetuate the current stagnation, or they don’t think that a change in congressional control would change anything, which suggests they won’t vote because they believe gridlock isn’t going away, no matter who is in charge.

If shaking up things in Washington, D.C., is all you care about, there is an obvious solution: Vote for a Republican Senate candidate near you. This is not a partisan or ideological pitch. It’s simply the only available option this November for voters who are driven by their frustration with inaction.

The House is going to stay in the GOP’s hands, which means the two possible outcomes in November are that either things stay the same or Republicans take control of both houses of Congress. We know what the former produces: Bills that pass the House go nowhere in the Senate and vice versa. That is unlikely to change after the elections. The rut is pretty deep, and there would be no new political pressure to break either party out of it. The onset of presidential politics is likely to slow progress further.

For some, this is a fine outcome. The American constitutional system is designed to be slow, frustrating and seize up now and again. Change for change’s sake is like driving off a bridge to get out of traffic; you’re not stuck in traffic any more all right.

If you’re impatient, though, Republican control would likely give you the change you seek. That is what excites and terrifies partisans. The president will immediately have a harder time getting his nominations through the Senate. If a Supreme Court justice retires, it will lead to an epic confirmation battle.

Right now Democrats in the Senate can investigate anything they like. So they can keep the pressure on polluters and low-cost housing landlords and at least raise awareness about the issues they care about. All of that goes away under Republican control when a new batch of committee chairmen schedule hearings devoted to conservative causes.

That many not sound like change. It’s just the same partisan battle; the two sides are just switching positions.

A more substantive change would come from Republicans having to prove that they can govern. For the moment, partisanship provides an excuse and impediment to action. House Republicans pass legislation, but their views never have to be sharpened or reconciled with those of their Senate colleagues. Control of both houses could force clarity in the GOP on issues such as immigration, which leaders have ducked so far.

When you control both houses, this kind of inaction can’t be allowed if the goal is to be taken seriously as a governing party. Republicans would also have to provide more concrete votes on issues like health care, tax reform and the budget. Republican strategists know the GOP has to shake the “party of no” label, which means producing actual accomplishments.

That would not revolutionize governance. But given the two possible outcomes in November, if you’re making your choice on what scenario might crack the peanut brittle casings of governance, Republican control of the Senate offers the best chance.

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