News Column

Want to See Big Changes in Congress?

Oct. 15, 2012

Ross K. Baker

So you're a farmer upset about the unwillingness of the House to pass an agriculture bill. Or, you're an employee of the U.S. Postal Service who is disappointed with the lack of congressional action on reform. Or you're an IT person concerned about the failure to pass a cybersecurity bill.

Well, don't get too hopeful that this November's election is going to produce a dramatically different crop of legislators. Chances are that the changes will be modest.

If you're really looking for more radical change, just wait until 2014. If history is any guide, midterm elections -- not the years holding presidential races -- are when big turnovers in the makeup of Congress occur.

Look back no further than 2010, two years after President Obama took office. During that midterm congressional election, Republicans gained 63 seats in the House to retake the majority and six seats in the Senate.

In fact, the majorities that Obama drew upon to enact the Affordable Care Act and other parts of his program came with the Democratic congressional victories in 2006 when he was not on the ballot -- and not in 2008 when he was.

Presidential coattails

On rare occasions have presidential nominees provided long coattails for their party's congressional candidates. The last really large change happened in 1948. That's when Harry Truman won a full term in the White House, after taking over after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945. Truman provided coattails for 75 new Democratic House members and nine Democratic senators.

Since then, the only notable turnovers have been in 1964, with Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory leading to a gain of 36 seats in the House and a nearly two-third's majority, and in 1980, when Ronald Reagan's sweep cost the Democrats 12 senators and delivered control of the Senate to the Republican Party.

So what's at work here? Don't Americans want to give their newly elected or re-elected presidents a team of their fellow partisans to enable them to get things done?

The best answer is that Americans apparently feel safer with divided government. Or after the first two years of a new or incumbent president's term, they are unhappy with the direction he is taking the country and want to give the other party a chance to do better.

Sometimes, presidential elections suck the oxygen out of anything else going on in politics. Voters focus on the top of the ticket and pay less attention to lower offices.

Notable FDR lesson

Other times, presidential candidates contribute to this oxygen deficiency by not asking voters to give them a team to help them fulfill their campaign promises. Perhaps they are reminded of the hard lesson FDR learned in the 1938 election. FDR went gunning for senators who opposed his New Deal, only to be rebuffed by the voters.

Another factor is that in the U.S. system of government, there is no parliamentary vote of confidence. If Congress could regularly do what the British Parliament does by withdrawing support from the prime minister by a vote in the House of Commons, perhaps the midterm swings in American elections wouldn't be so dramatic.

Congressional candidates have also proved themselves adept at distancing themselves from presidential candidates who do not play well in their states and congressional districts, and presidential candidates won't embrace members of their party who don't want to be embraced.

It is only when voters, in the midterms, without the distraction of a presidential race, can focus on the candidates for Congress that the tectonic plates really move.

So sit tight for a couple of years and get ready to witness the earthquake.

Ross K. Baker is a political science professor at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.



Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012


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