Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
This column started in January 2017 and since then the unpredictable nature of Washington and nationwide politics in the United States has only increased. 2018 has been a year like no other in American politics.
Few beside the President, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi can rightfully claim to know what will happen in the year ahead. But there is one thing that we can comfortably be sure of – that the volatile, hostile and febrile nature of politics will continue next year. At the risk of becoming a hostage fortune, below are four major themes that we can expect to dominate in 2019.
The White House tries to work out how to navigate a split Congress
Donald Trump has been accused of having little interest in pursuing a legislative agenda, often punting the heavy lifting to Paul Ryan, the Speaker, and the Congressional leadership. Whether interested in passing bills or not, in his first two years the President has overseen a major overhaul of the US tax code that has had real world affects for businesses and American taxpayers. For that one success, there were of course multiple failures – notably the repeated botched attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare owing to fractures in the Republican Party on the Hill.
2019 will present new challenges. The newly-elected Democratic members of Congress are for the majority progressive, ambitious and social media-savvy. The likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib have shown already that they are adept campaigners who can command media attention. They will be a thorn in the side of both the President and the Congressional Democratic leadership, by pushing the latter to the left on issues like universal healthcare and a New Green Deal.
Trump has the benefit of an expanded majority in the Senate, but will be hamstrung at every given opportunity by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. It means that for legislation to stand any chance of passing, there will need to be a bipartisan spirit that has been desperately sparse in recent years.
On the face of it, there is little appetite for the two parties to reach across the aisle on legislation as both will be focussed on keeping their bases happy looking ahead to 2020. Despite that, there are emerging signs of policy areas where a bipartisan spirit is breaking out – last night, the Senate easily passed a bipartisan criminal justice bill by a margin of 87-12, despite ongoing efforts by hard-line conservatives to sink it. The First Step Act has made it past the Senate and now goes back to the House where it is expected to pass, and so will become law with Trump’s signature.
Crumbling bridges, potholed roads, and antique airports mean that infrastructure is another policy area where Democrats, Republicans, and the President could come together in 2019. There is growing momentum behind Congressional attempts to curtail the power of ‘big social media’, and next year expect more Silicon Valley CEOs to sit nervously before Congressional committees. But for the majority, arch-conservatives will still trade blows with the new band of progressives and little will get done before Trump enters the lame duck.
Newly emboldened Democrats consider how to use their Congressional power
Congressional committees – much like our very own parliamentary select committees – are rarely the most exciting element of Washington politics. But any Washington political native will tell you that they key difference is the hyper-partisan nature of Congressional committees, which are more a platform for tirades and positioning than forensic examination of the witness of the day (think Corey Booker walking out of the Judiciary Committee during Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing). With their majority in the House, Democrats will now chair all of the House of Representatives’ committees and with that comes the power to investigate the White House and Trump.
The New York Times has done a terrific job of asking the critical question: how far will they go? Having been bystanders reduced to loud protests in 2018, House Democrats will now have oversight authority and with it the ability to hold hearings, request documents, and issue subpoenas to uncover and expose what they suspect is the corruption going on under the bonnet of the Trump administration. However, it is possible that excessive use of these investigatory powers might backfire by making the Republican base even more steadfast in their support for the President.
History favours this precedent – this happened when Republicans instigated proceedings against Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The billion dollar question hovers well above the prospect of Congressional committee power – that of whether or not to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump. It may become a question of timing and tactics, if impeachment seems an inevitability.
But it is worth remembering that the first rule of politics that you must be able to count. Whilst impeachment proceedings are initiated in the House, they require a two thirds majority in the Senate and there is absolutely zero evidence whatsoever that Senate Republicans will turn against their president.
Focus turns to elections as Trump enters the lame duck
Elections are never far away in US politics. There is a smattering of elections this off-year, including the regular gubernatorial elections in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. An off-year, combined with a loose legislative agenda described above, means that Trump and what is expected to be a wide field of Democratic presidential hopefuls can begin to focus on 2020.
The President is at his most comfortable when on the campaign trail in front of a friendly crowd, in a state that he won in 2016. It means that fiery demands for border wall money and chants of “lock her up” are set to continue next year – ironic given the growing number of Trump acolytes currently under criminal investigation and facing prosecution.
We are now accustomed that style favoured by Trump, but less clear is how the Democratic race for the presidential nomination plays out. In all likelihood, there will be well over 20 presidential hopefuls setting out their stalls and canvassing donors and party members in Iowa and New Hampshire. The frontrunners are beginning to emerge, with Beto O’Rourke continuing to build up steam despite his defeat to Senator Ted Cruz in November.
The Mueller investigation looms large
Above all of the day to day machinations of politics in Washington, the investigation being carried out by Robert Mueller looms largest. There is still no clear date for when Mueller is expected to publish his recommendations, but Trump will be comforted that when the day comes he has a layer of protection in the shape of Matt Whittaker, the acting United States Attorney General. Whittaker’s opinion of the Mueller investigation is well known and he is far from a fan – in November 2018, he wrote that ‘Mueller’s investigation of Trump is going too far’.
Momentum behind the investigation continues to gain pace in the background, and in good time the Special Counsel is expected to present his findings. The key question is when and how that might impact the journey to the 2020 general election.