Neither of the major parties is now able to achieve a commanding majority in Congress. As a result, major decisions are put off and problems linger: gridlock.
Under these conditions, Congress got little done in 2007. Bills raising the minimum wage and implementing recommendations of the 9/11 Commission were among the few significant ones that got signed into law. Congress, as of this writing, was still struggling with the energy bill; the farm bill; governmental appropriations including funding for the war in Iraq; and reform of the alternative minimum tax (AMT), which would whack twenty million taxpayers unless corrected.
Whose Fault Is Deadlock?
Only bipartisan cooperation can get anything done in Washington these days, but the only bipartisan activity going on is that both parties are blaming each other for deadlock. Most likely, Congress will be able to accomplish little more than what it absolutely has to do to keep the government running and continue major programs.
A farm bill, for example, will be passed by both houses and sent to a conference committee to work out the differences. An energy bill will emerge, since Congress has to look like it is responding to high gasoline prices. (Although anyone who thinks that Congress can roll back prices at the pump is probably a big admirer of King Canute.) Our major concern with the energy bill is that it should not put more strain on the supply of corn by dictating the production of even more biofuels, unless they are derived from "cellulosic" feedstocks or something other than corn.
Congress will probably pass a bill on food safety, most likely strengthening the Food & Drug Administration's ability to screen imported food and to issue recalls. This is mainly in response to the uproar over tainted ingredients from China.
The Election Effect
The outlook for action on other issues is clouded by the fact that 2008 is, of course, a presidential election year. For example, Congress won't face the truth on ethanol that it is driving up food prices while doing little to curb petroleum imports as long as candidates must appeal for votes in the Midwest. It will be difficult for Congress to address the immigration issue while politicians at many levels are whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment.
In the Congressional elections, the Democrats will be looking to increase their margins in both houses. They now control the Senate by only two votes, but only 12 Democrat-held seats are up this year, while the Republicans have to defend 22. By most accounts, only two Democratic seats (South Dakota and Louisiana) are in play, while the GOP will have to fight to hold at least four and possibly as many as ten of its seats. The Republicans will have their hands full just holding their own.
In the House, sophisticated gerrymandering has left few districts with competitive races. By one expert's count, only seven House seats in the entire country all now held by Republicans are considered toss-ups. More could be in play by November, but it seems unlikely the GOP could pick up enough seats to win back the majority. The reality is that 2008 is most likely the year of the Democrats in both the House and Senate.
This election year also features the strangest calendar in the history of presidential politics. The contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will quickly give way to primaries in major states including Michigan and Florida. Then comes "Super-Duper Tuesday" on February 5, with 24 states, including New York, Illinois and California, holding the equivalent of a national primary. With that, the nomination contests will probably be over, less than five weeks after the caucuses in Iowa.
After Super-Duper Tuesday
Then the apparent nominees will have to endure a long holding pattern, because the conventions are very late: the Democrats August 25-28; the Republicans September 1-4. The conventions are not what they used to be, but they still officially choose the nominees, and it is astonishing to think that seven months could elapse between the time each nomination is clinched and the time it is confirmed. If the apparent nominees have nothing else to do after Super-Duper Tuesday, they may begin campaigning in earnest, and the general election campaign that normally starts after Labor Day will begin in the spring. People will be really tired of the campaign by November.
After such a lengthy and thorough debate on the major issues, and with a new President, perhaps the parties can get together and tackle some of the tough issues. Otherwise, what is all this politicking about?