-Originally published at Arc Digital-
January 3, 2019, marked the start of the 116th U.S. Congress.
Democrats — led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi 2.0 — now control the House of Representatives for the first time since they lost it in the Tea Party wave of 2010; those halcyon days when Republicans campaigned on reducing the size of government and actually made an attempt at following through on it.
Not shockingly to those who follow politics, however, rhetoric and reality on the small government front rarely match up, and Republicans have proven that adage true in spectacular fashion during the last two years of unified party control. In fact, the national debt has increased by an eye-popping $1.9 trillion since Trump took office.
Considering the fact that the last time Congress even attempted to reduce the rate of spending growth was back in 2011 — after the House switched hands but the same party controlled the Senate and the White House — can we hope for a similar result now?
Despite our $21.9 trillion debt, we’re unlikely to curb spending. Republicans love to play the fiscal responsibility card when a Democrat is president, the theatrics of which we’ve been treated to in both the Clinton and Obama eras. But it’s likely that a Democratic House and a Republican Senate — especially with Trump in the White House — will “compromise” by increasing everyone’s pet spending.
And with progressives already railing against what should be an uncontroversial House “pay-go” rule while fearmongering about non-existent “austerity politics” (have they slept through the past two years of Republican spending?) we probably won’t see much fiscal sanity in the coming months. As Berny Belvedere points out, even with a pay-go measure in the House rules package, Pelosi is authorizing hearings on deficit-exploding moonshots like Medicare for all.
That said, not all is lost when it comes to a broad set of small government issues, even if tackling the key problem of runaway spending looks like a longshot.
A narrow Democratic majority, including the addition of younger, more progressive members, could buoy the bipartisan coalitions that have long worked on issues such as forcing Congress to declare war and stopping unconstitutional spying. Trump has also shown a praiseworthy willingness to work on criminal justice reform, having signed the First Step Act into law last month. More where that came from would be a win for all Americans.
There’s also a benefit to having an opposition party in Congress conducting oversight of the executive branch and broader administrative state
That’s not to say House Democrats won’t be equally vapid and partisan, because they almost certainly will. These are politicians we’re talking about! But that’s a feature of divided government; it creates incentives for oversight even if motivations for the check on power are more craven than noble.
It will be fascinating to see Trump’s reaction to his lessened leverage and how that will affect the rate of government growth. He complained bitterly when signing an omnibus deal into law last year and even threatened a veto.
And Trump’s proven in the past month that he’s willing to shut down the government when he doesn’t get his way, even if what he wants is, unfortunately, more spending without offsets. Pelosi is a talented Speaker who is skilled at keeping her caucus in line, but if the past two years have taught us anything, taming Trump is an exercise in futility.
So strap in for divided government in the Trump era! At the very least, we’ll get some oversight schadenfreude — I foresee more “WITCH HUNT!” tweets from the White House — and who knows, maybe the Democrats will go YOLO on us and try for impeachment. I’m not sure that being a Twitter troll is either a high crime or misdemeanor, but we don’t know what’s left to uncover.
Partisans on both the right and the left have done a lot of wishcasting, either sure that the Mueller investigation is fraudulent (turn on Fox), or sure that Trump “colluded with Russia” (turn on MSNBC). The truth is that nobody knows for certain. But we can hope that a semi-divided government will offer up some objective answers or, at the very least for those of us seeking smaller government, some good old-fashioned gridlock.