Three Key Variables to Consider When Teaching the 115th Congress

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Consistent with our focus on post-election policy, today’s post will preview the 115th Congress, sworn in last week. In November, Republicans retained control of both the House and the Senate. They have a 241-194 majority in the House, and a narrower 52-48 majority in the Senate.

The responsibilities of our national lawmaking branch are far-reaching, but a few key variables warrant close observation in our classrooms this spring and beyond.

First, to what extent will congressional Republicans serve as a rubber stamp for President-Elect Trump’s agenda? Trump’s flexible beliefs in many ways challenge traditional Republican orthodoxy, from trade policy to entitlement reform to the U.S. relationship with Russia. Yet Trump turned the electoral map upside-down in his surprise victory and carried many vulnerable Republican incumbents in Congress with him. Presidential coattails usually lend themselves to a honeymoon period with members of his party. How long will Trump’s last?

Early signs of dissent have already emerged in the Senate, where Republican Senators McCain, Graham, and Rubio have voiced concerns about Russian interference with the U.S. presidential election and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s close ties to Russia and President Putin. Assuming Democratic unity, they need to peel off only three Republicans to constitute a working majority of their own.

This leads to the second variable: What battles will Democrats circle as key to confronting President-Elect Trump and their Republican counterparts? The Tillerson nomination may be one, along with Trump’s controversial nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education.

Also contentious will be Trump’s eventual nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Recall that Republicans blocked President Obama’s nominee from even receiving a hearing despite having nearly a year left in office. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has already suggested that payback is in order. If so, we may indeed have an ongoing constitutional crisis with the third branch of government permanently crippled.

On the flip side, Democrats are the party more closely identified with government and its programs, so they arguably have a vested interest in seeing it and them succeed. This includes preserving the greatest policy shift of the Obama years, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the third and final variable we’ll consider today.

Trump campaigned on its repeal, and Republicans in Congress have fought the ACA since its inception. Despite significant gains in covering Americans previously uninsured, “Obamacare” has its detractors, as it’s blamed for massive increases in health care premiums and failing to attract a sufficient number of younger enrollees to cross-subsidize their older peers and make the health care exchanges profitable for the insurance industry.

However, its provisions to provide access to individuals with pre-existing health conditions and also to cover young people under their parents’ plans until they reach 26 are widely popular. Republicans will thus be challenged to repeal Obamacare with a replacement that retains these provisions. The individual mandate is key, and Republicans are likely to scrap it. They will thus own the future of health care reform in the United States, much as Obama and the Democrats have for the better part of the past seven years. Caveat emptor.

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