Magazine article Policy & Practice

The 2014 Congressional Elections: What to Expect and What It Could Mean for Human Service Programs

Magazine article Policy & Practice

The 2014 Congressional Elections: What to Expect and What It Could Mean for Human Service Programs

Article excerpt

No one has a crystal ball, particularly when it comes to politics. Any callow political scientist can tell you that the second mid-term election for an incumbent president's party is likely to be difficult. Only President Bill Clinton was able to break with history and see his party pick up seats in the House of Representatives during the second mid-term election of his administration.

While presidents are not on the ballot during mid-term elections, their standing can be used as a barometer of how well their party will do at the polls. It is important to note that Clinton's approval rating in 1998 was 67 percent. When presidents are unpopular, their party typically loses a substantial number of congressional seats. According to Gallup, President Barack Obama's job approval rating hovers around 43 percent.1 That is about the same as his approval rating at the time of the 2010 elections, when Democrats lost more than 60 seats in the House.

According to Real Clear Politics,2 there are 17 toss-up House races. In order to re-gain a majority in the House Democrats need to pick up a net total of 19 seats. The biggest challenge for Democrats trying to build their numbers in the House is so-called toss-up races, 13 of which are currently held by Democrats. That means not only that the Democrats need to win one very close election, but at least two more that are not considered competitive-almost an impossible task.

And the Senate is not looking much better for Democrats. Republicans need a net pick up of six seats to take control of the Senate. There are 36 Senate races this year,3 21 of those are now held by Democrats and 15 by Republicans. According to Real Clear Politics,4 Republicans are expected to win three of the Senate seats currently held by Democrats (Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia). Of the nine Senate races rated as toss-ups, seven are held by Democrats and only two (Georgia and Kentucky) are held by Republicans. That means Republicans need to hold onto those two states (and they are leading in both races) and win only three of the remaining seven to take control of the Senate for the next Congress. Having one party control both chambers is more the norm than the exception. Since 1945, the House and Senate have been controlled by different parties only six times (12 years)-but two of those have been since the 2000 elections, which, historically, makes a split Congress "seem" more normal than it is.

It is safe to assume that control of the federal government will once again be split between Republicans and Democrats over the next two years. The White House will be controlled by Democrats, the House by Republicans, with control of the Senate still uncertain. Having the White House and Congress controlled by different parties is nothing unusual. Over the last 94 years, beginning with the first term of President Warren Harding in 1921 until 1953, the same party controlled Congress and the White House for 31 of 33 years.5 But in the 60 years since 1954, there have been only 20 years in which one party controlled Congress and the White House. Moreover, during that period only Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson have served their entire time as president with their party in control of Congress. The country seems to prefer that the checks-and-balances envisioned by its founders be facilitated by a divided government, i.e., different parties in control of Congress and the White House. Over the last 60 years the "odd man out" has literally been the president.

What Does It All Mean?

Regardless of the election results, one thing seems almost certain; neither party is going to be able to enact much of its agenda in the next Congress. While Republicans might control both chambers, they will be far short of the 66 votes needed in the Senate and the 290 votes needed in the House to overcome a presidential veto. And if Democrats hold onto the Senate they will do so with a smaller majority then they enjoy today. …

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