The Road to the 2014 U.S. Midterm Elections

By Giorgio Buttironi

The midterm elections will be determinant in deciding the political makeup of the US Congress. The Republican Party currently controls the House of Representatives and will certainly try to seize control of the Senate. Should it succeed, the Grand Old Party (GOP) would become the dominant force within the legislature. This is likely to cause a few problems for President Obama, increasing the possibility of gridlock.

Background

The US Congress is a bicameral legislature composed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives is composed by 435 members, who are elected for renewable two-year terms from single-member districts across the country. Responsible for initiating legislation, the House holds special powers over budgetary issues and the impeachment of political officials. The lower chamber of Congress is generally regarded as representing the entire country. States are represented in the House on the basis of their population; for example, California returns 53 representatives – as opposed to the 27 seats filled by Florida – due to its higher population count.

On the other hand, the Senate is made up of 100 members, who are elected for alternated six-year terms from each state. The Senate has exclusive responsibility over the ratification of international treaties, the appointment of government officials and Supreme Court candidates. Each state returns two senators regardless of their population, helping to ensure that even the least populated states have an equal say in key matters such as international treaties or judiciary appointments. The Senate is often regarded as the chamber representing the interests of the states.

The Republicans, headed by Speaker John Boehner (Ohio – 8th District), have controlled the House of Representatives for the last four years with a relatively comfortable majority. There are currently 233 Republicans against 199 Democrats, led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (California – 12th District), in the House. Nevertheless, the Democrats have retained a majority in the Senate since 2006. The 53 Democratic senators, led by Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada), enjoy a small majority versus the 45 Republican senators, headed by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky).

Heading toward a Republican Congress?

In less than one month, the elections will be returning 435 representatives and 36 senators to Washington. Their impact can hardly be misjudged, with the Republicans aiming to solidify their majority in the House and gain power in the Senate. Opinion polls seem to suggest that the GOP may well succeed in its intent.

Politico reports that Republicans candidates are currently leading in 19 out of 36 Senate races – including 4 states with Democratic incumbents such as Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, and West Virginia.[1] Nevertheless, there are four key battlegrounds that will ultimately decide this election: Alaska, Colorado, Louisiana, and South Dakota. Among these four contests, there are three seats occupied by Democratic incumbents; if the Republicans are looking to gain control of the Senate, securing victory in these states is absolutely essential.

The Washington Post predicted a post-election scenario with 52 Republicans, 46 Democratic and 2 Independents. In a similar forecast, the GOP is also predicted to increase its House majority, with 241 Republican seats against 194 Democratic seats.[2]

Consequences

Differently from the United Kingdom, separation of powers is sharply demarcated in the United States. Electoral results in the House of Commons usually determine which party is tasked with forming the government.

However, in the United States legislative and executive branches are clearly separated, with the constitution prohibiting any person from serving in two different branches at the same time. It is possible to have the President of the United States belonging to a different party than the majority dominating the U.S. Congress. Indeed, it is even possible to have different majorities within the legislature, with one party controlling the lower chamber and another party controlling the upper house.

Differences in partisanship between the executive and the legislative branches of government in the United States have often been problematic, making it much harder for the legislative process to function effectively. The government shutdown in October 2013 is an example of how disagreements between the Presidency and Congress can bear negative repercussions for the country. Should the Republican Party achieve a majority in both houses of Congress, it will be more challenging for the administration to get its policy priorities through. Considering that we are entering the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the president will feel even more under pressure by Congress on areas such as foreign policy.

[1] http://www.politico.com/2014-election/predictions/senate/#.VDvS4tTF-mM

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dre/politics/election-lab-2014