Briefing paper

The House is in session: key committees in the 116th Congress

17 Jan 2019

The House of Representatives of the 116th Congress duly convened at 12 noon on January 3, 2019, as prescribed by the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Immediately following the ceremonies — the swearing in of the 438 members-elect and the election of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker — the House was immediately engulfed in the political fight over the partial shutdown of the federal government and whether to fund the wall on the Mexico border proposed by President Donald Trump. In their face-to-face meeting in the White House Situation Room on January 9, Speaker Pelosi rejected President Trump’s insistence on funding for the wall and Trump said “bye-bye”. The negotiations collapsed. The shutdown is now the longest in US history.

Divided government in Washington is never easy. To get anything done, especially in sessions of Congress proximate to a presidential election, it requires a degree of adroit political management. This is possible: major tax reform was passed in 1986 under Ronald Reagan, with Democrats controlling the House; budget and tax deals to address the recession were enacted under President Bush in 1990 and 1991 — under Democratic-controlled Congresses — and President Clinton delivered balanced budgets in 1999-2000, when the Republicans controlled both the House and Senate.

This president, for all his boasting of his great deal-making abilities, has so far failed to master the art of deal-making in Washington. It is a world he is neither from nor understands. While many of his supporters laud his forcefulness as a great disruptor, the fact is that, aside from criminal justice reform, all the major legislation Trump has seen enacted into law — particularly the tax cuts of 2017 — were passed solely with Republican votes. Trump never brokered a deal to repeal Obamacare, nor a deal for a major infrastructure program, nor a deal on immigration reform and protecting the ‘Dreamers.'

This wall-shutdown chaos, married with Washington’s longstanding hyper-partisanship, does not bode well for the next two years in terms of Congress and the White House coming together to act in a unified fashion in the national interest. The country is now more divided politically than at any time since the Vietnam War. Both the president and the Democrats attribute their success to their very high standing with their respective bases — and those bases do not want to yield to each other. The ultimate political question as we head into the 2020 presidential election cycle is: which base is larger (and expanding), and which will prevail in the race for the White House and control of the House and Senate.


Publication Details
License Type: 
All Rights Reserved
Published year only: 
Geographic Coverage