While there will be many interpretations of why the mid-term elections broke the way they did, the bottom line consequence of losing the House for the Trump administration will be to entangle the President’s next two years in a series of oversight hearings, subpoenas for documents, and limitations imposed through the power of the purse. The impact will be to force the Administration into a more defensive posture and curtail the President’s ability to legislate in any direction that does not have broad consensus. More seriously, for the first time since he took office, the President now faces the possibility of impeachment.
The final results of Tuesday’s election are still not clear. But the impact of whether the Republicans lose or gain a few more seats in the House or Senate matters little now. In the U.S. system, the winner calls the shots and the House can play an outsized role in frustrating the goals of an opposition President. The Majority party decides who will chair the committees, what legislation will get a vote, and how government funding will be allocated. All signs suggest that the Democrats are itching to get into the driver’s seat and the Administration will be busy responding to the increased oversight. Particularly in the face of repeated allegations of self-dealing and misuse of government funds, the Democrats will be able to hold Trump Administration officials to account for their actions and give the allegations a public airing.
The impact of this shift cannot be overstated. First, to the extent that the Administration had a legislative agenda, it will largely go out the window – not only because the Administration will be forced to use its resources to respond to Congressional oversight, but also because it cannot succeed without persuading the Democrats that the ultimate outcome is in the best interest of the country – or in the best interest of the Democrats. Given Trump’s persistent vitriolic attacks on Democrats – often bolstered by falsehoods – there is a very low likelihood that the Democrats will find common ground with the President at this point.
Second, the House effectively controls the money – any laws dealing with government revenue must start in the House. The President can issue as many Executive Orders as he likes, but without the funding, it becomes incredibly difficult to implement these edicts. Furthermore, the House has the power to prevent spending on his pet priorities. This is not to say there is never a way forward – members of the House and Senate will find ways to trade priorities and there may be existing funding the President can tap into – but it does end the President’s ability to dictate a way forward without sacrifice.
Finally, for the first time since January 2016, the President faces the very real possibility of impeachment. Impeachment – which is essentially a charge of misconduct – is first and foremost a political issue. The House has the sole power to begin impeachment proceedings against the President. While the Constitution permits a President to be impeached for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours, the interpretation of this language can be broad. In 1998, President Bill Clinton faced impeachment for lying in a deposition in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by private attorneys on behalf of a private citizen. Special Counsel Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation is ongoing and delving into far more serious allegations. Without prejudging the outcome, should he find evidence of criminal wrong-doing, Democrats will seize on it and consider impeachment. This does not mean that the Republican-controlled Senate will ultimately convict the President – no matter the weight of the evidence. But it will provide a forum for future voters to consider and weigh the evidence in a more transparent setting.
While the President should expect big changes, it’s not all bad news for him. Because the Senate remains Republican, he can expect to put forward his nominees for the courts without meaningful opposition. As the head of State, he also retains control over the shaping of US engagement with allies, adversaries and multilateral institutions. So to the extent that America-watchers in the UK and Europe were hoping for a meaningful change to his unconventional and often divisive approach, they will likely be disappointed.
Nonetheless, despite the ALLCAPS tweets, there is no credible way for President Trump to spin the outcome of the elections as a win for him. To the extent it signals the beginning of meaningful checks and balances, it is a win for the American people.
Amy Pope is an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. She previously served as the Deputy Homeland Security Advisor at the White House, as counsel in the US Senate, and as a federal prosecutor at the US Department of Justice.