What Difference Will a Democratic Congress Make?

January 01, 2007

Dean Baker
The Hankyoreh (South Korea), January 20, 2007

While the Democrats’ stunning victory in the fall elections was a severe blow to President Bush, it is not clear that it will make much difference in most areas of domestic and foreign policy. The Democratic majority in both houses of Congress is narrow and certainly not large enough to overcome a presidential veto. Furthermore, the Democrats are badly divided among themselves on most issues, and are subject to the same influences of powerful industry lobbies as Republicans.

For these reasons, it is unlikely that there will be many major initiatives in either foreign or domestic policy over the next two years. However, the Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress are likely to be a serious check on President Bush’s power, obstructing efforts to complete his agenda before his term ends in 2008.

One of the top items on President Bush’s agenda that is now almost certainly dead is his plan for privatizing the country’s Social Security system. There was massive public opposition when he put this plan forward in 2005 and several of the members of Congress most closely associated with the plan went down to defeat in November.

In the same vein, President Bush’s efforts to extend his tax cuts past their 2010 expiration date are probably dead for the moment. At some point Congress will have to decide what to do when these cuts expire. While the tax cuts were tilted toward the wealthy, some of President Bush’s cuts helped middle class families and were very popular. However, this is an issue that will be determined after the next election.

The Democratic Congress will also put checks on President Bush’s international agenda. Certainly, it will be even less friendly to new trade agreements than the old Congress. This is something that foreign countries should understand when they negotiate trade deals with the United States. It was already very difficult for President Bush to get trade deals through the last session of Congress. Many of the newly elected Democrats made their opposition to recent trade agreements a central theme in their election campaign. This was clearly a winning issue. Not only can the newly elected members be expected to maintain their opposition to new trade deals, but many former supporters of trade deals will see the political hazards and find ways to reverse their prior positions.

This doesn’t mean that the United States will suddenly impose large trade barriers. No one wants to blamed for the higher import prices that would accompany any substantial rise in protectionist barriers. Rather, there is likely to be a stalemate, with little support for a new W.T.O. agreement, and new bilateral pacts will face enormous barriers in Congress. It is not impossible that a new agreement, like the one currently being negotiated with Korea, can pass in the new Congress, but it will face very substantial hurdles. At this point, it is not clear that President Bush has the political capital needed to get a pact like this through Congress.

The biggest impact of the election will be on the conduct of the war in Iraq. It is clear that the public’s patience with the war has evaporated. Most people now recognize that President Bush misled the country about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda in order to justify the original invasion. He also promised a short quick war. As the occupation now approaches its fourth year with no end in sight, the public is angry over the continuing bloodshed and high cost of what appears to be a hopeless effort to establish a pro-U.S. government in Iraq.

While most of the public would support measures to force an early withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Democratic Party leadership is afraid to take a strong position against the war. They will mostly try to find grounds for criticizing President Bush’s conduct of the war without putting forward any serious alternative.

However, the fact that the Democrats now control Congress and can investigate President Bush’s conduct of the war is likely to set in motion a process that will force withdrawal much sooner than would otherwise be the case. Congressional committees will examine a wide range of issues, such as the misrepresentation of pre-war intelligence about Iraq’s WMDs and links to Al Qaeda, faulty military strategy in the invasion and occupation, human rights abuses of prisoners by both U.S. troops and our Iraqi allies, and corruption in the awarding of military contracts. These investigations will produce headlines that will intensify the public’s opposition to the war.

In time, there will be enough public outrage that even the Democratic leadership will be prepared to support the withdrawal of U.S. troops. This withdrawal may not actually be completed until a new president sits in the White House.

When the U.S. finally withdraws from Iraq, the immediate outcome will likely be more bloodshed. As was the case in Vietnam, the driving concern will be ending the loss of U.S. lives and the cost of the war to U.S. taxpayers. The fate of Iraqis never featured prominently in U.S. politics. Our allies will learn a valuable lesson if they realize that U.S. policy is often driven by cynical and ill-informed leaders. Blind deference to their agenda is likely to end up poorly for everyone.

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