Americans voted for change, but can the new Democratic majority overcome structural roadblocks?

Although the Democrats won control of Capitol Hill on Election Day by promising a new era in government, experts and former lawmakers wonder if anything will change in the new Congress but the furniture.

For the first time in 12 years, Democrats run the agenda in the House of Representatives. Across the Rotunda, their colleagues in the Senate will command a two-vote majority, assuming Senator Tim Johnson recovers fully from his recent surgery. The Democrats have worked with a slim majority before, the last time in 2001 when Jim Jeffords bolted from the Republican Party and began caucusing with the Democrats as an Independent. But with a divisive figure in the White House and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle with their eyes on the 2008 presidential election, the new Congress could prove all-too similar to the old one when it comes to legislative accomplishments.

For those who yearned for a new era of bipartisanship and principled decision-making in the wake of the recent elections, the early returns aren't encouraging. The Democrats wasted no time in quarreling. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi already sports a shiner from her efforts to install Jack Murtha as Majority Leader. And it's business as usual in the GOP, with Trent Lott winning the number two leadership position as minority whip. Demonstrating his respect for the new majority in Congress, the President only reluctantly withdrew his controversial judicial nominees after it became clear they were "DOA" with the new Democratic majority.

Institutional hurdles

Although reducing politics to ideology and personalities is the stock-in-trade of the television punditocracy, some of the most formidable impediments to true change are structural. The rules regarding committee chairs and campaign finance are particularly important concerns.

Pollster Peter Brown says that a Democratic Congress will not be much more effective in addressing major policy decisions than the one controlled by the Republicans. The only exception, says the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, may be immigration reform. "There are institutional impediments to change. In the Senate, to effectively get anything done that is not a matter of consensus, you need to get 60 votes. Just because it's the Democrats who need 60 votes instead of the Republicans does not mean anything else is going to get done. If the Democrats win the White House in 2008, maybe it would be different, but we still have two more years of this Congress."

Whether or not you liked the Republicans in charge, says Brown, their post-Republican Revolution decision to place term limits on committee chairs was good for public policy. After taking power in 1994, the new GOP majority imposed a three-term limit on House committee chairmen, thus limiting the long-term influence of chairmanships. "It is going to be an interesting question as to whether the Democrats will keep that tradition," he says.

How Democrats deal with the influence of money on politics will be another question, Brown says. "There are abuses that we know about where lobbyists have had a hand in legislation. But they also provide information that congressmen likely need because they don't have the staff to deal with some of the issues," he says. The question, therefore, is not whether lobbyists are good or bad, but what kind of restrictions will Congress place on them. "Will the Democratic Congress be less beholden to lobbyists than the Republicans? We'll see," Brown says.

One former congressman says the Democrats' slight majorities in both houses will require them to work with Republicans if any major legislation is expected to be passed by the next Congress.

"Irrespective of Senators vying for the White House, the narrow margins in the House and especially in the Senate virtually guarantee that for any legislation to pass, it is going to require bipartisan support," says former Representative Daniel A. Mica (D-Florida). "Traditional opponents and antagonists are going to have to find a way to work together if they want to see something done. Any strictly partisan legislation is basically dead in the water."

One issue that Mica is looking forward to seeing debated is ethics reform. "We'll be watching with interest to see how this is handled," says Mica, who now heads the Credit Union
National Association.

"There needs to be more cooperation between the two parties. I believe that was one of the strongest messages sent by the American people on November 7," says Mica, who believes that Congressional leaders have received that message.

Key to reform will be independents

Former Senator Rudy Boschwitz (I/R-Minnesota) says that although the Democratic leadership will now "call the tune," the key to passing major legislation will be the strength of independent voices from both sides of the aisle. The former "Independent/Republican" says he's looking forward to seeing how his friend, "Independent/Democrat" Senator Joe Lieberman (Connecticut), operates in a Democratic-controlled Senate.

"I told Joe, 'They [the Democratic leadership] are going to have to make you a part of every deal,' and that suits me fine because Joe really is a centrist who has a good balance when
it comes to policy," says Boschwitz, who served from 1978 to 1991. "When it comes to passing legislation, there is going to have to be a good deal of bipartisanship."

Now the American Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the former senator says that while the passage of major bills will require political compromise, nothing can prevent Democrats from politicizing issues core to their party. "It's more than votes," he says. "They will have the power to issue subpoenas and hold hearings."

Nevertheless, he says, some senators may be more cautious than others to take controversial stands on certain issues. Says Boschwitz, "People who are running for president are always more cautious. The analysis can almost be made ever two years. I was born abroad (in Germany), so I couldn't run for president. The Republican leader, Bob Dole, would always joke that I was the only senator he could trust because all of the others were running for president. It's not clear to me that the situation is more different now than at other times."

With the 2008 election only two years away, some experts think that the race for the White House will likely wash away any recent civility and bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.

Democrats may hold Congress, but with a Republican still in the White House, major legislation should not be expected to come out of Washington, predicts Vanderbilt political science professor Bruce Oppenheimer. He says that President George W. Bush's role as a polarizing figure will hinder opportunities for bipartisan policy-making.

The White House 2008

While Democrats may control the agenda, the question of who controls the White House in 2008 will also be on many people's minds, he says. "During the last two years of the Administration, both parties may feel that they would be better to wait until after the 2008 election to push certain issues," Oppenheimer says. Nevertheless, he predicts that Democrats may call for votes on legislation that they think will be useful for the 2008 campaign, including votes on the minimum wage and prescription drug benefits.

Oppenheimer says that House Democrats will likely push the Democratic agenda while Democrats in the Senate will not push issues without broad, bipartisan support. "Don't expect major reform on Social Security or other sorts of entitlements to go on," he says. "We're two years away from a new President that is not a current incumbent. While it doesn't mean that nothing will get done, it does mean that the odds of passing major legislation are minimal."

So, if voters are looking for ethics reform or a quick exit in Iraq, likely the two issues that drove the election results, take a number. Not to mention campaign finance, legislative earmarking, health care, education, minimum wage, defense spending, energy, national security and the global environment. They'll all be featured on the marquee—whether they actually screen is another issue.

About Howard M. Unger

Howard Unger earned his master's degree from the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. He is currently a freelance journalist in New York City.