By Judd Gregg - 07/14/14 06:00 AM EDT
Conventional wisdom is clear that the next Congress has a considerable likelihood of being a Republican Congress.
That same consensus also holds that if the GOP does indeed take control, the next two years will be marked by confrontation with the White House and even less actual legislative action than the present Congress has accomplished.
President Obama has clearly opted out of the role of governing through legislation. He has become the most defensive president since at least World War II, blaming the Congress not just for all the ills of the nation but even for some of his international failures.
The president is pursuing this strategy while his party controls the Senate. This being so, it is difficult to imagine him shifting from that approach in a scenario where his party does not hold either chamber of Congress.
The Republican House appears to be equally averse to working with the administration. It has developed into a controlling party that has no control over itself.
Factions rule, and compromise or governance is simply not where their interests lie. Does adding a Republican Senate to the Republican House change this equation? Or, more likely, does it simply mean more of the same, only at an amplified volume?
The Beltway pundits are betting on the latter.
It seems like a good bet, especially since a Republican Senate will have its own dysfunctional factions in the persons of Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzFunding bill rejected as shutdown nears Cruz: Clinton 'tired' and 'formulaic' during debate The Trail 2016: Fight night MORE (Texas) et al.
But, in fact, this is not the direction in which things would go if Republicans gained the majority in the Senate.
There are some good reasons to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president in his last two years in office could actually make progress on key issues of national policy.
The first of those reasons is this: When the Republicans take the Senate they will control half the operational side of the government.
They will no longer be able to claim the status of “victims.” They will actually be in charge.
The election of a Republican Senate will not be a signal from the hinterlands that people want more of the same. It will be a directive to stop acting like peevish politicians and start governing for the good of the nation.
If this instruction is ignored, it will almost certainly mean that the next time around — the 2016 elections — the Republican Congress will face stiff punishment from voters.
Thus, there will be a considerable motivation for a Republican Congress next year to make things happen.
But since this will still be a divided government and the GOP may hold only the barest of majorities in the Senate, this new Congress is not going to be able to address Main Street issues unless it does so in concert with the president.
So the next question is this: What incentive is there for the president to come into the room? He has not done this in a meaningful way in the first six years of his term, and indeed doing so seems to be anathema to his personal views of governance.
He is clearly moving more and more into a state of isolation. He seems to have determined that he can achieve his goals on promoting social justice, strengthening environmental protection and other high priority policies through regulatory fiat, sometimes legal, sometimes only at the fringes of legality.
But Obama is a constitutional scholar, after all. If he steps back and thinks about his purpose, it must be obvious that regulations are the most transitory form of governance. Laws are what change things over the long run.
Obama needs to leave office with a few wins that have some permanency — especially since his only legislative policy of real consequence, the Affordable Care Act, could yet come unraveled due to its own legal tentativeness and operational ineffectiveness.
The chance is there to do some big things especially with a Republican Congress that is going to need wins to solidify its role and its future.
If the Republican Congress comes to pass, alongside this Democratic president, the legislative ground would be a great deal more fertile than most are predicting.
The trick will be to focus on the right issues — the ones where both sides get a lot but are also willing to step on some of their constituencies’ toes.
To be sure, there are some areas that could have produced agreement but where the well has now been poisoned. Immigration reform is at the top of that list.
But there are other major policy issues available where agreement can be found, including tax reform, Medicare reform, student loan reform, education reform (generally, but especially in the area of use of the Internet), trade reform, disability reform and even Social Security reform. The opportunities are there.
The pessimism of the pundits could be confounded when the Senate goes Republican.
Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations.