America Votes: What the midterm elections mean for government services in the United States

With the results of the 2022 midterm elections fully in, this much is clear: the ‘red wave’ many pundits had foreseen did not materialise. Democrats have secured control of the Senate for another two years and have even expanded their majority in the upper chamber following this week’s runoff vote in Georgia. Meanwhile, Republicans have, as predicted, retaken control of the House of Representatives, but with a far smaller majority than forecast.

What do these election results mean for government services and public policy in the US? In the immediate term, GOP control of even one chamber of Congress may stymie aspects of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. But this need not be the case – there are many areas of policy in which Democrats and Republicans may want to work together to deliver better government services for the American public. Below are some policy areas which may call for and even lend themselves to bipartisan cooperation over the next two years.

1. Spending: The new frontline

Republicans have pledged to reduce government spending, meaning economic largesse as seen in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is going to be more difficult to pass with a Republican-controlled House. Republican officials, including current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have already indicated the GOP conference might use the government debt ceiling as leverage to achieve spending cuts.

Aid for Ukraine in its war against Russia isn’t a foregone conclusion, at least not at the rate it is currently being supplied: McCarthy has stated his party’s opposition to a ‘blank cheque’ for the war-torn country amid difficult domestic economic conditions, meaning there are some questions around what happens after the most recent $12.3bn package. In particular, Republicans have their eye on using debt-ceiling negotiations to  push for reductions to welfare programmes such as Medicare and Social Security. With the President firmly opposed to such moves, this may portend two years of conflict between the House and the White House over welfare spending and government expenditure more generally. Any spending-related friction may in turn sour relations in other areas and possibly even presage government shutdowns, jeopardising services across a range of areas of government. Where possible, this must be avoided: lawmakers will need to do their utmost to prevent disruption to government services during the present inflationary crisis.

2. Crime: Fund the police

Given the recent spike in crime across the US, it is unsurprising that crime featured prominently in many state and local races: in New York, for instance, incumbent Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul only narrowly secured victory over her Republican challenger Lee Zeldin, who ran a heavily crime-focused campaign and fought Hochul to an unexpectedly tight finish. Crime also featured heavily in many other state and local elections, from the gubernatorial race in Oregon to the mayoral election in Los Angeles.

Republicans’ focus on crime led some Democrats to express their support for law enforcement during their campaigns. Now, newly elected Democratic governors and members of Congress might seek to work with Republicans to tackle recruitment and retention problems in US police forces. This may meet resistance in some quarters from progressive Democrats: however, with the President having used his State of the Union speech to call for more police funding (earning him bipartisan applause) and the Democrat-controlled House having already passed bipartisan legislation increasing financial support for local law enforcement, there is great potential for both parties to continue cooperation in the next Congress on policing legislation with support from the White House.

3. Healthcare: surprising unity?

After years as a central political issue, healthcare has seemingly become a less prominent topic in the US: Republicans in this year’s elections did not seek to ‘repeal and replace’ the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, which sought to expand eligibility for the government healthcare programmes Medicare and Medicaid. This is, presumably, due to the popularity of these programmes with voters: indeed, last month voters in South Dakota approved a ballot measure to extend Medicaid health insurance to 40,000 low-income residents, despite Republican Governor Kristi Noem’s opposition.

Having retaken the House, Republicans may instead concentrate efforts on passing health legislation likely to win Democratic support: telehealth, for instance, is a prominent health policy with bipartisan support, and, given its backing from the White House and the HHS Secretary for pandemic-era telehealth waivers, House Republicans are confident of getting a telehealth bill through Congress with control of the lower chamber. With some of the fire having left the healthcare debate and recent efforts in North Carolina suggesting there may even be an opportunity for cross-party cooperation on Medicaid expansion, there is a significant chance for federal lawmakers to move towards a bipartisan consensus to deliver improved health services for the public.

4. A new climate for environmental protections

One of the Biden administration’s most significant legislative victories has been the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which allocated $370bn in spending for climate programmes and will, by 2030, slash US greenhouse gas emissions to roughly 40% below 2005 levels. This funding is likely to come under increased legislative scrutiny from a GOP-controlled House. Once in the majority, House Republicans may launch congressional investigations into IRA climate programmes, stymying their implementation. As discussed above, they may also use debt-ceiling negotiations to demand reductions to climate spending in future.

However, there nevertheless remains scope for bipartisan cooperation on climate policy: Kevin McCarthy has in recent years made efforts to develop his party’s climate strategy, and in June House Republicans released an energy plan to boost US production of all types of energy, including fossil fuels alongside zero-carbon technologies such as wind and solar, nuclear, hydrogen and carbon capture. Given also that the green transition is set to benefit Republican-held districts and states, congressional Democrats may be able to work with climate-minded Republicans, such as the Conservative Climate Caucus, to build climate resilience and speed the country’s energy transition.

With the House of Representatives under Republican control, the next two years may see a very different relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill. Many of President Biden’s policy ambitions, such as childcare expansion, may be virtually impossible to realise without Democratic control of both chambers of Congress: with a smaller majority than predicted, House Republicans may be more concerned with maintaining party unity and so be less inclined to compromise. For their part, Senate Democrats will be able to use their control of the upper chamber to approve Biden’s judicial appointments and prevent Republican-backed House legislation from reaching the Senate floor.

Nevertheless, since 2020 the US has seen notable bipartisan achievements, including last year’s infrastructure act which pumped $1tn into infrastructure and climate projects. For at least the next two years, future bipartisanship and the ability of members of Congress to find common ground will have profound implications for government services in the United States.

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