New Congress: The swearing-in of the 112th and what's on the agenda

Jan 05, 2011

American political historian Allan Lichtman will be online Wednesday, Jan. 5, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the new 112th Congress, the Republican majority and what the lawmakers have on their agendas.

Hi. I'm Allan Lichtman Professor of History at

American U. Here to chat about the new congress. You can ask me any political question. Just don't ask me about opera.

Over the holidays, I read a few news stories about Democrats finding an opportunity to do something about the filibuster before the new Congress came into session. What's the status of that?

Democrats are considered change given the frequent use of the filibuster by the GOP during the last two years.

They, however, have not agreed on a particular idea -- for example reducing the number of votes needed after cloture votes are taken. Also, they are worried about setting a precedent that could come back to haunt them if Republicans take over the Senate.

Hello Professor It is my understanding that you believe that the keys will turn in favor of the current president come 2012. It seems to me that the health- care bill turns a very important key in favor of the president. Will the current Congress be able to do enough to gut that program, and so reverse the progress made, and hence reverse that key?

You are correct. The health care bill turns the policy-change key in favor of the president, which helps explain why Republicans are so eager for repeal. They cannot repeal the entire bill. That would require approval of the Senate and the president's signature. That vote is purely symbolic. They may try to go after particular provisions, but still have to clear the hurdle of the Senate and the president. 

Over the last two years the GOP constantly complained about legislation being rammed down the nation's collective throat. Everything was always going too quickly. Now suddenly the House switches sides and I'm reading about a 20-day (!) plan to undo as much of the president's accomplishments as possible. Why the rush? How does that approach square with what was supposedly the last Congress' biggest drawback? How can the legislative process be open, transparent and fair if it's being rushed through on such an unreasonable schedule? Thanks.

The simple answer is that the party out of power always complains about the use of dictatorial powers by the party in power. Of course, once party control shifts, then the players become reversed, but the script remains the same. Of couse, the process cannot be open, tranaparent, and fair under the circumstances you describe, but no one cares very much for process once in power. It is very rare for a Congress to roll back legislation of a previously Congress.  It took until 1996 for Congress to rewrite even a single New Deal entitlement program. 

I read that only one freshman lawmaker, Mike Lee of Utah, is on record saying he'll be moving his wife and children to Washington. That seems kind of surprising to me. I always thought if an opponent runs on the "the incumbent doesn't live here but Bethesda" attack, that's a pretty weak campaign. I guess one factor is that their spouses are professional with jobs and careers in the home states. Also Metro Washington isn't the cheapest area to rent or buy a home in the country and the public school is notoriously awful. Yet still I wonder why are so many lawmakers so unwilling to move their families to Washington?

I think you supplied the answer. This is a difficult economy and it is very expensive to move a family to the Washington area, particularly with working spouses. Also, one never knows how long their tenure might be in Congress. A move might be much ado over very little. Keeping families at home also keeps ties to the local constituency and shows concern for local issues of importance to the electorate. Remember, House members will be up for reelection in just the blink of a political eye.

What's the rationale behind the GOP uniting behind Mitch McConnell's knee-jerk opposition to every piece of the Obama agenda, even those items that the party had previously supported? I would have expected better of Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch than their craven reversals on the DREAM Act and the 9/11 first responders. For pete's sake, Hatch originally proposed the DREAM Act nine years ago. I suspect this isn't about conflicting agendas or even about party lines but about Obama personally - would you agree?

The Republican Party has been moving even more to the Right in recent years and the leadership is responding.

As an example of this, John McCain co-sponsor of the Kennedy-McCain bill on immigration reform, wouldn't even talk about this bill during his campaign for the presidency in 2008. Given that immigration is such a hot button issue for the Tea Party movement and other conservatives, there is no chance that the GOP leadership or old guard would support any reform measures.

There is also a strong sentiment among Republicans that their best chance for regaining the presidency in 2012 is to hit Obama with every possible defeat. I don't think personality is the most important issue here, although it is not irrelevant.

Could we see a repeal of the Patriot Act this year? I've become aware of programs applied at local levels which can only remain active as long as the Bill of Rights is in abeyance. Dana Priest published her investigative work a few weeks ago on the subject. How can society work if you confide in your new minister - but unaware he or she is submitting reports regularly on citizens in your town?

There is zero chance of repealing the Patriot Act, no matter what abuses may come to light. The so-called liberatarian Republicans generally make a huge exception for anything that they believe is related to terrorism or national security. Most of their libertarian energy is directed against the regulation of business and domestic social programs.

What do the keys look like for the 2012 Presidential?

The Keys right now are looking very positive for Barack Obama despite the 2010 midterm losses. At this point I project Obama to be losing only 3 keys for sure: Party Mandate based on the midterm elections, Long-Term Economy, and Foreign/Military Success. I would still not necessarily grant him the charisma key, although he does seem to be regaining that. So, at most he is 4 keys down. It takes 6 negative keys to predict the defeat of the party in power. So Obama even has some cushion going into 2012.

I see this as a headline for many stories, but it's not clear to me whether the GOP wants to go back to the status quo or wants changes, but different ones than were passed by Congress. I've also read that the House's actions in this regard would be largely symbolic, since the Senate would not concur. What's the deal?

The GOP agenda is very much a traditional American conservative agenda. Deregulate business, regulate abortion. Shift spending away from domestic programs and towards military and public safety spending. Crack down on illegal immigration. Cut taxes.

However, a party cannot govern from one House of Congress. Republicans can obstruct Democratic programs, but cannot enact their own agenda or even roll back previous legislation effectively.

Which version of the Constitution are the Republican leaders going to have read in the House: the unedited version plus Amendments or the 'modern' version as edited by the Amendments?

I presume they will read the full version with all Amendments.

Based on winning back the House, the GOP seems to want to overturn a lot of what was done in the last two years. After the Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006 did they try to overturn a similar amount of Bush era laws?

The Democrats did not succeed in overturning much of the Bush era agenda. They didn't repeal the tax cuts or No Child Left Behind and they did not defund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They did not repeal the Patriot Act or significant modify its impact.

Much of the action in the Bush years also occurred through the use of Executive Powers, which generally are beyond the reach of the legislature.

When are the new Senators and members of the House of Representatives in the 112th Congress given their committee assignments?

Those new assignments are already pretty much lined up and should go into effect almost immediately.

Any shot that Goodwin Liu, who nobody is deny is a brilliant legal mind, and other judicial nominees getting through the congress? Also, aren't there a lot of ambassadorship that are still unfilled (I think the U.S. ambassadors to Israel, Russia, South Korea, etc... for example still hold overs from the Bush 43 administration)

It is going to be difficult for Democrats to get Liu and other judicial nominees through the Senate. The rules of the Senate are such that even one member can obstruct or delay the approval of a judicial nominee. So far, the Republicans have succeeded in slowing down the approval process far beyond what is normal in the Senate. Democrats, of course, will be in a weaker position in the next Senate with only 53 votes. To move judicial nominees and other appointments through, the administration may have to cut some kind of a deal with the GOP. It would be worth it. One of the most important legacies of an American president is his judicial nominees. John Adams, for example, served one term as president. John Marshall, whom he appointed Chief Justice, during the lame duck session of Congress served for more than 30 years and profoundly shaped the interpretation of the Constitution.

By the way, Chief Justice John Roberts recently called for the Senate to speed up the approval of judges given the amount of current vacancies.

Professor Lichtman, thanks for taking questions today. There has been a fair amount of discussion about whether we're seeing a 1994 redux here (Republican Congress with a new mandate and promises to shake things up, a Democratic president trying to triangulate to the center, etc.). What do you think of that comparison?

Insightful question. In some ways there is indeed an activist Republican House seeking change and a president would can benefit from compromise and an appearance on non-partisanship.

However, the differences with 1994 are striking. First, in 1994 the GOP recaptured both Houses. In 2010 they won only the House. Second, the 1994 GOP Contract With America had many innovative ideas for its time; the current crop of Republicans lack this intellectual vitality. Third, unlike 1994 there is no public enthusiasm for the new Republicans in Congress, who generally rate below Obama and his Democrats in public esteem. I wrote a piece on this which you can Google, called "The Joyless Election." Finally, 1994 represented a long-term shift of political power in favor of the GOP, with the realignment of the South. It does not appear that 2010 achieved similar historic change.

Who do you think has a mandate right now? Republicans or Obama? Seems to me that most in the media still seem to think that Obama has the upper hand, especially after coming out of the lame-duck session. However, from where I'm sitting, I don't quite see it that way. Frankly, most of Obama's "wins" during the lame-duck are things that the public are really not concerned about at this point in time. People care more about finding a job than about Russia's nukes, or whether Sailor Johnny can openly serve as a gay sailor. Thoughts?

I don't think anyone has a mandate right now. The last three elections have all been essentially "NO" elections in which the voters rejected the ruling party. The GOP Congress in 2006, the GOP president in 2008, and the Democratic Congress in 2010. Right now the public cares about results as you shrewdly indicate. They want an improving economy, but have not given any clear signal about what policies they would favor to achieve that end.

Overall, Obama's ratings do seem to be up slightly, although that may be a blip. However, the polls show that the public has more conficdence in his leadership than in that of the Republicans in Congress. But that does not necessarily translate into any particular legislative mandate.

I'm a political nerd so I love the special elections that happen in some random congressional district. Granted this is hard to impossible question to answer, but any bets on any special elections that will happen in the 112th Congress?

I think I will avoid the impossible question. If you have any ideas about it, let me know.

Since Pay-Go was introduced in the 80s, parties have often ignored the rule or repealed it, but is this the first time that one party has altered the rule at all, much less in such a one-sided fashion?

The strategy of health care supporters is simple. Harp on all the problems that would take place if we returned to the status quo ante reform: people denied or losing benefits, lack of preventive care, exorbitant costs, etc.

This should not be difficult to do, given that the Republicans cannot actually repeal the health care bill with control over only one house of Congress. Any repeal would require approval from the Democratic senate and the signature of president Obama. Hell will freeze over first.

What happens if Issa is able to do all the investigations he's been talking about? Will seeing the administration officials talking about the health-care bill, etc., make them seem, maybe, reasonable? Can the chairmen just refuse to allow them to speak or be questioned by members of the committee friendly to the administration?

Investigations are a double-edged sword for the Congress. Sometimes they go well as with the Watergate Investigations, but sometimes they backfire as with the investigations during the Clinton years.

Investigations backfire when they seem political rather than substantive. Therefore Republican chairs cannot afford to refuse to allow administration officials to speak or generally to conduct the hearings in a heavy-handed partisan way. I agree that administration officials should try to turn the tables on the opposition and use the hearings as a means for explaining and extolling their policies and decisions. They could do this for example if the GOP House holds hearings on the regulation of business.

So far, there is no indication of any significant corruption within the Obama administration that might make for bombshell hearings. 

The headline on says Republicans are ready to "shake things up." What do you predict they will succeed at "shaking up" in the near term?

There "shake-up" will largely be symbolic rather than real, since they have limited power with control over only one house of Congress and a Democratic president.

Already the GOP leadership is backing off its pledge to cut $100 billion immediately from the federal budget and has now scaled down their estimates to perhaps $50 to $60 billion a miniscule proportion of the federal budget. They are already backing off some of their promised changes to make House rules more transparent and democratic. They can hold a vote on repealing health care or other elements of the Obama agenda, but they can't get past the Democratic Senate or president.

What are some of the primary components of a system that can predict the outcome of presidential elections?

The basic idea behind the system is that the outcome of presidential elections does not depend upon the campaign, but upon how well the party in power governs the country. If it governs well, it will get four more years in power, if not the challenging party will win. Thus the 13 keys in my system primarily gauge the strength and performance of the party holding the White House. It looks at factors such a midterm elections, third-party insurgencies, internal party battles within the incumbent party, the long and short-term economy, policy change, social unrest, scandal, and foreign policy victories and defeats. If six or more of the thirteen keys go against the party in power they lose, if not they win. Right now Obama had at most only four keys turned against him, so he is a predicted winner. Google, Lichtman and Keys on to get my article on the Keys,.

Sadly, my congressman is Bill Posey. He is the man behind the so-called "Birther Bill." I was curious if he and others will be reintroducing that bill and bring the fringe theories more legitimate in the mainstream mass media.

I suspect that the fringe elements within the GOP will try to bring their agenda to the House, but the leadership will try to keep them under control. They don't want to look looney.

I really cannot get a full sense of what the voters wanted when they replaced Democrats with Republicans. What I feel (but am not sure), is that they were generally impatient with the pace of the recovery, and said so with their votes, but I didn't get the sense that they wanted to OVERTURN the health-care legislation or everything that Obama initiated, or go with the Party that, in fact, caused the economic troubles in the first palce. How do you read it?

As I noted in an earlier answer in the last three elections the public voted NO to the party in power: the GOP Congress in 2006, the GOP president in 2008, and the Democratic Congress in 2010.

The reason that it is so hard to get a sense of public preferences (beyond a better economy however achieved) is that a paradox cuts through the heart of American politics. One the one hand the people want all the benefits of government. They want Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, disaster relief and for some regulation of personal or business behavior. Yet at the same time people cling to the ideals of limited government, fiscal responsibility, and state's rights. Until the paradox is somehow resolved, voters will continue to be discontented with their government.


Much of the public was critical of the decision by Democrats to focus so much time and effort on health- care reform during the last Congress. Many said the focus should have been on the economy and particularly job growth. While the Democrats ultimately passed a version of helath-care reform, the public perception of misplaced priorites contributed greatly to the defeat in the last election. The new Congress appears to heading down the same road, except to even more fruitless results. Is this a mistake for the new majority?

It is never a mistake substantively to focus on legislation that is for the long-term good of the country. A comprehensive health care bill was an extraordinary accomplishment that has eluded numerous past presidents. It will actually help Obama in 2012 by giving him a record on which to run.

I agree, however, on the importance of focusing on the economy, although the government has only a limited role in creating jobs.

In my view, however, the great unfinished business of American government is dealing with energy and the environment. We must develop policies to get this nation off the fossil fuel economy. We can do that now on a rational, planned basis or later after an ecological disaster has occurred. There are many warning signs with the fires, floods, and extreme temperatures across the world. Even the Russians are beginning to see the light on this issue. Should we as Americans fall behind?

On Colbert last night I saw a "debate" about moving back to the gold standard, with Ron Paul making the case for that move. One of his arguments was that if you put $10,000 in paper money in a box and buried it, in 20 years nothing would be left, but if you buried an equivalent amount of gold, it would still be as good as new. Then later he said that under this system, you wouldn't actually carry gold around, but certificates (supposedly paper ones) attesting to your ownership of said gold. It seems to me that this certificate would be just as prone to the ravages of nature as the present system, except that one might expect a few bills in the center of the pile to last a little longer, while the certificate would not have buddies to protect it. On the other hand, most of my wealth is in the bank, and exists only as an electronic record that the bank keeps, and the paper records that I keep in a filing cabinet, some of which are over 20 years old and are in fine shape, so I'm not sure that I need to worry about my money moldering away in the ground in any case. Is the gold stadnard argument really as loopy as Paul makes it out to be?

I am not an economist, but most would agree (and they rarely agree on anything) that a return to the gold standard is loopy and would paralyze the world economy. Remember gold may be shiny and pretty, but like currency you can't eat it or drink it. And unlike currency you can't wear it.

Has any incoming member of the House proposed closing down the Congressional health club, the commissary/restaurants, and forgoing the Congressional cost of living increases (my understanding is they are automatic -- you have to opt out or you receive them automatically)? Have any members of Congress who want to repeal the new health-care law announced that they will forgo their own federal health-care benefits and show us all how easy it is to purchase individual health insurance on the open market for themselves and their families?

I am unaware of House members volunteering to cut off their own health care, just as they don't usually volunteer their own children to fight in the foreign wars that they support.

The GOP leadership has proposed cutting the budget of the House and reducing its staff. I don't think they will be closing the restuarants and if they keep those open they will also need the health club.

How likely do you see it that one of the older conservative-leaning SCOTUS justices might present a vacancy for President Obama to fill in the next two years?

Very unlikely, except in the event of an unexpected health issue. They will want to at least wait out the results of the 2012 elections.

I am always confounded by the large number of people, particularly more rural poor people, who vote for the GOP rather than the Democrats. It would seem that by now both parties have pretty well-established track records regarding their agendas. And, although more and more Democrats are also in the pockets of Big Business these days, it would seem that only one of the two parties is really looking out at all for the little guys. Is it just social conservatism that influences these people to vote for the GOP instead? Furthermore, the Tea Party types seem to yearn to take us back to the early 19th Century for some reason that I can't quite figure out. I fear there will never really be a "United" States ever again as I simply do not get these people or where they are coming from and to them I am just some sort of evil godless Communist. Is there any hope for this country or are we on a permanent downward spiral?

I guess I will take this "easy" question as my last. Thank you all so much for the excellent and challenging questions.

While many poor people do vote for the GOP, the data shows that the GOP vote is much stronger among the more affluent. The richer you are in America the more likely you are to vote Republican.

Social conservative does influence the rural poor who vote Republican, which they see as the party of America's pioneer stock and traditional Christian values. The Democrats are seen more as the party of minorities and of secularism.

I you are opposed to the Tea Party you should not despair. The last elections pointed not just to its strengths, but to its weakness as being perceive as extremist (see the Senate results in Delaware, Alaska, and Nevada.)

I do think we may be on a downward spiral unless we address our fundamental problems, including the fossil fuel economy, massive inequalities in wealth and income, and a unsustainable deb burden.

In This Chat
Allan Lichtman
Allan Lichtman is a history professor at American University. His prediction system, the Keys to the White House, has correctly predicted the outcomes of all U.S. presidential elections since 1984.
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