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Brace Yourself for 'Performative Gridlock' as a Divided Congress Readies Bills Crafted Purely for Headlines

People 11/17/2022 Amy Eskind

Mark Wilson/Getty Rep. Elise Stefanik © Provided by People Mark Wilson/Getty Rep. Elise Stefanik

With Republicans gaining control of the House by the narrowest of majorities and Democrats retaining control of the Senate, the midterm elections have sent the United States back to a divided Congress.

This may put pressure on obstinate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to compromise so Congress can get a few things passed before the end of the year — namely abortion protections and voting rights, as they've been supportive of efforts to codify same-sex marriage protections — while Democrats still lead both houses, says Sunshine Hillygus, political science professor at Duke University.

Come January, Hillygus predicts that not many bills will get passed. "I don't see a lot of room for forward progress."

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"It's not just a matter of a stalemate," she says, explaining that the presidential campaigns of 2024 are starting, and she expects that lawmakers in Congress will be focused on helping their party win favor. "This is why you're likely to see a Republican House focus on investigating the Biden administration. It's why you might see a lot of bills get proposed that actually have no shot of actually ever being passed — it becomes an issue of signaling and trying to keep particular issues on the agenda."

"In some ways it's worse than gridlock," Hillygus adds, "it is performative gridlock."

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Democrats have something of a tailwind from this election, and won't have incentive to compromise in the new Congress. "Had this been a massive red wave, you might have seen a little bit more movement from Democrats to find common ground on something like immigration," she says. "But even then, there's very little strategic advantage of doing that in today's political environment."  

Kevin McCarthy wearing a suit and tie: Win McNamee/Getty Images Kevin McCarthy © Provided by People Win McNamee/Getty Images Kevin McCarthy

John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, says it goes both ways. "I haven't seen any … willingness [among Republicans] to engage with Democrats or give Democrats any wins, especially as we're heading into a presidential cycle."

"I think it's more likely than not that the House becomes Trumpier than it currently is," he tells PEOPLE. "So I think it's highly unlikely that there's real collaboration between the House and the Senate or the House and the White House."

"Early signs are that [Republicans] are more focused on investigating conspiracies than they are about taking a step back, understanding what happened in this election, the rejection of denialism, and working for an agenda that meets the needs of the electorate, specifically the agenda of millennials and younger voters who are more responsible for the results of this election than anyone else," Della Volpe says.

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Republicans have already shared their plans for when they take control of the House in January, laying out top priorities in their "Commitment to America."

House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, who declined an interview with PEOPLE but appeared on Fox Business on Election Day, said her party planned to rein in government spending, support energy independence and reduce crime by securing the U.S.-Mexico border and supporting law enforcement. Furthermore, she said Republicans would pass a "Parents Bill of Rights" concerning education.

In addition, Republicans on the House Republican Study Committee released a "Blueprint to Save America" that outlines top priorities for the 2023 budget. It's a 122-page laundry list of bills and agenda items that includes conservative positions on abortion, guns, transgender athletes, critical race theory, energy law — including reduced funding for the Environmental Protection Agency — and more restrictions on welfare programs.

They also propose ending federal programs to back residential mortgage debt through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, making pay raises for federal employees merit-based rather than automatic, ending federal support of mass transit programs and gradually increasing retirement age from 67 to 70 for Social Security benefits. And they back increased military spending and paying to finish the wall at the southern border.

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There's virtually no way for the Republican agenda to find success now that Democrats will remain in control of the Senate — and of course, President Joe Biden has veto power — but with the ability to investigate Democratic leaders and pass bills in one chamber of Congress, they can show voters that they're trying to achieve their goals, and pin any lack of progress on the left.

Even in the minority, House Republicans have been quick to propose performative bills, knowing they wouldn't have the support necessary to pass. On the first day of the Biden presidency, and only two and a half weeks into her first term, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced articles of impeachment against the president, alleging he allowed "his son Hunter Biden to influence the domestic policy of a foreign nation and accept benefits from foreign nationals in exchange for favors" while serving as vice president.

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More than a dozen Biden impeachment bills have been introduced since — five by Rep. Greene alone — all going nowhere. Campaign promises were made by various Republicans to continue on this path should they win the majority, but party leaders recently backed off the idea. With possible pressure from presidential candidates running against Biden, time will tell if this takes precedence for House Republicans over the next two years.

In the meantime, Americans can brace for wild headlines from House Republicans and Senate Democrats alike, many of whom will be eager to take bold stances with the goal of firing up their bases ahead of 2024.

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