Why the presidential race isn’t the only election worth watching

UChicago political scientist discusses how control of Congress can shape America’s future

The nation’s attention has been focused for months on the outcome of the presidential election, but the presidency is not the only important race on the ballot this fall: Control of Congress will determine how effectively the next president can govern.

University of Chicago scholar Ruth Bloch Rubin is an expert on congressional dynamics. The assistant professor of political science studies how intraparty divisions impact lawmaking, highlighting the role of smaller organizations within parties—like the Blue Dogs and Freedom Caucus—in shaping policy and procedural changes.

In the following Q&A, Bloch Rubin discusses what this year’s potential election outcomes could mean for the passage of new legislation. The author of the award-winning book Building the Bloc, she also describes how the balance between the parties is maintained in Congress—including narrow majorities and the role of moderates—and what keeps her up at night less than a month before Election Day.

Polls suggest Democrats have a chance of winning a trifecta in November: the House, Senate and presidency. If that happens, what comes next? How likely is it that they would be able to effectively implement an agenda?

Unified control of government has often been an opportunity for presidents to do big things. The quintessential example is Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was the president’s answer to the problems posed by the Great Depression. In that case, Roosevelt capitalized on large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and the public’s desire for strong government intervention to pass policies to stabilize the economy and provide relief to many Americans. Today, the pandemic has disrupted the lives of nearly everyone—from the White House on down—in really big ways, and public dissatisfaction with the status quo is high. It’s in circumstances like these that we might expect a Democratic Congress, in concert with a Democratic president, to engage in really ambitious policymaking.

At the same time, policymaking is really hard and Democrats are going to have to decide how to spend their political capital wisely. They’ll have to decide what programs to prioritize and that’s not going to be easy for at least two reasons. First, any time you set the agenda, you have to make tradeoffs. Given how divided the Democratic caucus is in Congress, I think we’re likely to see fights between progressives and more moderate Democrats over what is most important for the party to accomplish. Second, even if everyone agrees, it isn’t always so easy to figure out the “how.” If Democrats want to expand healthcare coverage, for example, who is going to pay for it? Whether or not Democrats will be able to capitalize on unified control will depend a lot on whether the party’s leaders in Congress can hold their caucus together.

When one party holds a very narrow majority in Congress, does bipartisanship or gridlock increase? And who gets more powerful—party leaders or moderate individuals?

Frances Lee, a scholar at Princeton, has pointed out that one feature of our contemporary Congress is that majorities are increasingly thin. That means we see majority control flip-flop between Democrats and Republicans quite a bit. And because both parties think there’s some possibility they can gain the advantage, both have the incentive to try and make the other side look as bad as possible and avoid working with each other to solve the problems of the day. This means that to pass anything, the majority party needs everyone to vote together. That certainly gives individual moderates quite a bit of leverage, but it also gives hardliners a lot of power. If their vote is pivotal, they get a say.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room—she needs most of the members in her caucus to vote with her. Now, one might think that if she can’t get her own people to work with her, she could convince some Republicans representing purple districts to compromise. But the problem is that Republicans, and certainly Republican leaders, have no incentive to make Pelosi’s life easier.

That said, if Democrats have an electoral sweep and want to pass major legislation—or if Republicans manage to hang on to the Senate—chances are that both parties will need to work together to get anything done. The trick will be figuring out where both parties can agree the imperatives for collaborating trump the political optics of making each other look bad.

Obviously, if Congress can’t figure out how to help Americans get through this tough time, it puts the institution at risk. Americans need to trust that Congress is capable of putting aside partisan competition for the public good. If they can’t, maybe voters will go looking for answers elsewhere.

It seems rare that multiple moderate senators will defect from their party. Why not? Is it because signaling is sometimes more important than the outcome of the vote?

It isn’t that common for moderate senators in the majority party to defect. Party loyalty is pretty strong and oftentimes, a senator can simply say they’re considering defecting and that gets them the concessions they want. Sen. Susan Collins has said she opposes Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and she may be trying to “make up” for her vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh. But given that McConnell likely has the votes he needs, her opposition is more symbolic than meaningful. 

Sometimes moderate senators will defect as a group. Some of my work explores the institutions legislators create to make these joint defections possible. The idea is that you want to jump with friends because it makes it harder to punished by party leaders, and you’re more likely to get the substantive outcome you want. But senators tend not to need as much in the way of organization as House members—it’s easier to coordinate informally when there are only a handful of people to work with. 

There’s been a lot of talk on the left about Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico becoming states. How likely do you think that is, and what would the implications be in Congress?

There are good reasons to admit D.C. and Puerto Rico from a representational standpoint: The latter has 3.1 million residents, which is larger than the population of 20 current U.S. states. But politically, it’s going to be very difficult because Republicans believe that it would put them at a disadvantage. In some of my research, I’ve uncovered that members of Congress thought about the admission of Hawaii and Alaska as states in the 1950s from a partisan perspective from the very beginning. Their public-facing arguments talked about the importance of representation, but behind closed doors, they cared only about which party would benefit. Here, there’s not much ambiguity, so it’s harder to build a cross-party coalition when one party thinks it’s a clear winner and the other thinks it’s a clear loser.

What else are you thinking about as we head into the November election?

I’m used to waking up the day after the election and knowing what happened. This is going to be one of the first elections in living memory where that’s unlikely. As a political scientist, I admit I’m intrigued. What happens if the outcome is unclear? What might Congress do, for example?

But as a citizen, I worry about the uncertainty because it opens the door for people to be suspicious about the outcome. I’m not a sky-is-falling kind of person. I tend to have a lot of faith in the stickiness of our institutions. But if people don’t believe this election is legitimate, that’s bad. And if you need the government to intervene to help decide the contest, like the Supreme Court did in Bush v. Gore, that’s bad too. In fact, it would be worse now, given that roughly half the country thinks recent seats filled by Trump on the Supreme Court were “stolen” or “undeserved.” So that’s what’s keeping me up at night these days.