If, as expected, Republicans win back one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections, the most significant impact could well be summed up in two words: judges and subpoenas.
Since President Biden has two more years in office and Democrats will certainly maintain a veto-proof margin in the Senate, even a Republican sweep would not lead to much meaningful legislation. As John Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, told U.S. News, expect “a lot of messaging — not a lot of actual lawmaking.”
Even if they control only one chamber, however, the GOP could name committee chairs, hold hearings, question witnesses, demand documents and generally use their position to bedevil the Biden administration with endless inquiries.
The most lasting legacy of many presidents is their appointments to the federal judiciary, and Biden has already moved 84 judges through the Senate, with 57 more nominations pending; only a handful are white males. That pace would slow considerably if Republicans capture the Senate, and successful nominees would have to be less diverse and more moderate than many of Biden’s initial choices.
“Clearly, if we’re in the majority, he’ll have to consult with us on judges and other executive branch noms,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune told NBC News. “I assume it will affect and temper the kinds of nominees he sends up, knowing that he’s going to have to get them through a Republican Senate.”
On the legislative front, a Republican victory would force the White House to play defense, not offense; to focus on preserving gains, not advancing new proposals. One battleground could be aid to Ukraine. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who would become speaker should Republicans take the House, predicted to Punchbowl News that a recession-weary public would not write “a blank check” to Kyiv. A Republican-controlled Congress could also try to reverse Biden’s plans to reduce student loan debt or raise corporate taxes.
But the real action would be on the investigative front. As the Democrats have vividly demonstrated with their well-staged probe of the Jan. 6 insurrection, hearings can be powerful political tools, and one of the first moves by a GOP majority would be to disband that panel.
Then Republicans are likely to mount a major probe into the financial affairs of Joe Biden’s son Hunter — but their real target is the president himself, admits Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, who is in line to head the House Oversight Committee.
“The reason we are investigating Hunter Biden is because we believe he is a national security threat,” Comer told Fox News. “But we are also concerned that Hunter’s shady business dealings have compromised Joe Biden.”
Another prime GOP target is the Department of Justice. After the FBI raided former President Trump’s Florida headquarters, Rep. McCarthy took to Twitter to warn Attorney General Merrick Garland to “preserve your documents and clear your calendar” to answer future Republican demands.
Republican wins could elevate some of the administration’s fiercest critics to key positions, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is aiming his ire at Dr. Anthony Fauci and other officials who managed the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When we win the House, and when we win the Senate,” Paul recently bragged to a campaign rally for Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron, “I will be the chairman of a committee and I will have the power to subpoena records. And I promise you I will subpoena every last record from Dr. Fauci.”
Judges are even more important, since they serve life terms, and Trump’s tenure demonstrates why. In only four years, he selected 226 federal judges, 28% of the total on the day he left office. Three ascended to the Supreme Court — one more justice than Barack Obama named in eight years — and 54 joined the powerful appellate courts, only one fewer than Obama appointed. As a result, writes John Gramlich of the Pew Research Center, “Trump ‘flipped’ the balance of several appeals courts from a majority of Democratic appointees to a majority of Republican appointees.”
Trump’s three nominees to the Supreme Court were all under 55 when they took office, and while the average tenure for a justice is 17 years, Trump’s picks could serve a lot longer. Look at Justice Clarence Thomas, selected for the court at age 43 in 1991. He’s already served 31 years and could survive another decade if his health holds up.
A Republican-controlled Congress would have little impact on legislation, but investigating Biden associates and blocking Biden judges would be major accomplishments.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.