Leadership from the Center
By: Lawrence Duncan III
The aftermath of the Presidential election has finally produced a peaceful transition of power. In many respects, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris won a decisive and convincing victory: 306 electoral votes, more than 80 million popular votes (the most ever), and they flipped five states from Red to Blue — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. But in other ways, the pundits who predicted a Big Blue Wave got it wrong. Democrats lost seats in the House and now have a smaller majority. And while Democrats flipped two Senate seats in Colorado and Arizona, they lost critical races that could have delivered them the majority. Only the two runoff races in Georgia are left to determine the final configuration of the next Congress and the environment that President-elect Biden will encounter on January 20 when he takes the oath of office.
But solely looking at the partisan breakdown of the House and Senate ignores the governing dynamic that will matter most in the next Congress. The power to effectuate change in Washington is now in the center. Moderate lawmakers will play an outsized role in finding common ground to pass meaningful legislation in the next Congress. While his agenda might be limited, President-elect Biden has a chance to move the country forward in several areas that will impact public health, the economy, and jobs in positive ways if enough Members of Congress are willing to work in the middle to get things done.
The House Democratic Caucus is now more progressive and wants to advance legislation in many areas, including immigration, healthcare, education, police reform, taxes, climate change and renewable energy. But Speaker Pelosi will have a reduced majority in the next Congress. Democrats lost several races in competitive swing districts to Republican challengers, and not one single Republican lost their re-election bid. Consequently, Speaker Pelosi won’t have much of a margin on any legislation that is brought to the House Floor. While compromise is rare these days in the House, certain issues, like transportation and infrastructure, might motivate some House Members on both sides to find common ground. But as a general rule, the House will vote along partisan lines.
Traditionally, the Senate has been viewed as the body most suited to compromise, but not lately. Senate Leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer have fought like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. But the challenges we are facing as a nation demand a pause to the hostilities. If the Senate majority is held by the Republicans, or if the Democrats claim victory in the Georgia runoffs and secure the majority, one thing is clear: Senators inclined to work in the middle can determine whether the Senate is a functioning body for consensus legislation, or the place where good legislation goes to die. Some Senators are well known centrist players like Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin, Chris Coons, Angus King, Rob Portman and Kyrsten Sinema. Other Senators that could thrive as leaders in the middle are Mitt Romney and Mark Warner. All of them could play a big role in what gets done over the next four years in a divided government. The recent bipartisan Senate proposal for COVID relief is a good example of what’s possible.
As a former long serving Senator, President-elect Biden has special advantages over most incoming Presidents. He has genuine friendships and close working relationships with many Members of Congress. During his tenure in the Senate, President-elect Biden found the sweet spot for bipartisan legislative deals time and time again. This experience will serve him well as he embarks on the toughest job he’s ever had. The close margins in the House and Senate could be a prescription for gridlock. But if the right Members of Congress on both sides seize the opportunity to work in the middle and seek consensus, we could see leadership from the center that benefits us all.
About Lawrence Duncan III
Larry is an expert government affairs professional and corporate attorney with over twenty-five years of experience representing Fortune 100 companies and major trade associations before the U.S. Congress, Executive Branch, and state and local governments. Larry joins Monument as the Founder and President of Potomac Policy Advisors LLC, where his main areas of expertise include technology, communications, media, financial services, tax, healthcare, energy, defense, homeland security, and consumer products. Previously, he served as Vice President of Government Affairs at Lockheed Martin with responsibility for federal and state government affairs, strategic political engagement, and community affairs. Larry also practiced at two major D.C. law firms and began his career as a member of the U.S. Senate floor staff, where he worked for the Secretary of the U.S. Senate. He holds a B.A. in Government from Harvard University and a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law.