Let’s say the GOP wins control of Congress on November 8. What will 2023 look like?
History offers clues. The Republican Congress will fight with the president over spending, immigration, the IRS, aid to Ukraine, and the debt ceiling. And it will open investigations into Biden’s personal and professional life. Divided government in a polarized America doesn’t simply halt a president’s legislative agenda. It saps energy out of the executive branch by forcing the White House into a defensive crouch.
Every president since Ronald Reagan has experienced a period of divided government. Every president since Reagan has faced withering scrutiny from an opposition Congress, from a special or independent counsel, or from all the above. Every president since Bill Clinton has fought Congress over spending. Those battles resulted in at least one government shutdown during three of the past four presidencies. (The Democratic Congress during George W. Bush’s final two years didn’t want to close the government, it wanted to cut off funds for the war in Iraq.)
Reagan was almost impeached for the Iran-contra scandal. George H.W. Bush had to contend with independent counsel Lawrence Walsh and with fallout from the collapse of the Savings and Loan industry. Clinton’s troubles began with Whitewater, moved on to the White House travel office, progressed to sleazy campaign finance, and climaxed in his impeachment for lying about and covering up his affair with a White House intern half his age. George W. Bush had to deal with another special counsel investigation, as well as a firestorm over his firing of U.S. attorneys.
Barack Obama’s administration was investigated for the Fast & Furious program, IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. Donald Trump had special counsel Robert Mueller hounding him during his first two years, then Congress impeached him for his unsuccessful attempt to strong-arm the Ukrainians into giving him dirt on Biden. Then Congress impeached him again for the events of January 6, 2021. Trump has been out of office for almost two years, and Congress is still investigating him.
That’s six presidents and three impeachments. Three and a half, if you count the Iran-contra mess. Fair odds, then, that another impeachment lies ahead.
As soon as Congress changes hands, Republicans will be all over Homeland Security’s response to the border crisis. They will deluge the White House with document requests. They will examine whether the administration colluded with social media companies to censor politically incorrect views. They will put Attorney General Merrick Garland in the hot seat for his department’s handling of school board protests and criminalization of political differences. And, of course, the GOP Congress will pore over the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop.
Investigations are easy to start and hard to finish. They take on lives of their own. Republicans may have some idea of where they want to focus, but things never go according to plan.
New scandals emerge. On my screen as I write is an October 25 article in the New York Times with the headline, "U.S. Officials Had a Secret Oil Deal with the Saudis. Or So They Thought." Reporters Mark Mazzetti, Edward Wong, and Adam Entous write that when President Biden met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman in July, he believed that the Saudis would increase oil production ahead of the midterm elections.
The Times notes that, on the very day in June that the White House announced its Middle East trip, Saudi Arabia said it would accelerate a production increase. When Biden met with Prince Salman in Riyadh, they fist-bumped. Then Biden left and the deal—if there ever was a deal—fell apart.
Saudi Arabia opposes the proposed price-cap on Russian oil exports. They don’t want to establish a market precedent. The Biden administration wants to go ahead with the caps. On October 5, the Saudi-influenced OPEC Plus, which also counts Russia as a member, said that it was cutting oil production. Biden and the Democrats were furious. "There’s going to be some consequences for what they’ve done with Russia," the president said. Congressional Democrats have proposed a range of retaliatory measures against the Saudis. Some even say that we should end our 80-year-old alliance with the kingdom.
Take a step back for a moment. The president of the United States entered what he thought was a secret agreement with a foreign government to take actions intended to benefit his political party. The White House is convinced that the president’s fortunes rise and fall on the "price at the pump." A price that Biden has tried desperately to drop—not by approving domestic oil and gas leases, pipelines, and refineries, but by depleting the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and pleading with autocratic governments to drill overseas. And when Saudi Arabia didn’t behave as expected, when the desired political benefit didn’t appear, Biden threatened retaliation.
Anyone else remember that "perfect" phone call between President Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky?
I’m not saying the situations are perfectly analogous. A fist bump is not quite the same as a phone transcript. Lower gas prices would help everybody, not just Biden and the Democrats. Plus, after scandal erupted over Trump’s call with Zelensky, U.S. military aid to Ukraine went ahead. Biden may follow through on his threats to punish Saudi Arabia—despite not having imposed any real penalty on Iran, which is supplying Russia with the kamikaze drones brutalizing Ukraine.
The Times story is a reminder that the future in politics is never a straight-line projection from the present. It is also a taste of all the subjects a Republican Congress will investigate in the coming years. None of us knows what grist for the oversight mill will be in tomorrow’s paper. Nor can we imagine what details intrepid congressional researchers will unearth in the months ahead.
The job of president has been hard for Joe Biden. It’s about to get a lot worse.