What to Expect From the New Congress

At noon today, the 116th Congress convened, signaling the end of the first unified Republican government since 2007, the halfway mark of President Trump’s first term, and a new era of divided government in Washington. While resolving the ongoing government shutdown will be the top priority for Congressional leaders, what happens in the days and weeks following the eventual deal will provide a new test for the Trump administration and set the stage for 2020 speculation.

Here are a few things to look for in the new Congress:

  1. Diversity — The new Congress will be younger and more diverse than its predecessor. 42 of the new members are women (helping set a record for the number of women in Congress), 23 are people of color (ditto on ethnic diversity) and 24 new members are under 40.
  2. Digital Savvy — President Trump revolutionized how politicians use digital platforms to circumvent the media and connect directly with the base. The new, younger and 2020-focused Congress hasn’t even been sworn in, yet we’ve already seen politicians on the other side of the aisle take a similar approach. Elizabeth Warren cracked a beer during an Instagram Q&A live stream announcing her presidential bid and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez regularly rallies her enormous Twitter following to push for a more progressive agenda.
  3. Gridlock — A Trump White House combined with a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House means a return to the traffic jam days of the Obama era. More fundamentally, both houses will be moving in dramatically different directions, with the House squarely focused on investigating the ethical excesses of the first two years of the Trump administration, and the Senate focused on, well, anything else, the opportunities for common ground and progress on policy will be few and far between.
  4. 2020 — Despite the gridlock, the new Congress will provide the best opportunity for Democratic frontrunners to make their case to primary voters. Eventually, debates and day-to-day campaigning will take center stage, but an active Democratic majority in the House will create regular headaches for Team Trump.

What’s more certain than ever is that rampant polarization will continue to be the most animating feature of American politics. Coming off an election that featured losses by Washington’s few remaining moderates and with a high-stakes presidential election looming, the opportunities for attention lie at the extremes of both parties. That’s great for spectacle and cable news ratings, but it makes meaningful action on the biggest challenges facing Americans much harder to achieve.