How Republicans in Congress could handle a potential recession
Stakes for abortion, climate change, and the war in Ukraine couldn’t be higher in the 2022 midterm election

Grid; Drew Angerer/Getty Images

360°

Stakes for abortion, climate change, and the war in Ukraine couldn’t be higher in the 2022 midterm election

LENSES

360°

Stakes for abortion, climate change, and the war in Ukraine couldn’t be higher in the 2022 midterm election

Grid reporters break it down for you.

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Overview

LENSES

The United States economy is staring down a recession over the next year. But Congress may struggle to do anything about it.

It’s not over for Democrats yet, but Republicans are currently favored to win the House of Representatives, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has already promised to set up a high-stakes battle over spending cuts.

Though the last two years have been marked by a rush of new legislation, much of it bipartisan, many observers think that could come to a screeching halt.

If recent history is any guide, a divided government will struggle to enact policies tackling big issues, leaving states to grapple with policy on their own. Abortion is a prime example. If Congress can’t enact a national abortion policy, states will keep passing abortion bans and laws that preserve abortion rights, creating a state-by-state mosaic of abortion policies across the country.

Climate change saw incredible progress this year, with Democrats passing the country’s biggest-ever investment in renewable energy spread over 10 years. But Republicans eager to cut spending stymie the ability to push the policy forward, lessening the climate bill’s impact.

Republicans are likely to use their investigative power to change the narrative around the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack and delve into some of the more questionable parts of Hunter Biden’s past.

Nothing is certain. The other scenario — one in which Democrats maintain a narrow majority of unified control of Washington — could open the door for more legislating, but Democrats have recognized their window on legislative power is closing.

Thesis

The most likely scenario out of the midterms is divided government. If Republicans win either or both chambers in Congress, they will likely use their power to block President Joe Biden’s agenda. Republicans’ currency, barring a massive wave that bequeaths them large majorities, will be obstructing spending decisions and using Congress to grandstand on culture wars.

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Economy Lens

The most likely outcome is stasis

Emergency spending

The first Congress of the Biden White House hit a sweet spot for economic policy. It passed massive legislation on both an emergency basis — the American Rescue Plan — as well as a bevy of bipartisan spending bills (the Chips and Science Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) that most of the House Democratic caucus supported as well as enough Republicans in both chambers to get over the line. Expect all that to stop.

For one, the appetite for greater spending has decreased thanks to high inflation. The climate bill got through the Senate only when it was transformed into the Inflation Reduction Act. Secondly, if there’s a Republican House majority, expect the debt limit to come into play in a major way sometime in 2023. Not only will new spending be hard to come by, there could be a high-stakes confrontation over spending cuts.

Additional reading from Grid:

Entitlements

McCarthy, who leads the House Republicans, has made it perfectly clear that should he become speaker of the House, he expects to trade increasing the debt limit in exchange for some kind of spending cut. While using the full faith and credit of the United States federal government may seem extreme, there is a playbook here. In 2011, after taking a majority in the House, Republicans extracted caps on spending that excluded entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

While McCarthy has been ambiguous about exactly what spending programs he would look to cut or slow, Republicans in the House have talked about looking at entitlement programs, although they may want to set up some kind of bipartisan commission or negotiation in order to make both parties have a hand in the resulting reforms — and split the blame from the public.

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Stimulus spending

A recession could hit in 2023. Typically, when downturns occur, Congress and the White House can figure out how to spend money to cushion the blow, at least a little. There were stimulus bills passed in the waning years of the Bush administration, the beginning of the Obama years and in 2020, the last full year of the Trump White House. In all these cases, however, inflation was quiescent and the stimulus bills could either be passed on party lines or with Democrats in Congress working with Republicans in the White House on more spending. A 2023 recession would be far different.

Inflation will likely still be well above the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target, and Republicans will be holding a tight leash on the White House. So, any rounds of stimulus or economic support will be unlikely or, if at all, targeted and miserly.

Additional reading from Grid:

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Democracy and Voting Lens

The aftermath of Jan. 6 and the Big Lie

The 117th Congress began on the week of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. It may end without significant accountability for the key figures behind the effort to subvert the 2020 presidential election and without meaningful reforms to safeguard the democratic process. The outcome of the midterm elections is likely to determine the fate of both.

Voting

Democrats in the current Congress introduced a series of legislative proposals aiming to protect voting rights and implement sweeping reforms to safeguard electoral processes. But one by one, H.R. 1, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act each failed to advance. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol — the most prominent congressional effort to hold responsible figures accountable for their efforts to subvert the 2020 presidential election results — is expected to close shop after issuing a final report by the end of 2022.

Jan. 6

Republicans have signaled they are unlikely to continue investigating the Jan. 6 attack or advance electoral reform measures favored by Democrats if they take control of the House. Instead, GOP leaders have indicated they may focus Congress’ oversight authority on probing topics including illegal immigration, the activities of Hunter Biden or the Internal Revenue Service. Although the 118th Congress would be able to reauthorize the Jan. 6 committee, a Republican-led House is unlikely to do so.

Electoral Count Act

One area of bipartisan accord appears to be reforming the Electoral Count Act — the 1887 law whose intricacies former president Donald Trump’s lawyers tried to exploit in a bid to overturn the 2020 election results. The Electoral Count Reform Act, which aims to clarify that the vice president has only a ministerial role in certifying the Electoral College votes and to prevent state actors from disregarding electoral results, advanced out of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration in a bipartisan vote in September. The legislation stands a chance of passing Congress in the final weeks of 2022. And if not, Electoral Count Act reform appears ripe for consideration in the 118th Congress under the control of either party.

Additional reading from Grid:

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Abortion Lens

Federal protections or federal restrictions?

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision effectively put the question of abortion access into states’ hands. But in stripping a national right to abortion, the court opened the door for national abortion legislation, and both parties have introduced bills that could expand or restrict national access to abortion care. In the absence of single-party control — and with congressional majorities expected to be narrow — any bill will face stiff odds at becoming law in the next two years, no matter the outcome of the midterm election.

Lindsey Graham’s proposed 15-week ban

If Republicans take one or both chambers, there’s a good chance they will introduce national abortion bans, but Biden would likely veto any such bill. In September, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) put forward a bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the pregnant person. The proposal drew both criticism and support from within the GOP, making its long-term prospects less clear.

Women’s Health Protection Act

If Democrats retain control of both chambers, they’ll likely introduce bills to codify a federal right to abortion, and Biden has said he’d sign them. Lawmakers introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act earlier this year to protect access to abortion nationwide before fetal viability and prohibit states from imposing restrictions, like mandatory waiting periods or ultrasounds. But the bill failed to get 60 votes in the Senate, a prerequisite for similar bills as long as the filibuster remains intact. Without much larger majorities, or convincing enough Republicans to sign on, Democrats face stiff odds at enshrining abortion rights into law.

Additional reading from Grid:

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Technology Lens

Hope for bipartisanship?

Section 230

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act isn’t on the ballot this fall. But whichever party ends up controlling Congress, it’s likely to continue to face fire from both sides of the aisle. The law, passed in 1996, has for decades protected internet companies from lawsuits related to content users share on their platforms.

In short, it’s the law everyone loves to hate.

Conservatives allege the sites’ moderation policies reveal liberal bias, with many citing decisions by Twitter and Facebook to bar Trump from their platforms. Liberals — including Biden — argue that Section 230 has allowed the proliferation of misinformation on social media without penalties for tech companies.

If altered, through legislation or the courts, it would fundamentally alter how the internet functions as we know it — and lead us into a very uncertain future.

Additional reading from Grid:

Antitrust

Antitrust is one of few policy areas that does not fall on party lines in today’s Washington. There’s internal division in both parties about how to grapple with Big Tech and corporate power, as some lawmakers feel it’s imperative to take action while others are wary of interfering with the market.

An October antitrust debate in the House of Representatives illustrates the unusual dynamic. Republican lawmaker Ken Buck (Colo.) led the charge on a series of antitrust bills, including a bill to raise taxes on corporate mergers and acquisitions and use the money to better fund federal enforcement agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. But Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leader in the House Freedom Caucus, fiercely opposed this approach, arguing it would give more funding to regulators working for the Biden administration. Ultimately, the bill passed with a few dozen Republicans breaking from their party to support it and 16 Democrats voting against.

Lawmakers have a raft of proposals to address monopolies and are likely to keep revisiting the subject in the next Congress. It’s one of few policy areas where there could be bipartisan progress in the months ahead, though corporate lobbyists and constituents are generally opposed to such efforts.

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Climate Lens

Is recent congressional climate change progress at risk?

By any account, the past two years have been Congress’ most productive in history when it comes to climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act in particular has been hailed as the country’s single biggest swing against warming — a bill that not a single Republican in either house voted for. With Biden still in office, any legislative attempts from a flipped House or Senate to undermine climate progress likely wouldn’t survive a veto, but there are still some ways the GOP could fight against U.S. attempts to cut emissions.

Spending and oversight

The main avenue for Republicans to push back is funding. The Inflation Reduction Act’s $369 billion in climate-related spending is spread out over 10 years, and a Republican Congress could try to slow its implementation by underfunding various agencies or departments.

There is some precedent for this: In 2017, the GOP-led House voted to drastically slash Environmental Protection Agency funding. Leaving agencies like the EPA or the Department of the Interior underfunded and understaffed could make rolling out the provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as the infrastructure law, more difficult. After a landmark Supreme Court decision in June that limited the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, the agency may still release new rules on emissions that try to work within those limits; underfunding could stand in the way of that or any number of other climate and environmental actions from the executive branch.

Fossil fuels

Republicans have long griped about the prioritization of renewable energy over fossil fuels, but a flipped Congress still wouldn’t have much say over things like pipeline permitting or offshore oil drilling, which remain the purview of the executive branch. Still, Congress could use its oversight role in order to put a thumb on those scales, perhaps using highly publicized hearings on higher energy costs or China’s human rights record in the solar power or battery industry as levers to slow momentum away from fossil fuels.

Additional reading from Grid:

GOP efforts to address climate change

Much of the U.S.’s climate progress is either now firmly enshrined in law or firmly in the hands of the White House — but a determined Republican-led Congress likely wouldn’t throw up its hands in defeat.

There is, however, the smallest of chances that a flipped Congress might be losing the stomach for defiantly pro-warming policies. John Curtis, a Republican representing Utah’s 3rd District, is among a small group of GOP members who have tried to work toward some climate action. Furthermore, it seems that there are ways to center progress on warming in ways that are more palatable to Republican priorities; for example, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement designed to phase out the use of damaging greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and cooling, was recently ratified by a two-thirds majority in the Senate thanks to its business-friendly framing.

Though a far cry from what activists and the science say is necessary, any help from that side of the aisle may indicate that attempts to dismantle existing climate progress would lose steam.

Additional reading from Grid:

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Global Lens

U.S. policy’s wide-reaching impact

Ukraine

It’s not an exaggeration to say this midterm election could have major strategic implications in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

Congress has allocated more than $65 billion in military, economic and food aid to Ukraine this year. Support for Ukraine has, for the most part, been a rare point of bipartisan agreement in Washington. Back in March, McCarthy’s line of attack was that Biden wasn’t providing Ukraine enough firepower, namely aircraft. But there is something of a partisan divide opening on the issue.

McCarthy, who would become speaker of the House if Republicans take over, last week told Punchbowl News, “I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine.” And some Trump-aligned Republicans this year are campaigning on their opposition to further aid for Ukraine. Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance said in a recent interview, “I think we’re at the point where we’ve given enough money in Ukraine, I really do. … The Europeans need to step up.”

Fifty-seven House members and 11 senators, all Republicans, voted against the last $12 billion Ukraine supplemental budget allocation in September. A recent Reuters poll found that while 81 percent of Americans believe the U.S. should continue providing support to Ukraine despite Russia’s nuclear threats, only 66 percent of Republicans agreed. Sixty-six percent support for any policy is unusually high, but the Ukraine skepticism of influential conservative media figures including Fox News host Tucker Carlson — not to mention Trump, who has called for immediate ceasefire negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin — may be having an impact.

McCarthy’s position could put him at odds with his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has vowed to push for more Ukraine aid, not less, if he becomes majority leader next year.

China

In terms of other foreign policy issues, a Republican Congress would likely push the Biden administration, which has already made “strategic competition” with China a centerpiece of its national security strategy, to take an even harder line with Beijing. One hint of what’s to come could be the Countering Communist China Act released last year by the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative lawmakers, in response to what they viewed as insufficiently aggressive proposals from Democrats. The act includes a collection of anti-China measures: banning U.S. companies from receiving federal subsidies affiliating with businesses tied to the Chinese military, blocking funding to U.S. universities that affiliate with Chinese government organizations and mandating a new investigation into the origins of the covid-19 pandemic. House Republicans are also calling for greater oversight of technology exports to China that could potentially benefit the country’s military.

Oversight hearings

Another way that Congress is likely to make itself heard on foreign policy — assuming a Republican victory — is via oversight hearings. House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking for the preservation of documents related to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, during which 13 U.S. servicemembers were killed and which was followed immediately by the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban’s return to power. A Republican committee staffer told Grid that a list has been prepared of administration officials to be brought in for testimony and that the House majority’s subpoena power could be used if necessary.

Republican staffers for the House Foreign Affairs Committee also told Grid they are preparing the groundwork for hearings on Hunter Biden’s laptop, which they allege will show the president’s sons ties to China and other foreign powers.

Immigration

The current surge of undocumented people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border could be a major factor that costs Democrats control of the House of Representatives. But changing leadership in Washington will likely not result in a big change to U.S. immigration policy: Lawmakers have been stuck for decades when it comes to how to create comprehensive immigration reform, despite several bipartisan attempts to pass new laws.

Even over the last two years when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, there weren’t enough votes in the Senate to clear a filibuster on immigration. The Biden White House has instead made minor modifications to Trump’s immigration policies, like ending Trump’s travel ban for people from Muslim-majority countries.

Yet people are coming to the border seeking asylum in record numbers for a variety of reasons that have little to do with what’s happening in the United States. These immigration problems will only continue to mount as Washington struggles to cope. With gridlock only likely to increase in divided government, it doesn’t look like the next Congress will have any better chances of accomplishing immigration reform.

Additional reading from Grid:

Looking to 2024

Republicans, should they win control of the House, could use their majority to set an agenda that creates a pre-2024 narrative that focuses on their favorite issues and curries favor with Trump during his likely presidential campaign.

But they also face major challenges, like how to handle the end of Roe v. Wade. They could be caught between their base, which demands a federal abortion ban like the one Graham recently proposed, and the demands of more moderate voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona, where abortion access is popular.

As tight of a race as Democrats faced for control of the Senate this year, the 2024 Senate map is much tougher. Senate Democrats who sailed through on the 2018 blue wave who represent red states — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio — will once again be put to the test, should they decide to run again. And pickup opportunities are few and far between, depending on long shots like ousting Florida’s Rick Scott or Texas’ Ted Cruz.

The 2022 midterms aren’t just determining what the next two years of legislation will look like. They’re also setting the playing field for the 2024 presidential campaign and possibly influencing whether whoever wins the race for the White House will end up with a divided government.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Maggie Severns
    Maggie Severns

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Contributors

Stakes for abortion, climate change, and the war in Ukraine couldn’t be higher in the 2022 midterm election