If the Senate flips in 2014, not much else is likely to change with it. Photo: Getty
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The 2014 US midterms don’t mean anything

Pundits and polls say the stakes couldn’t be higher. The reality is quite the opposite.

The political media’s handicapping of the 4 November midterm election has contributed to the impression, fostered by many partisans and commentators, that the stakes have never been higher. Jonathan Capehart, the liberal Washington Post columnist, says he wants to “warn” Democrats that “President Obama will be impeached if the Democrats lose control of the US Senate.” Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma believes a GOP Senate will finally blow the lid off “the greatest cover-up in American history” – that is, Benghazi. 

In fact, the stakes rarely have been as low as they are this year – even if Republicans do win back the Senate.

The 1994 midterm election produced dramatic political change: a Republican House majority for the first time in 40 years and a GOP Senate majority for the first time since 1986. GOP losses in the 1998 midterm, despite retaining the House majority, cost Newt Gingrich the speakership and delivered a rebuke to the party’s effort to oust President Bill Clinton for his sexual adventurism.

In 2006, Democrats swept away the GOP in both the House and Senate. With Obama’s election in 2008, Congress was prepared to pass health-care reform, a task that had proven impossible despite the Democrat-controlled House and Senate in the first two years of Clinton’s first term. In 2010, the Republicans surged back, retaking the House but not the Senate (owing largely to the GOP’s nomination of unelectably right-wing and strange candidates in several key states, not least Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Nevada).

It’s quite possible that the GOP will pick up enough Senate seats in November to control the chamber. But the real potential for drama and consequence for the 2014 midterm now seems all but a dead letter – namely, that Democrats would somehow recapture the House. This was never a bet for the faint-hearted, as the historical trend favours gains for the opposition party (with exceptions like 1998). Yet the extraordinary tech prowess of Obama’s team in turning out voters for his re-election in 2012 at least raised the possibility that the campaign’s database, transmogrified from “Obama for America” to “Organizing for America”, could work magic in the midterm as well.

But that was before Obama’s second-term political fortunes took a turn for the worse, starting with the stubbornly lackluster economy, proceeding to the disastrous Obamacare rollout, and now with a deteriorating international environment and uncertainty about U.S. leadership. Not even the record-low disapproval of Congress has been enough to counterbalance the decline of Obama’s own disapproval rating and of Democrats’ prospects for pulling an epic upset.

Even a GOP victory in the Senate wouldn’t be enough to brand 2014 an election of consequence. This would make very little difference to the balance of power in Washington, which already has its two most salient characteristics carved in stone for the remainder of Obama’s term: divided government, and a very deep unwillingness to work across the aisle.

True, a GOP-controlled Senate would launch a few more investigations of the Obama administration’s misdeeds, real and imagined. But the House already has such investigations underway, and with all due respect to “the world’s greatest deliberative body”, an investigation that proceeds with support strictly along party lines is no more credible when the Senate is doing it. The confirmation process for judicial nominees was going to slow down in the final two years of the administration anyway. Other administration appointments simply don’t matter all that much this late in the term, and even a GOP-controlled Senate will face pressure to approve some nominees for appearance’s sake.

Legislation that passes the GOP House will get consideration in the Senate rather than the high-handed dismissal with which Reid has greeted it. Yet the filibuster rule requiring 60 votes for legislation to proceed in the Senate remains intact, and it’s unclear that a GOP Senate majority would blow it up – especially since Obama can veto anything that Congress passes. And he will. Neither the House nor the Senate has the capacity to override a presidential veto if his vote becomes a test of partisan loyalty; Democrats will surely be able to muster one-third of the House or Senate to sustain a presidential veto.

Obama might find himself in the position of vetoing politically popular legislation, especially if something came to his desk with enough support from Senate Democrats to get past a filibuster. But this assumes a GOP-dominated legislative process is, in fact, capable of producing popular legislation. That’s not clear, especially if social-issues conservatives seize the initiative.

Let’s suppose, though, that Congress passes an increase in the defence budget, currently under severe strain from sequestration. Such a bill might indeed be popular, especially with international instability on the rise. On the other hand, the administration would have little difficulty describing such a GOP-crafted bill as unbalanced and out of sync with other national priorities (ie, Democratic priorities). Such an argument would be convincing to most Democrats, and that’s enough.

Each party keeps looking to the next election to provide a decisive edge, but elections aren’t doing that. If the Senate flips in 2014, not much else is likely to change with it. As long as both sides see greater political advantage in inaction than in working together, there is no way out of this polarized, mistrustful standoff. And if Democrats have become all but invincible running for president, while Republicans, for structural reasons, keep holding onto the House, this might be the state of affairs for quite some time.

Tod Lindberg (@todlindberg) is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.