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3 January 2019

The 116th Congress is young, diverse and deeply divided. And it has a huge job to do

The new Congress, which sits today, is already changing the face of American politics. But it will have to overcome deep ideological divides.

By Sophie McBain

On 3 January, the 116th Congress is being sworn into office. The Republicans have retained their lead in the Senate, but for the first time since 2010 the Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives. The 116th Congress will be the most diverse, thanks to the record numbers of women, people of colour and LGBT members elected last year, but its ideological divides are deeper than ever and could hinder urgent efforts to end the government shutdown and provide an effective check to President Donald Trump.

An unprecedented number of women will be sitting in Congress this year, with 103 women in the House and 25 in the Senate.

Many of this year’s newcomers are trailblazers. Among them are America’s first Muslim congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and its first Native American congresswomen, Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas. Davids is also the first openly gay Kansan to represent her state. The state of Texas, which has a large Latinx population, now also has its first two Latina congresswomen, following the election of Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia.

The 116th Congress is also more youthful. The average age has dropped from 57 in the 115th Congress to 47 – thanks in part to the election of young women such as New York’s insurgent Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29), Iowa Democrat Abby Finkenauer (30) and 32-year-old Lauren Underwood, who is the first African-American woman to represent her district in Illinois.

The women, LGBT members and people of colour making history in the 116th Congress are almost all Democrats. In fact, as Business Insider notes, among the 200 Republicans sitting in the 116th Congress, 90 per cent will be white men. The number of female Republicans in the House has actually fallen, from 23 to 13 this year, and there is only one non-white Republican freshman in the House: Anthony Gonzales of Ohio.

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This could reflect the ideological retrenchment of the Republicans in Congress. Many moderate Republicans running in suburban areas lost their seats to Democrats in 2018; the remaining House members are more right-wing and closer to Trump.

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While Republicans are moving to the right, the left wing of the Democratic party has been bolstered by midterm victories of strident progressives such as Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar and Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley, who openly criticise the party leadership as too out-of-touch with its base, too beholden to corporate interests and too politically moderate.

With more than a dozen Democrats expected to run for nomination in the presidential primaries and no clear forerunner, the generational and ideological schisms within the party are likely to widen just when it most needs discipline and unity to manoeuvre a split Congress and a mercurial and reckless president.

The first challenge will be to end the government shutdown, now in its 13th day. Trump is currently insisting that any deal include considerable funding for his border wall, while Democrats – especially the newly elected House members who advocate for comprehensive border reform and the abolition of ICE – will refuse to back such an expensive and harmful boondoggle.

Already, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is exercising its muscle, with at least two prominent House members, Ocasio-Cortez and Ro Khanna of California saying they will not vote for a rule proposed by the party leadership that would require all new federal spending to be offset by cuts.

Of greater threat than left-wing rebellions are the Republican-controlled Senate and Trump’s veto power, which are likely to scupper many Democratic legislative proposals.

Importantly, however, the Democrats’ majority in the House hands them new powers to investigate the president and his administration. Committee Democrats can now hold hearings, request documents and issue subpoenas to expose potential malpractice, incompetence and corruption within the administration.

Elijah Cummings of Maryland will head the House committee on oversight and government reform, giving him the power to scrutinise everything from the family separations policy to Trump’s business interests.

As the New York Times reports, he has already sent out letters to the Attorney General, Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services requesting information on the identity and current location of every child separated from their parents under the “zero tolerance” border policy.

He has also reportedly requested information from the White House on officials who have used their personal emails for government business and has contacted the Trump Organization for complete accounts of payments received from foreign governments.

Cummings issued at least 64 subpoena requests over the past two years, but these were always blocked by Republican members. Now that Democrats control the House, he can go it alone.

The Californian Democrat Adam Schiff will now head the House Intelligence Committee, giving him power to investigate the extent of Russian interference in the US elections and to protect the Mueller Investigation from Trump’s interference. Jerrold Nadler of New York will head the Judiciary Committee, which has the authority to start impeachment proceedings against the president.

All three will must take strategic decisions: investigating Trump on too many fronts could backfire, distracting voters from the most pressing issues and risking the appearance of pettiness and partisanship, which could alienate some supporters. A failed impeachment would be a disaster, and even a successful one may leave large segments of the population feeling cheated and disenfranchised.

But, worse still, would be to fail to act against a dangerous and volatile president who seems bent on tearing up the democratic rule book. The members of the 116th Congress have the chance to reset the course of American politics, but it won’t be easy.