Voters across the country head to the polls this week for the 2022 congressional midterm elections, in which all 435 House seats and a third of Senate seats are on the ballot. With Democrats holding razor-thin majorities on both sides of the Capitol, Republicans have a chance to win control of one or both chambers, leading to two years of divided government.
What will the election outcome mean for cultural resource management?
Polls suggest that the GOP has a very good shot at winning the House, but control of the Senate is up for grabs, with Democrats there holding a 50-50 majority by nature of the Vice President’s tie-breaking vote.
If Republicans manage to win one or both chambers, they will likely turn their attention to blocking parts of President Biden’s agenda, perhaps including trying to repeal legislation he enacted or rolling back regulations, such as his efforts to undo former President Trump’s changes to NEPA. That said, such moves wouldn’t survive a Biden veto, and it’s unlikely that Congress would repeal funding for infrastructure projects that tend to be popular with the electorate.
On the other hand, forward action on new legislative initiatives would be hard to come by as the two parties are far apart on policy. In addition, a Republican-controlled Congress would probably try to reduce spending on a wide range of federal programs; that could include the Historic Preservation Fund, which has seen increases in annual appropriations over the last few years. Although any GOP moves to cut funding would still need the President’s signature, the White House would likely be forced to compromise with the legislative branch.
A Republican-controlled Congress also could make permitting reform a priority. Earlier this fall, the White House and Senate Democrats agreed to move forward on a set of permitting reform proposals from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), but opposition from progressive Democrats and some Republicans stymied it. There is talk of the plan coming for a vote in a lame-duck session of Congress right after the election (which would be before Republicans assume control), but even if the plan passes, Republicans may want to go further once they have the majority.
Beyond permitting reform, a Republican-controlled Congress could seek to pass additional legislation to carve out exemptions to the NHPA Sec. 106 review process. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), who would be in line to chair the House Natural Resources Committee, recently introduced a bill to enable oil and gas exploration and production on non-Federal surface estates; the bill would categorically exclude such activities from NEPA and not make them subject to NHPA Sec. 106. The bill is not going to go anywhere under a Democratic-controlled House, but if Republicans win the majority, this and other similar bills could easily move forward.
Even if Republicans win back the Senate along with the House, filibuster rules would make it hard for the new GOP majority to pass such legislation – unless Republicans get rid of the filibuster altogether, an unlikely but not out-of-the-question possibility. Even so, President Biden would most certainly yield his veto pen.
Republican control of one of both chambers of Congress also would likely mean more investigations of Biden administration activities across all agencies, including the Interior Department. Biden administration actions like restoring the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah would likely come under scrutiny, for example, as well as Secretary Deb Haaland’s decision in 2021 to move the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters back to Washington after former President Trump moved it to Colorado.
Divided government may sound like a prescription for gridlock and inaction, but even in a polarized climate, there is opportunity for collaboration. Both parties will need to face the voters again in 2024, and will want to show that they can get things done.
There is good bipartisan support for historic preservation, and some bills that strengthen preservation programs, have backing of members from both parties. Finding places where the parties can agree might be difficult, but not impossible, as long as advocates of CRM continue to make the case to their elected representatives that preservation matters.