With the two Georgia Senate runoffs going blue, the Democratic Party is set to take functional control of Congress for the first time in a decade, but only by the narrowest of margins. This tenuous control, combined with Joe Biden’s narrow victory at the presidential level, is testament to the deep divides in our nation. If anything is clear, it’s that the 2020 election cycle clearly was not a mandate for a fundamental transformation of our nation.
On energy policy, as in other areas, the new administration must take this reality into account.
Democrats only hold 50 votes in the Senate, requiring the Vice President to break any ties. But many substantive policy changes, like ending the use of fossil fuels, require 60 votes to break a filibuster. While the Democratic Party could attempt to change the rules of the Senate, several moderate senators have already expressed opposition to plotting such a course. Even a single defection dooms any change to the rules and jeopardizes those pieces of legislation which require only a simple majority vote. This means that on energy, the Senate can only go as far as a Joe Manchin of West Virginia, or Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, or John Hickenlooper of Colorado, three Democrat senators from prominent mining states, will allow. This dynamic also holds true for confirming cabinet picks for President-elect Biden.
The House is similarly closely divided. While the Democrats retained control, it is with the narrowest of majorities in modern history. Speaker Nancy Pelosi can only stand to lose a handful of Democratic votes. With several House Democrats joining the incoming Biden administration, that margin is set to shrink even further until special elections can fill those seats. Thus, a handful of Democrats on either the left or the center also has a say in the party’s direction. On energy, this means that Texas Democrats, for example, who represent districts where energy issues loom large, have effective veto power over an excessive attack on natural gas and oil producers.
In the absence of transformative action from Congress, the Biden administration will seek substantial executive action. However, much of the first few years are likely to be consumed with trying to reverse the Trump administration’s regulatory actions. Executive orders are easily changed, but formal rulemakings, which constitute much of the Trump administration’s actions on energy and environmental policy, require a formal rulemaking process to change or undo. Even then, such actions are subject to a lengthy litigation process.
As a strategy, blue state attorneys general and environmental activist groups have made much of their litigiousness against the Trump administration’s regulatory actions. However, the weakness in that approach is that all that litigation has built up substantial precedent limiting the ability of a president to undo the actions of his predecessor — precedent that will certainly be used to handcuff the Biden administration.
In short, while the outcome in Georgia certainly tips the scales in favor of the Democrat’s priorities, there is no electoral mandate for navigating toward proposals that raise energy costs or restrict energy choices. Members of Congress who choose to ignore this are likely to see their stays in Congress shortened, as the mid-term elections are right around the corner. Politically, it would be akin to walking the plank.
The lesson of the 2020 election for Democrats should be this: don’t rock the boat. Americans like having affordable, abundant and reliable supplies of energy. Americans like making their own decisions about what cars they drive or what stoves they have in their homes. The sorts of radical proposals thrown about during the primary and general election campaigns, which threaten to not just rock, but to capsize it, should be discarded. Remember, the midterm elections are right around the corner. An early overreach by the Democrats will ensure their grip on the steering wheel is a short-lived one.