Deadlock has been endemic in the US Congress since Republicans seized the House of Representatives in 2010, ending the full Democratic control that President Barack Obama enjoyed for two years. In the six years since, the “do-nothing Congress” tag has stuck as the frustrations of businesses and others who want to see some lawmaking pile up.

Whether the next president is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, breaking the logjam on Capitol Hill is the only way the commander-in-chief will get close to fulfilling pledges made on the campaign trail. The best chance of a legislative surge would come from an electoral sweep that gave one party control of the White House, Senate and House. Yet the chances of that are remote.

The battle for the Senate, currently under Republican control, is too close to call. But polls suggest the presidency is most likely to go to Mrs Clinton while Republicans keep hold of the House.

That is not an encouraging prospect for the already frustrated. It would make the former secretary of state the first newly-elected Democratic president since the second world war to be sworn in knowing his or her party does not call all the shots on Capitol Hill.

Complicating matters further, both Republicans and Democrats are likely to face damaging internal battles between moderates and hardliners who have been emboldened by the populist tumult of the 2016 campaign.

When Democrats had unified control of Capitol Hill, Mr Obama passed the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and his “Obamacare” healthcare overhaul. The time since has been riven by bad blood between two parties that can sometimes agree on problems that need fixing — the tax code, infrastructure, the immigration system, the national debt — but cannot find mutually acceptable solutions because they are so polarised.

The tone of the election campaign does not augur well for bipartisan co-operation. Many Republicans market themselves as constraints on a potential Clinton presidency, warning in campaign ads that would-be Democratic lawmakers would rubber stamp Mrs Clinton’s agenda or give her a blank cheque.

“Ask voters if they want their member of Congress to work with Clinton, or as a check and balance, and they say check and balance,” says Mike Shields, head of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a pro-Republican Super Pac that financed some of the congressional campaign ads. “We see that consistently in our favour in all the polling.”

Mr Obama scorned those messages at a rally for Mrs Clinton in North Carolina last week. “Because a lot of [Republicans] think that Trump will lose, they’re already promising even more unprecedented dysfunction in Washington, which is pretty hard to do,” he said. “They’re promising years of investigations, years of hearings. More shutdowns. More obstruction.”

Optimists say that once election day has passed there is reason to hope the partisan fever may break. Regardless of the outcome, 2016 has left little doubt that voters are so disaffected with politics that continued inaction could spur the next anti-establishment movement.

“I think there is a chance that there will be somewhat of a burst of activity next year partially because there is such pent up demand,” says Trent Lott, the Republican Senate majority leader from 1996-2001, who passed several big pieces of legislation with President Bill Clinton.

“Whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, the first thing they need to do, both of them, is to change their tone,” he says. “The second thing they need to do is to reach out to the leaders of Congress, sit down, and say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re the leaders of our country, now what can we do together?’”

But political realities could intervene. If Mr Trump and Republicans score a clean sweep, it would be no surprise to see the Democrats who abhor him turn obstructionist. Even if they were in the minority in the 100-seat Senate, they would probably still have enough votes to stop Republicans getting the 60 needed to pass legislation. “Democrats would be very aggressive in seeking to block everything possible,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University.

A Trump victory could also put Paul Ryan, the current Speaker of the House, in an untenable position. He has not actively supported the billionaire and disagrees with him and many of his supporters on a host of major issues, including trade and the budget. Speculation is growing that Mr Ryan may not stay on after the election.

Win or lose, Mr Trump’s candidacy has paved the way for a potential three-way Republican civil war between Trump-inspired populists, ultraconservatives, and Mr Ryan’s establishment. “It’s not clear what agenda they could agree on other than tax cuts,” says Mr Zelizer.

If Mrs Clinton wins, her low popularity will not make her an attractive interlocutor — on average 55 per cent of Americans say they view her unfavourably. Senator Ted Cruz, the rightwing former presidential candidate, has suggested his party could block her from filling a Supreme Court vacancy indefinitely.

Controversy over Mrs Clinton’s emails remains a potential source of trouble. Shawn Golhar, head of public policy research at Barclays, says: “Even though the FBI announced its findings, there’s a significant chance that congressional Republicans will continue to investigate her email practices …It may be risky, but congressional Republicans may block her not just on Supreme Court nominations but on any policy proposals.”

A Clinton win would also leave her to grapple with Democrats’ own divisions. The party’s liberal wing has been energised by the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Senator Elizabeth Warren has signalled she is ready to challenge any presidential appointees who are insufficiently progressive. Although Mrs Clinton has shifted to the left on issues such as trade and healthcare, some lobbyists say leaked campaign emails suggest she remains a centrist at heart.

Micah Green, co-chair of government affairs at the law firm Steptoe & Johnson, says. “If everything depends on appeasing the fringe elements of the Democratic party and the Republican party, it will be very difficult to achieve a negotiated success in Congress.”

Get alerts on US presidential election when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article