The United States are conducting the first midterm elections of President Biden next Tuesday, November 8th, with much at stake The balance in Congress will dictate the ability of the current presidency to advance its agenda and will be a sign of what Democrats and Republicans can expect in the 2024 presidential elections. But what are midterm elections?

The U.S. has a majority electoral system, with two parties in Congress, where representatives of the people and states are located. The Congress is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives, who are responsible for drafting and approving the laws. Every two years, these two chambers go to the polls, which can dictate a change in the balance of forces, with consequences for the Presidency, such as the ability to pass laws and appoint judges to the Supreme Court, and to the political landscape in 2024 and the following decades.

Who goes to vote in these midterm elections?

In the midterm elections, Americans vote nationally for Congress. This is added to state elections, such as legislative assemblies or races for governor and secretary of state. But not all members of Congress go to vote.

The two chambers of the U.S. Congress have different rules. In the Senate, each of the 50 U.S. states has two representatives, with six-year terms. Every two years, about a third of senators go to the polls, as is now the case with 35 senate seats up for grabs.

To get a majority in the Senate, the parties need only 51 senators. Currently, the Senate is divided 50-50 for each party. In the event of a tie, the vice president, as president of the Senate, can vote, as has been the case with Kamala Harris. For this reason, during these two years the Senate was controlled by the Democratic Party.

The House of Representatives (the lower house of Congress) has 435 members, who have two-year terms. This means that every two years, the 435 representatives go to the polls, as is the case now.

The number of representatives per State in the House of Representatives is determined according to the population of each State. For example, the State of California currently has 53 representatives, while Vermont or Delaware only have one representative. It should be noted that, known as the results of the 2020 Census, California now elects only 52 representatives. Representatives are elected by constituency, that is, by each of the districts within each State.

Currently, Democrats control this House with 222 delegates, compared to 213 republicans.

Why is it so important to have a majority in Congress?

Control of both chambers was an opportunity for the Democratic Party to advance its legislative agenda. Some legislative packages have been approved thanks to this majority (and many negotiations). This was the case with the American Rescue Plan, to face the economic impact of Covid-19 in the first months of the legislature. Also in 2021, another significant advance was the infrastructure package. Already this year, major legislative advances have been gun control legislation, the CHIPS and Science Act, to support the U.S. semiconductor industry, and the celebrated Inflation Reduction Act, a legislative package covering areas such as climate, energy and health.

In the U.S. system, the President has room for manoeuvre to make some decisions through executive orders (decrees), that is, without going through the chambers of Congress. However, this executive power is limited and can easily be reversed by the next occupant of the White House. The submission and approval of (federal) laws, on the other, is a power that is only up to the U.S. Congress.

The process is complex and involves both chambers. In the event that a bill can be introduced, it must be sponsored by a representative and then assigned to a committee for review. This is the first test that is done to the proposal. If the committee approves it, it is placed on the agenda of the House of Representatives for debate, modification and approval.

To be approved in this first instance, the bill needs the support of at least 218 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives. If it can have this support, it is transferred to the upper house of Congress – the Senate – where it is assigned again to a committee, through the same process of analysis and eventual placement on the agenda for voting. For the bill to be passed in the Senate, it is enough that a simple majority: 51 of the 100 senators.

At the end of this process, if approved, a committee is created between the members of the two chambers to analyze the differences between the proposal approved in the House of Representatives and the one that was approved in the Senate. Once these differences have been made, the joint bill returns to both chambers for final approval. After this process, the bill must pass one last test. It is sent to the President, who has 10 days to enact or veto the law.

Why are these elections so important?

It is certain that Joe Biden does not go to the polls, but in a two-party system like the American, the midterm elections are usually seen as a test of the President and the party in the majority. In the U.S., historically, the party that controls the presidency tends to have worse results in the midterm elections. This year, to the traditional disadvantage of being in the majority, The Democrats add to Joe Biden’s challenge of having a low approval rating of about 42%. But nothing is decided yet. Some races, of uncertain result, will be decisive.

To control the Senate, the Republican Party just needs to win one more senator compared to what it currently has, to reach 51 seats. To control the House of Representatives, it needs a net gain of 5 representatives.

What powers would win a Republican majority in Congress?

What does a change in the majority in Congress mean? With a Democratic President and a Republican Congress, any major legislative proposal from Joe Biden’s program can be blocked.

The Republican Party may still gain powers to launch investigations into Congress, which is now held by the Democratic Party. Some of the most media cases are typically opposed to the party’s positions in the minority, such as the case of the Democratic majority investigation into Donald Trump’s actions during the January 6, 2021, Capitol House invasion, or that of the Republican majority to Hillary Clinton’s actions during the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012). Members of the Republican Party in leadership positions have already expressed their intention to launch investigations into members of Joe Biden’s family and the president’s role in withdrawing from Afghanistan if they take control of the House of Representatives.

The majority in Congress also gains powers to approve the impeachment of the President.

The party with a majority in the Senate holds the power to approve the appointment of federal judges to several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court (where judges have a lifetime mandate). In the case of the Supreme Court, Barack Obama saw rejected his candidate (Merrick Garland) to replace the late Antonin Scalia in 2016, when Republicans held a majority in the Senate.

That blockade, and Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 with a majority in Congress, allowed Republicans to pass three justices – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barret – profoundly altering the balance in the Supreme Court for decades to come.

The remaining federal judges can be placed in courts with important powers, as has been observed with decisions regarding investigations into Donald Trump’s business and the handover of his tax returns to the authorities.

But that doesn’t mean that the party in the majority can advance its entire agenda, since, as we have seen, the President has the veto power of bills passed in Congress. Therefore, a possible scenario in the next two years is gridlock.

Who else goes to vote?

The U.S. system is a federal system that gives broad powers to state governors and legislative assemblies.
In these midterm elections, some members of the state legislatures and 36 of the 50 governors will be elected, with much at stake. For example, the state government may have a say on issues such as abortion, crime, gun ownership, or immigration.

Some secretaries of state will also vote for some secretaries of state, who oversee the electoral process in each state. This year with greater interest than usual in past elections, due to its authority to resolve disputes that may arise over irregularities, voting process, among others, in any vote held in the state, including in the presidential election of 2024. Remember the case of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who played a decisive role in the 2020 election, when he refused to reverse the outcome of the Georgia state election, where Biden won with a small lead.