Midterm 2010 Elections Change Prospects for HR-Related Legislation

By Bill Leonard and Joanne Deschenaux Nov 3, 2010

With the largest turnover of congressional seats since 1948, the changed political landscape on Capitol Hill will have a profound impact on workplace-related issues and legislative proposals. Many of the employment-based proposals championed by Democratic leaders and organized labor now have virtually no chance to advance in Congress with Republicans seizing control of the House of Representatives and gaining at least six seats in the Senate in the November 2010 midterm elections.

Proposed workplace legislation such as the Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 1409, S. 560), the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 2981) and the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 3772) now have little chance of gaining approval in Congress, according to sources familiar with the issues. President Barack Obama supported these legislative initiatives and had promised during his 2008 campaign for president that the measures would be enacted.

Repeal of the U.S. military’s controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay and lesbian soldiers was another top political agenda item for Democratic leaders. The House approved an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill in July 2010 to repeal the policy. However, the action was stalled in the Senate. Gay and lesbian rights advocacy groups now say repeal of “don’t ask” will be their top priority for a lame-duck session of Congress following the 2010 elections.

Instead of focusing on these workplace-related issues, Congress will turn its attention to looking for ways to stimulate the faltering U.S. economy and revive a weak job market. Extending tax cuts that were first approved during the presidency of George W. Bush will top the congressional agenda, according to sources familiar with the issues.

“With their voices, the American people are demanding a new way forward in Washington,” Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters after election results showed that Republicans will take control of the House in 2011. “This is not a time for celebration, not when one in 10 of our fellow citizens are out of work, not when we have buried our children under a mountain of debt.”

Boehner, who is the House Republican leader, is set to become the next speaker of the House. Boehner said that he is willing to work with the Obama administration to find common ground and find ways to generate jobs. According to reports, Obama called Boehner to congratulate him on his win and discussed briefly the issues of job creation and stimulating the economy.

Congress was set to return to a lame-duck session the week after the 2010 November elections and to focus on the tax cuts, which were set to expire on Dec. 31, 2010. GOP leaders favor making the tax cuts permanent and claim that the tax breaks are the best way to stimulate the economy. Most Democrats support extending the tax cuts temporarily and only to individuals and families who earn less than $250,000 per year.

Political observers say that the lame-duck Congress is likely to approve a temporary extension of the tax cuts before handing off the task of finding a more long-term solution to the 112th Congress, which is set to convene in January 2011. Other issues such as repeal of “don’t ask” might take a back seat to the tax cut debate, sources agree.

A Repeal of Health Care Reform?

Many of the Republican candidates campaigned on promises to repeal the health care reform law passed by Congress and signed into law by Obama in March 2010. However, outright repeal is almost impossible. Because Democrats still will control the Senate and a repeal effort faces a veto from the president, Republicans won’t be able to rescind the health care reform law, sources agree. While Republicans will have the majority in the House in 2011, their numbers still will fall well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

Several sources familiar with the issue say that the Republican majority in the House instead will concentrate on the regulatory process and could schedule multiple congressional hearings on the impact and regulation of the health care reform law. Some efforts could be made to repeal or change unpopular provisions of the law, such as a requirement for businesses to file 1099 tax forms on business transactions of $650 or more and the requirement for individuals to purchase health insurance coverage or face tax penalties. Still, stiff opposition from Senate Democrats and the White House will keep these repeal efforts in check, sources say.

GOP Makes Historic Gains in State Elections

The voters’ desire for change has had a huge effect on the state level as well, with Republican governors set to replace Democratic governors in at least 10 states: Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The only Democratic gains for governor seats were in California, Hawaii and Vermont.

However, the governor’s races in Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota and Oregon were still too close to call on Nov. 3, 2010. Several of these races were separated by small vote margins.

Political analysts say the issues that affected the outcomes of the gubernatorial races were the same ones that caused the shift in power in the U.S. House of Representatives: slow economic growth, the high unemployment rate, taxes, deficits and the unpopularity of such Obama programs as health care reform.

“The voters are the angriest they have ever been,” said John Zogby of the polling firm Zogby International in Utica, N.Y.

Forty-four states had record budget deficits and are now cutting services or raising fees and taxes, according to Zogby.

In addition, Republicans made huge gains in state legislative races and now hold the largest number of state seats since 1928, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

The Alabama House and Senate, Indiana House, Iowa House, Maine House and Senate, Michigan House, Minnesota House and Senate, Montana House, New Hampshire House and Senate, North Carolina House and Senate, Ohio House, Pennsylvania House, and the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate all switched from Democratic to Republican majorities.

This is the first time in Alabama that Republicans have controlled the legislature since Reconstruction. The North Carolina Senate has not been Republican since 1870. And Republicans have reportedly taken at least 100 seats in the New Hampshire House. For the first time in history, the Minnesota Senate will be controlled by the GOP.

These changes in the control of state legislatures will be felt beyond state borders, NCSL notes. In most states, congressional redistricting falls to the legislature, which will draw new boundaries based on the 2010 census. The party in control has a huge advantage because it can draw district lines that could determine whether Republicans or Democrats dominate a state's congressional delegation for an entire decade.

Also, according to the Pew Center on the States, the capture of so many governorships by Republicans gives the party increased leverage to change national policy, even though there is no intrinsic power that comes with winning a majority of governorships. In the first two years of the Obama administration, Republican governors used their positions to push back against key parts of the Democrats’ agenda, including the federal stimulus package and health care reform.

Now, Republicans might be even more visible in challenging Obama, if they choose to do so, on issues such as illegal immigration and health care reform.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM. Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is SHRM’s senior legal editor.

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