November 8 saw a midterm election during which all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate were up for re-election. Democrats retained control of the Senate and Republicans ultimately won only a narrow majority in the House. This will usher in at least two years of divided government, and experts anticipate it may significantly constrain overly partisan legislation. In some cases, divided government could cause gridlock, reducing hopes for advancing ambitious legislation – a double-edged sword in potentially preventing legislation that could significantly help or harm science. However, several bipartisan issues are likely to gain attention, including continued support of biomedical research and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).
Considerable time and attention may be given to oversight hearings on climate, health care, and tax provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, immigration, high gas prices and energy costs, and the COVID-19 response. Additionally, Republican healthcare leaders have signaled an intent to increase oversight of health agencies that they claim have been unresponsive to their inquiries over the past two years, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Even though a Democratic Senate could block partisan legislation, House Republicans are likely to advance “messaging” bills – designed primarily to contrast their governing priorities ahead of the 2024 congressional and Presidential elections, but with limited likelihood of passage.
In this complex political environment, the 118th Congress also faces some of the most significant leadership changes in over 20 years. House Democrats will see a generational change in leadership, as current Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), announced that she will not be seeking re-election as Democratic Leader, enabling a new leadership team under Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is expected to become Speaker, while Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are likely to retain the roles of Senate Majority and Minority Leader, respectively.
There will also be changes in leadership on committees with direct interest in biomedical research, healthcare programs, and public health as well as in agencies like the NIH. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) is likely to take over as the Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee while Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) is likely to become Ranking Member; both House members are long-time supporters of medical and research priorities. Additionally, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who caucuses with Democrats, is expected to take the Chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee as Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) becomes Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) is expected to become the Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, marking the first time both leadership positions will be held by women. Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is expected to assume Republican leadership on the HELP Committee. As a physician, health and biomedical issues will be at the top of his priority list and he often works in a bipartisan manner.
Before a new Congress convenes in January, President Biden and the current Congress have a long list of outstanding legislation to finish during the lame duck session, including a spending package to finalize fiscal year (FY) 2023 appropriations before the current Continuing Resolution expires on December 16. There is general consensus to complete other important legislative items by the end of the calendar year, but time is short with only a month left before Congress leaves for the holidays.