Describing Congress as dysfunctional seems irreproachable, even cliché. I did it myself this summer. Yet, as the current session enters its final months, the description seems wrong. The 117th Congress was surprisingly functional.
On a bipartisan basis, it passed bills to build roads and other infrastructure; strengthen gun safety; expanding health care for veterans; protect victims of sexual misconduct; overhaul the postal service; support Ukraine’s war effort; and respond to China’s growing aggressiveness.
Equally important, the majority party (the Democrats) did not grant a full veto to the minority party. On a few major issues, Democrats decided it was too important to act. They have adopted the largest response to climate change in the country’s history. They also increased access to medical care for middle- and low-income Americans and implemented programs that softened the blow of the pandemic.
Congress still has a lot of problems. It remains polarized on many issues. He failed to understand how to respond to the growing threats to American democracy. The House suffers from gerrymandering and the Senate has a growing bias against residents of large states, who are disproportionately black, Latino, Asian and young. The Senate may also struggle to perform the basic function of endorsing presidential candidates.
The current Congress has also passed at least one law that looks clearly flawed in retrospect: It appears to have spent too much money on pandemic stimulus last year, exacerbating inflation.
As regular readers know, however, this newsletter tries to avoid the biases of bad news and covers both achievements and failures. Today I want to focus on how Congress – a reliable unpopular institution – has managed to be more productive than almost everyone anticipated.
I will focus on four groups: Democratic leaders in Congress; Republican legislators; progressive Democrats; and President Biden and his aides.
1. Democratic leaders
Earlier this year, Chuck Schumer – the Democratic leader in the Senate – seemed to have lost control of his caucus. He spent time in the Senate on a doomed suffrage bill, while his talks with party centrists on Biden’s economic agenda seemed dead.
Critics believed Schumer, fearful of an early challenge to his own seat in New York, was making unnecessary token gestures to the left. And Schumer seemed oddly anxious about his left flank.
But he also continued to quietly negotiate with crucial Senate Democratic centrist Joe Manchin while urging Senate progressives to accept the deal on health care and climate policy he and Manchin were hammering.
His performance was impressive, not least because Schumer could not afford to lose a single Democratic vote in the Senate, and spoke of the successes of his predecessor as Senate leader, Harry Reid. It also looked like Nancy Pelosi’s shrewd handling of the House Democratic caucus over the past 20 years. She also leads a diverse caucus that holds a slim majority.
2. Congressional Republicans
Over the past few decades, Republicans in Congress have almost uniformly opposed policies aimed at solving some of the nation’s biggest problems, including climate change and economic inequality. This opposition has continued in the current Congress.
But Republicans haven’t reflexively opposed every law passed by this Congress — as they tended to do during Barack Obama’s presidency, points out Jonathan Bernstein of Bloomberg Opinion. During the current session, some Republicans have worked hard to help draft bipartisan legislation on other issues.
Below is a list of Senate Republicans who voted for at least three of the five major bills (on infrastructure, China policy, gun safety, veterans health care, and service). postal). Note the presence of Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate:
Only five Republican senators did not vote for any of those bills: James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mike Lee of Utah, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville, both of Alabama.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party can sometimes seem self-defeating these days, focused on internal purity rather than policy change. (Ryan Grim wrote a remarkable piece in The Intercept in June about the collapses of some liberal groups.)
But progressive members of Congress have been surprisingly practical this year. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and most House progressives understood that keeping Manchin on board offered the only hope for ambitious climate legislation. They refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
As a result, the current Congress will end up being one of the most progressive of the past century. Its successes are no match for the New Deal, the Great Society, and perhaps not Obama’s first two years (with health, climate, and economic bailout legislation). Yet the current session can compete with any other.
4. Joe Biden
That’s true in part because most 20th-century Democratic presidents have failed to get their biggest national priorities across. Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman all fall into this category.
Their disappointments helped spark jokes about Democratic disarray. “I don’t belong to an organized political party,” humorist Will Rogers once said. “I am a Democrat.”
These jokes now seem outdated. Biden is the second consecutive Democratic president to lead a broad agenda in Congress. During the first of those two presidencies, of course, Biden was the vice president and he helped manage relations with Congress.
“Many of us dismissed Biden’s claim that he could bring the parties together as delusional,” wrote Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine. “To an extent that we didn’t expect, he managed to do that.”
What is Biden’s strategy? He and his top aides rarely take the opposition personally. They don’t go down too much when things are bad. They trust and respect their party leaders in Congress. They continue to talk — and talk — with members of Congress and seek areas of compromise.
For his efforts, Biden has been able to sign a series of major bills in recent months. The signing ceremony for the climate law is scheduled for today.
For more: Farah Stockman of Times Opinion and the Editorial Board of The Washington Post have both written about the surprising functionality of the current Congress.
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