Describing Congress as a dysfunctional nation seems unwarranted, even cliché. I did it myself this summer. However, as the current trading session enters the final months, the description doesn’t look right. The 117th Congress was very effective.
On a bipartisan basis, it passed bills to build roads and other infrastructure; tighten gun safety; expanding health care for veterans; protect victims of sexual deviance; post office overhaul; support the Ukrainian war effort; and respond to China’s growing aggression.
Equally important, the majority party (Democrats) did not veto the minority outright. On some major issues, Democrats decided that action was too important. They passed most important response to climate change in the history of the country. They also increased access to health care for lower- and middle-income Americans and enacted programs to ease the pandemic.
Congress still has a lot of problems. It remains polarizing on many issues. It has yet to find a way to deal with the growing threats to American democracy. The House is gerrymandering, and the Senate has a growing bias against residents of the great states, disproportionately black, Latino, Asian and young people. The Senate may also struggle with its basic function of approving presidential candidates.
The current Congress has also passed at least one law that seems glaringly flawed in retrospect: It seems to have spent too much money on pandemic stimulus last year, exacerbating inflation.
However, as regular readers know, this newsletter tries to avoid bad news bias and includes both achievements and failures. Today, I want to focus on how Congress – an uncommonly trusted institution – has managed to be more productive than most people expect.
I will focus on four groups: Democratic congressional leaders; Republican lawmakers; Progressive Democratic Party; and President Biden and his aides.
1. Democratic Leaders
Earlier this year, Chuck Schumer – the Democratic leader in the Senate – appeared to have lost control of his caucus. He spent Senate time on a destroyed voting rights bill, while his talks with party centrists on Biden’s economic agenda appear to be over.
Critics believe that Schumer, fearing a major challenge to his position in New York, made meaningless symbolic gestures to the left. And Schumer seems to have strange anxiety on his left wing.
But he also continued negotiate quietly with the key center of the Democratic Senate, Joe Manchin, while urging Senate progressives to accept the health care and climate policy agreement he and Manchin are working on.
His performance was impressive, especially since Schumer could not lose a single Democratic vote in the Senate, and evoked the successes of his predecessor, the leader of the Senate, Harry Reid. It is similar to the skillful management of the House Democrats’ caucus by Nancy Pelosi during the past 20 years. She also runs a narrow majority diversity caucus.
2. Congressional Republican Party
In recent decades, Republicans have almost unanimously opposed policies that address some of the country’s biggest problems, including climate change and economic inequality. That opposition has continued in the current Congress.
But Republicans haven’t opposed all of this legislation in Congress – as they often did during Barack Obama’s presidency, Bloomberg Opinion’s Jonathan Bernstein shown. In the current session, several Republicans have worked hard to help draft bipartisan legislation on other issues.
Here is a list of Senate Republicans who voted on at least three of the five major bills (on infrastructure, China policy, gun safety, veterans health care, etc.) and Postal Service). Note the presence of Mitch McConnell, Republican Senate leader:
Only five Republican senators did not vote on 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 Democratic Party’s progressive wing sometimes seems self-defeating these days, focusing on internal cleanliness rather than policy change. (Ryan Grim wrote a remarkable article in The Intercept in June about crises at some liberal groups.)
But progressive members of Congress have been very pragmatic this year. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and most senior members of the House understand that keeping Manchin on board is the only hope of ambitious climate legislation. They refuse to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
As a result, the current General Assembly will end one of the most progressive of the last century. Its successes are not measured by the New Deal, the Great Society, and possibly not Obama’s first two years (with legislation on health care, climate and economic rescue). However, the current session can compete with any other session.
4. Joe Biden
That’s partly true because most Democratic presidents of the 20th century fell short of their biggest domestic priorities. Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman all fall into this category.
Their frustration helped spawn jokes about Democracy disorder. Humorist Will Rogers once said, “I don’t belong to an organized political party. “I’m a Democrat.”
Those jokes seem out of date now. Biden is the second consecutive Democratic president to run a major agenda through Congress. Of course, during his first two terms as president, Biden was vice president, and he helped manage congressional relationships.
“Many of us dismiss Biden’s claim that he can bring the parties closer together than an illusion,” Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine wrote. “To a degree we didn’t expect, he did.”
What is the Biden strategy? He and his top aides rarely objected personally. They don’t get down on their nerves when things go awry. They trust and respect their party’s congressional leaders. They continue to talk – and talk – with members of Congress and look for areas of compromise.
Because of his efforts, Biden has been able to sign a series of major bills in recent months. The signing ceremony of the climate bill is scheduled for today.
Metropolitan Diary: Reader stories from New York City.
A Times classic: The psychology of sects.
Advice from Wirecutter: Build an ebike.
Life Lived: Nicholas Evans’ “The Horse Whisperer,” a 1995 novel turned film, broke publishing records with readers’ hearts. He died at the age of 72.
SPORTS NEWS FROM ATHLETIC
Mark your calendar: NBA opening night is set for October 18. The Boston Celtics will take on the Philadelphia 76ers in their first doubles game, Report by The Athletic’s Shams Charaniaand the Golden State Warriors will receive their championship rings before the game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Similar to it before: The shows in the AP college football pre-season poll won’t shock you. Alabama is ranked at number 1 For the ninth time, Ohio State is 2nd and Georgia, the defending champion, is 3rd. Some voters do not know what to do with USC number 14, however.
Has Manchester United gone too far? After an embarrassing loss on Saturday, the club appear split because being active can give you chills back in high school (even Cristiano Ronaldo eats alone sometimes). They are last in the Premier League table with no clear path to the top.
ARTS AND IDEAS
The battle for freedom of speech
In recent years, Salman Rushdie has wondered if the public has lost interest in free speech, a principle he laid down in his life when Iran sought to kill him for his 1988 novel. his, “The Verses of Satan”. As Rushdie told The Guardian last year, “The kind of people who stood up for me in the bad years might not do the same now.”
After Rushdie was stabbed on stage on Friday, the initial allegation giving way to the renewal of the free speech debate, writes Jennifer Schuessler in The Times. Some Rushdie supporters lament the growing acceptance, across parts of the right and politics, that offensive speech is grounds for censorship.
Jennifer’s story also captures some surprising history – including a Jimmy Carter’s Times Perspective Essay denigrate Rushdie’s novel.