Describing Congress as dysfunctional seems unobjectionable, even clichéd. I’ve done it myself this summer. Yet as the current session enters its final months, the description feels off. The 117th Congress has been strikingly functional.
On a bipartisan basis, it has passed bills to build roads and other infrastructure; tighten gun safety; expand 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.
Just as important, the majority party (the Democrats) did not give a complete veto to the minority party. On a few major issues, Democrats decided that taking action was too important. They passed the most significant response to climate change in the country’s history. They also increased access to medical care for middle- and lower-income Americans and enacted programs that softened the blow from the pandemic.
Congress still has plenty of problems. It remains polarized on many issues. It has not figured out 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 can also struggle at the basic function of approving presidential nominees.
The current Congress has also passed at least one law that seems clearly flawed in retrospect: It appears to have spent too much money on pandemic stimulus last year, exacerbating inflation.
As regular readers know, though, this newsletter tries to avoid bad-news bias and cover both accomplishments and failures. Today, I want to focus on how Congress — a reliably unpopular institution — has managed to be more productive than almost anyone expected.
I’ll focus on four groups: Democratic congressional leaders; Republican lawmakers; 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 devoted Senate time to a doomed voting-rights bill, while his talks with party centrists over Biden’s economic agenda looked dead.
Critics believed that Schumer, fearing a primary challenge for his own seat in New York, was making pointless symbolic gestures to the left. And Schumer did seem strangely anxious about his left flank.
But he also continued to negotiate quietly with the crucial Democratic Senate centrist, Joe Manchin, while urging Senate progressives to accept the deal on health care and climate policy that he and Manchin were making.
His performance was impressive, especially because Schumer could not afford to lose a single Democratic vote in the Senate, and evoked the successes of his predecessor as Senate leader, Harry Reid. It also resembled the skillful management of the House Democratic caucus by Nancy Pelosi over the past 20 years. She also runs a diverse caucus that holds a narrow majority.
2. Congressional Republicans
In recent decades, congressional Republicans have almost uniformly opposed policies to address some of the country’s biggest problems, including climate change and economic inequality. That opposition has continued in the current Congress.
But Republicans have not reflexively opposed all legislation in this Congress — as they tended to do during Barack Obama’s presidency, Jonathan Bernstein of Bloomberg Opinion points out. In the current session, some Republicans worked hard to help write bipartisan legislation on other issues.
Below is a list of Senate Republicans who voted for at least three of five major bills (on infrastructure, China policy, gun safety, veterans’ health care and the Postal Service). Note the presence of Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ Senate leader:
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 changes. (Ryan Grim wrote a remarkable article in The Intercept in June about the meltdowns at some liberal groups.)
But progressive members of Congress have been strikingly practical this year. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and most House progressives understood that keeping Manchin on board offered the only hope of 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 don’t measure up to the New Deal, the Great Society and maybe not Obama’s first two years (with legislation on health care, climate and economic rescue). Yet the current session can compete with any other one.
4. Joe Biden
That’s true partly because most Democratic presidents in the 20th century failed to pass their biggest domestic priorities. Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman all fall into this category.
Their disappointments helped spawn jokes about Democratic disarray. “I don’t belong to an organized political party,” the humorist Will Rogers once said. “I’m a Democrat.”
Those jokes now seem outdated. Biden is the second straight Democratic president to shepherd a big agenda through Congress. During the first of those two presidencies, of course, Biden was the vice president, and he helped manage congressional relations.
“Many of us dismissed Biden’s claim that he could bring the parties closer together as delusional,” New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait wrote. “To an extent we didn’t expect, he’s managed to do it.”
What’s Biden’s strategy? He and his top aides rarely take opposition personally. They don’t get too down when things look bad. They trust and respect their party’s congressional leaders. They keep talking — and talking — with members of Congress and looking for areas of compromise.
For his efforts, Biden has been able to sign a string of major bills in recent months. The signing ceremony for the climate bill is scheduled for today.
For more: Farah Stockman of Times Opinion and the Washington Post editorial board have both written about the surprising functionality of the current Congress.
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