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Science And Nature

What has a split Congress accomplished? A surprising amount.

The 117th Congress, which began with an unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol that personalized and deepened party divides, is preparing to head out of town having notched a surprising number of sweeping, often bipartisan, legislative accomplishments.

In the past six weeks, Republicans have joined Democrats in passing measures on gun safety, semiconductor manufacturing, and helping veterans affected by burn pits. That’s in addition to last fall’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Why We Wrote This

An institution that has been written off as largely dysfunctional has passed a series of bipartisan bills, and is poised to ink major climate legislation. Is Congress working again?

Now, Democrats appear poised to push through a bill that would fight climate change, reduce prescription drug prices, and make corporations pay more taxes. 

“To do the biggest infrastructure, climate, and gun bills in the last 30 years is a pretty significant accomplishment,” says Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who spearheaded the gun deal in June. 

Indiana Sen. Todd Young, the lead Republican on the $280 billion semiconductor bill, calls that legislation “incredibly consequential.” He also says there’s “a lot to celebrate” in the infrastructure bill.

But in his view, those bipartisan accomplishments have been offset by counterproductive measures, including the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan of 2021, which many Republicans blame for the current inflation. “It’s unfortunate that the positive steps have been undermined and outright negated by these unforced errors,” says Senator Young.

Washington

The 117th Congress, which began with an unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol that personalized and deepened party divides, is preparing to head out of town having notched a surprising number of sweeping, often bipartisan, legislative accomplishments.

In the past six weeks alone, Republicans have joined Democrats in passing measures on gun safety, semiconductor manufacturing, helping veterans affected by burn pits, and approving Sweden’s and Finland’s accession to NATO. That’s in addition to last fall’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, which allocated $1.2 trillion to upgrading America’s roads, bridges, and other systems, including mass transit and broadband coverage. 

Now, Democrats appear poised to push through a bill that would fight climate change, reduce prescription drug prices, and make corporations pay more taxes. Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s announcement Thursday that she would support the bill with some changes, including revising the corporate minimum tax to avoid hurting manufacturers, removed the largest potential obstacle to passing the bill through reconciliation, a budget procedure that does not require any GOP votes. 

Why We Wrote This

An institution that has been written off as largely dysfunctional has passed a series of bipartisan bills, and is poised to ink major climate legislation. Is Congress working again?

“To do the biggest infrastructure, climate, and gun bills in the last 30 years is a pretty significant accomplishment,” says Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who spearheaded the gun deal in June – a decade after the Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 26 in his state a month before he took office. “I’d argue that more substantive, bipartisan legislation has been passed in the last few years than at any time since I’ve been in Congress.”

In 2020, Joe Biden had pitched himself as a pragmatic candidate who would restore normalcy to politics and work across the aisle with his Republican friends. Then Democrats won control of the Senate, and suddenly the 36-year Senate veteran was faced with expectations that he could become the next FDR or LBJ. When negotiations over the multi-trillion-dollar “Build Back Better” bill fell apart last fall, the president’s agenda seemed stalled amid Democratic infighting and accusations of overreach. 

Given previous talk of “transformational” change, some analysts say the current slate of achievements seems relatively modest.

“What we’ve got is a few bipartisan deals and a proposal for a very limited climate deal,” says Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. Normally, that would be considered quite significant, he adds“but compared to expectations [it] is woefully underperforming.”

For now, criticism from the left is fairly muted, as Democrats focus on defending their majorities in the fall midterms. Republicans, while supporting some key measures, are raising alarm bells about government spending and rising federal debt – a record-breaking $30 trillion – and the numerous pressing issues, including a surge in violent crime and illegal immigration, that remain unaddressed.

Indiana Sen. Todd Young, the lead Republican on the $280 billion CHIPS bill to boost U.S. production of semiconductors, calls that legislation “incredibly consequential.” He also says there’s “a lot to celebrate” in the infrastructure bill.

But in his view, those bipartisan accomplishments have been offset by other measures, including the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan in 2021, which many Republicans blame for the current inflation situation. “It’s unfortunate that the positive steps have been undermined and outright negated by these unforced errors,” says Senator Young.

From left, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., talk about the bipartisan effort to pass a bill designed to encourage more semiconductor companies to build chip plants in the United States, at the Capitol in Washington, July 27, 2022. The $280 billion measure, which awaits a House vote, includes federal grants and tax breaks for companies that construct their chip facilities in the U.S.

Senate Democrats may try to pass additional legislation after the August recess, including bills to secure abortion access and protections for same-sex marriages, though those efforts are likely to be an uphill climb. A bipartisan group of senators also announced an agreement to reform the Electoral Count Act, the 1887 law that Trump lawyers sought to use to overturn the 2020 election. 

But even if nothing else gets done before the midterms, Democrats now believe they can point to a significant record of achievement – especially given the range of crises Mr. Biden has faced, and his party’s razor-thin margins in Congress. 

“The president has a double imperative to both draw a contrast between his agenda and the GOP agenda … as well as work with [Republicans],” says Democratic strategist Tracy Sefl. “And that’s an incredibly tall order in any circumstances, much less this crazy – some call it the ‘end times’ – that we’re in.”

The Inflation Reduction Act

The Democrats’ latest initiative, the Inflation Reduction Act, has done little to assuage GOP concerns about spending, despite progressive criticism that it’s insufficient to address the current economic, social, and environmental crises. The $433 billion proposal is a slimmed-down version of Mr. Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which started with a $3.5 trillion price tag but faced resistance from West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who cited concerns about inflation.

Senators Manchin and Schumer worked behind closed doors to arrive at a compromise, surprising even their own Senate colleagues when they announced a deal last week. The legislation promises to reduce carbon emissions 40% by 2030, invest in domestic energy, reduce prescription drug prices, and require corporations to pay a minimum 15% tax. Supporters say it will cut the deficit by at least $300 billion, in part by beefing up IRS tax enforcement.   

Republicans have panned the bill as irresponsible amid current inflation concerns. It includes $60 billion for environmental justice measures such as funding energy efficiency for low-income households, and reinstates tax credits for wealthy people to buy expensive electric vehicles, while doing nothing, Republicans say, to address other, pressing problems. 

“We’re seeing skyrocketing inflation, gas prices through the roof. We’re seeing rampant crime, murder rates, carjacking rates all out of control; we’re seeing utter chaos at our southern border. And all of that is a direct consequence of out-of-touch, socialist policies that are inflicting enormous pain on Americans,” says GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

Democrats, for their part, appear relatively united, despite the scope being much smaller than many on the left had originally sought. 

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of Mr. Biden’s most formidable primary opponents in 2020, says the bill would not address the major crises affecting working families, including early childhood education and home health care. As chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Senator Sanders had originally sought $6 trillion in spending – more than 12 times what this bill includes.

“The debate is whether it is better than nothing,” he told the Monitor in a brief hallway interview on Thursday. “And I’m going to be on the phone this afternoon, talking to a whole lot of people to try to come up with an answer. There’s some good things in it.” 

Is gridlock a thing of the past?

Does all this mean that Congress, the institution with single-digit approval ratings that has been increasingly gridlocked in recent years, is suddenly working again?

Yes and no. 

To some extent, the severity and urgency of the current crises may be greasing the wheels, says Ms. Sefl, the Democratic strategist.

But members on both sides of the aisle say Congress still needs to do a better job of working together, and not just across party lines, but also between the House and Senate. The latter has emerged as much more influential under Mr. Biden – to the frustration of many House Democrats, especially progressives. 

Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, who formerly served in the House, says that Congress is no different from any other setting, in that when people stop talking, less gets done. “There’s a lot to learn from folks” you disagree with, says the former public utility commissioner, who cites how his own views on domestic energy production changed after listening to colleagues on the other side. “There’s something important about being humble in a place of this magnitude.”

Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, who served 8 years in the House and then took a 4-year hiatus during the Trump years before returning to Washington in 2021, said Congress was “almost unrecognizable” when she came back. The unexpected Democratic wins in Georgia, which gave Mr. Biden’s party control of the Senate, together with Jan. 6 and the heavy security presence for months afterward, set the stage for an acrimonious first year. 

“By the end of last year, I totally regretted running for the Senate,” she says, walking back from a vote. “I just thought that the place had become irredeemably hateful and lost.”

She also is disheartened about how little, in her view, Congress has been able to accomplish for the American people. But she sees glimmers of hope in the bipartisan cooperation that led to the infrastructure bill, and in her own work on nonpartisan issues like cryptocurrency, which she calls a “saving grace.” 

“There are flashes of progress and success along the way that give me hope that next year will be better,” she says.

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