The Do-Something Congress is on the rise


It’s time to talk about what is turning out to be a highly productive 117th Congress. There’s no guarantee that the surprise agreement reached Wednesday between Democratic senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin on a revived Build Back Better plan — er, sorry, that’s the “Inflation Reduction Act of 2022” — will pass, but the president’s short version Joe Biden’s health, tax, climate and energy initiative is closer to becoming law than ever before. And the Chips and Science bill that passed the Senate on Wednesday, with $52 billion for U.S. semiconductor development, adds to an impressive string of bipartisan deals that have already yielded legislative gains, with the chance of more before end of year.

So what can we say about this?

• Normally, I would caution against expecting Biden’s approval ratings to improve as a result of legislative success. Voters don’t judge presidents based on how many of their initiatives were successful in Congress — nor, for the most part, they should. Voters care more about the big picture and highly visible political results, not bills signed or policies implemented. That said, Biden’s ratings are so low that there are likely some easy picks available, especially among younger, liberal voters who have soured him. It’s also possible that, if there’s any other good news, perhaps positive reports about Biden and Congress could do a little to lift the nation’s generally grumpy mood.

• Overall, however, I would place legislative successes in the category of political gains, not the category of electoral effects. Recall that President Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats suffered a substantial electoral blow after passing tons of bills, most of them popular, in Congress from 1965-1966.

• There are several theories as to why so much bipartisan legislation has been passed, contrary to predictions (my own included). Jonathan Chait presented some possible reasons last month in New York magazine. My feeling is that the explanation lies in the choices made by Republican senators, not in the actions of Biden or Schumer or anyone else. The most plausible explanation may be that the threat to remove obstruction, the mechanism that imposes a 60-vote requirement to pass most laws, may have convinced many Republicans to strike enough deals to keep Manchin and other Democrats wary of changing practices. of the Senate. fed up and acting. Still, that wasn’t enough to get Republicans to commit to the nominations during Barack Obama’s presidency, so I’ll admit I was baffled when they started closing deals under Biden.

• The best reason for Republicans to strike deals is that it can produce political gains for them that they could not obtain from obstruction, and the electoral costs to the party of passing bills are almost certainly minimal (see above). But again, that wasn’t enough for Republicans to endorse compromises during the Obama years.

• All that said, Biden, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will deserve a lot of credit for getting things done if the items on the table actually pass. And if the new Schumer-Manchin compromise becomes law alongside the more than $1 trillion infrastructure bill Biden signed into law last November, then the two-project strategy the Democrats adopted to divide their agenda will look smart in retrospect. As for Biden: What seems to be useful to him is less about the bargaining skills or personal relationships he has with senators, and more about his conviction that the goal is to pass everything so that Senate votes can be found and adjust if one approach doesn’t work and another may. This may sound like an obvious approach to legislating, but I don’t think any of the last three presidents have actually used it.

• And, yes, much of the Democratic agenda did not survive, perhaps most importantly, the voting and electoral reform bills that were blocked by Senate Republicans.

• Back to Obstruction: It is easy to see that the de facto requirement of a supermajority in the Senate has given this chamber enormous advantages. Bill after bill, the House of Representatives had to accept what the Senate produced. With obstruction at stake, the need to win the votes of at least 10 Republican senators forced House Democrats to agree; when a simple majority was sufficient (as it is with the reconciliation procedure being used for budget-related initiatives like the Schumer-Manchin compromise), then the need to keep all 50 Senate Democrats on board was what mattered. Part of the reason this worked was that House Republicans were rarely interested in legislating, so the tiny Democratic majority in the House had to pass everything.

• Last point: it is easy to talk about legislative productivity, as it is reasonably objective. Whether the bills that have passed will actually improve the nation is another question, and inevitably most Republicans will not like them very much, despite their bipartisan good faith. Most of them failed to receive majorities from both parties in both houses, so they were actually Democratic bills with some Republicans contributing to passage. Still, one can at least argue that it’s good for government to identify problems and solve them, and that the results tend to be better than a government that doesn’t even try. Any policy-based assessment of the results of this Congress is a long way off. But it’s fair to say that lawmakers have already done a lot, and now it’s quite possible that this Congress will become one of the most productive in the last 50 years.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering politics and politics. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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