Congress’ all-or-nothing approach must stop

There’s something wrong with this picture: Congressional Republicans and Democrats largely agree that Americans need another shot of revenue – similar or identical to the $1,200 checks issued earlier this year – to help them weather the coronavirus-clobbered economy. And yet Congress has approved no such measure.

Majorities in the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate also favor spending about $100 billion to help schools and universities implement full-bore distance learning for an uncertain duration. Yet both chambers went home for August without passing such aid.

The list goes on. Substantial numbers of lawmakers from both parties have expressed support for additional state and local government aid; increased funding for coronavirus testing; more help for hospitals; and renewed aid to small businesses struggling to keep workers on their payrolls. Again, the House and Senate have agreed on no such plans.

Clearly, this isn’t how our democracy is supposed to work. Our basic civics lessons taught us that when majorities in the House and Senate agree on a proposal, they should be able to shape it into a single piece of legislation and send it to the president for his signature.

But that’s not how Congress works anymore. Over the years, top leaders of the House and Senate have accumulated ever more power, generally enabling them to dictate what the full chambers can and cannot vote on. And increasingly, these leaders – in both parties – have used that power to craft huge, multi-faceted bills packed with proposals that range from uncontroversial to highly contentious.

Their strategy is to use the more popular provisions as leverage – legislative hostages if you will – to corral votes for the more controversial items that are especially important to the party leaders. These omnibus bills become all-or-nothing behemoths, and the leaders of one party try to cram them down the throats of the other.

With different parties controlling the House and Senate, it’s obvious this tactic won’t work. And yet it plays out time and again, contributing to the monumental gridlock and dysfunction that has made Congress one of the least-respected and least-liked institutions in the land.

We see it now in the long-stalled effort to send a new round of economic relief to businesses, schools and individuals trying to survive a once-in-a-century pandemic. As The Washington Post reported Aug. 7: “The talks on Capitol Hill had a dramatic and bitter unraveling.” The parties, using unprecedented sums of money, had managed to approve earlier aid packages, the Post noted. But this time, “there seemed to be little goodwill or trust, and both sides dug in even as the economic recovery showed signs of losing steam, millions of Americans remained unemployed and deaths from the novel coronavirus continued to climb.”

It’s ordinary Americans, of course, who suffer while Congress fiddles and postures. House and Senate leaders could easily agree to break their proposed packages into smaller pieces, passing the less-controversial items to send relief to their constituents while continuing to negotiate the other parts.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s plain commonsense. It just requires a results-oriented approach that puts country over party, constituents over partisan point-scoring.

Some rank-and-file lawmakers are as sick of these shenanigans as are voters. When a near-historic 52 House members chose to retire in 2018, an often-cited reason was that “the growing centralization of power means that a majority of House members — even once-influential committee chairs — have less power vis-à-vis top party leaders,” said a report by the group Issue One.

Perhaps the most incomprehensible aspect of this behavior is that the leadership’s self-imposed logjams steadily push more power and responsibility away from Congress and toward the executive branch. We saw this when President Trump announced he would use his executive powers to shift funds (a constitutionally questionable action) to enhance unemployment benefits by $400 a week, partly replacing the $600 that has lapsed during Congress’ impasses.

Weary of legislative dysfunction, most Americans’ expectations are probably quite low. Just pass measures you already agree on to help the country at least begin to address its toughest problems. It hardly seems too much to ask.

Liz Morrison is co-executive director of No Labels, a group that seeks to move Washington beyond partisan gridlock and toward solutions to challenges faced by the country.

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