House Democrats should be commended for passing a substantive bill to make government more open, more ethical and more transparent. But because the bill, H.R. 1, was written by Democrats alone—and because the GOP has refused to release a substantive counter-proposal—the House bill isn’t going anywhere. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has already said he won’t bring it up for a vote.
That’s a shame, an unforced error that provides a window onto why the public’s frustration with Washington has reached a fever pitch. Moreover, it’s a reason for us to remember that Washington hasn’t always been like this—and it needn’t continue to be with the right leadership.
Without giving in too much to nostalgia, there’s no denying that, a generation ago, members of Congress were more hesitant to use the legislative process to show up their colleagues across the aisle. When the nation faced legitimate crises—the long-term sustainability of Social Security, the degradation of the nation’s clean air—both parties were willing to engage. Those on the right and left often approached the underlying topics with clashing points of view. But the disagreements were worked out around a table, with individuals on both sides working in good faith toward a collaborative solution.
Now the crisis isn’t an issue—it’s the state of American democracy itself. The nation’s flagging faith in government has become an out-and-out catastrophe. The American people don’t believe that Washington is working on their behalf—and, in too many cases, they’re right. Trust in government, once measured at 77 percent, has fallen to as low as 18 percent.
Unfortunately, H.R. 1 is a futile response largely because Senate Republicans have shown little to no interest in addressing the underlying problems. Whatever the merits of the legislation itself—and many of the provisions were worthwhile, including changes designed to reduce the power of money in politics, to close ethics loopholes, and to expand voting opportunities—Republican obstinacy turned it into a charade.
There was one bright spot. While, in previous sessions of Congress, the House leadership held an almost iron grip on which amendments would be considered to any piece of legislation, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed late last year to a new rule proposed by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus: If 20 members of both parties endorsed a proposed amendment, it would automatically be brought up for consideration. It was a brave move on Pelosi’s part—one designed to incentivize substantive bipartisan engagement. And it worked.
Reps. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) jointly offered an amendment to H.R. 1 designed to expose foreign interference in American elections—and it passed. That sets a promising precedent. It demonstrates that, in the right circumstances, Democrats and Republicans can come together. And that suggests that McConnell is needlessly passing up an opportunity to pursue the sort of substantive path forward Democratic and Republican members of the Problem Solvers Caucus have embraced.
Surely Republican members of the Senate aren’t satisfied that American democracy is working as it should—almost no one is! So, they should pass their own bill, and then sit down with Democrats to embrace those portions of H.R. 1 on which both parties agree (like the Suozzi/Fitzpatrick amendment). And while they needn’t fold on provisions to which they most adamantly object, they should employ Democratic enthusiasm for their proposed changes as leverage to pursue changes in laws that are more to their liking. That’s how legislating is supposed to work.
The real issue in Washington today isn’t that the two parties have such different ideas about how to move the country forward. That’s healthy in a democracy. The problem is, first, that rather than engage in the pursuit of bipartisan agreement, leaders are more inclined to turn away from one another when they don’t see eye-to-eye. And second, that leaves both sides using the legislative process less to drive compromise and more to make political points. In those circumstances, bipartisan reforms rarely find their way to the president’s desk.
This is not how Washington is supposed to work, not how it used to work, and surely it can’t work like this for much longer. The American people are fed up and justifiably so. It will take a dose of political courage, and a willingness to compromise, for things to change. Politics is not a game, and our leaders need to prove they know how to get things done. This means that far from trying to score political points or turning their backs on challenging ideas, they’ll engage their colleagues across the aisle when bipartisanship offers the clearest path to move the country forward.