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The Do-Something Congress Is on a Roll

Productive. (Photographer: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

It’s time to talk about what’s 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 trimmed-back version of President Joe Biden’s health, tax, climate and energy initiative is closer to becoming law than ever. And the Chips and Science bill that passed the Senate earlier on Wednesday, with $52 billion for US semiconductor development, adds to an impressive string of bipartisan agreements that have produced legislative achievements already, with a chance for more before the end of the year.

So what can we say about this?

• Normally, I’d warn against expecting improvement in Biden’s approval ratings as a consequence of legislative success. Voters don’t judge presidents based on how many of their initiatives succeed in Congress — nor, for the most part, should they. Voters care most about big-picture and highly visible policy outcomes, not bills signed or policies implemented. That said, Biden’s ratings are so low that there are probably some easy pickings available, especially among younger, liberal voters who have soured on him. It’s also possible that if there’s other good news, perhaps positive reports about Biden and Congress could contribute a bit to lifting the generally grumpy mood of the nation.

• Overall, however, I’d put the legislative successes in the policy-gains category, not the electoral-effects category. Remember that President Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats took a substantial electoral hit after passing tons of bills, most of them popular, in the 1965-1966 Congress.

• There are various theories for why so much bipartisan legislation has passed, contrary to predictions (including mine). Jonathan Chait set out some possible reasons last month in New York magazine. My sense is that the explanation lies with the choices made by Republican senators, not with the actions of Biden or Schumer or anyone. The most plausible explanation might be that the threat of removing the filibuster, the mechanism that imposes a 60-vote requirement to pass most legislation, may have convinced many Republicans to cut enough deals to keep Manchin and other Democrats wary of changing Senate practices from getting fed up and acting. Still, that wasn’t enough to get Republicans to compromise on nominations during Barack Obama’s presidency, so I’ll admit to being baffled when they did start cutting deals under Biden.

• The best reason for Republicans to cut deals is that doing so can produce policy gains for them that they couldn’t get from obstruction, and the electoral costs to the out-party of passing bills is almost certainly minimal (see above). But again, that wasn’t enough to get Republicans to endorse compromises during the Obama years.

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

• And, yes, a lot of the Democratic agenda didn’t survive, perhaps most importantly the voting and election reform bills that were blocked by Senate Republicans.

• Back to the filibuster: It’s easy to see that the de facto requirement of a supermajority in the Senate has given that chamber huge advantages. On bill after bill, the House of Representatives has had to accept whatever the Senate produced. With the filibuster in play, the need to win the votes of at least 10 Republican senators forced House Democrats to go along; when a simple majority was enough (as it is with the reconciliation procedure that is 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 why that worked was that House Republicans were rarely interested in legislating at all, so the slim Democratic majority in the House had to pass everything.

• Last point: It’s easy to talk about legislative productivity, since it’s reasonably objective. Whether the bills that have been passed will actually improve the nation is another question, and inevitably most Republicans aren’t going to like them much despite their bipartisan bona fides. Most of them failed to receive majorities of both parties in both chambers, so they were really Democratic bills with some Republicans contributing to passage. Still, one can at least argue that it’s a good thing for the government to identify problems and address them, and that the results are apt to be better than those of a government that doesn’t even try. Any assessment of the results of this Congress on policy grounds is quite a ways off. But it’s reasonable to say that the lawmakers have done a fair amount already, and it’s now quite possible that this Congress will become one of the most productive of 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 Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. 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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