The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is what happens when the party in charge cares about governing

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer at a news conference after passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

There have been pieces of legislation that were more difficult to birth than the Inflation Reduction Act the Senate passed Sunday — but not many.

This legislation went through so many deaths and reincarnations that it’s hard to keep them all straight — from an initial $3.5 trillion reconciliation plan to a scaled-back $1.75 trillion plan introduced in October to one proposal after another teased and then withdrawn, usually when the mercurial Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) decided he didn’t like whatever was on offer.

But now that it’s done — pending a vote in the House that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will no doubt deliver — it caps a remarkable burst of legislative achievements, including a gun safety measure, an industrial policy bill to accelerate production of semiconductors and a veterans health bill.

This is what it means to have a party in Washington that cares about governing. Even if the passage of a big, complicated bill doesn’t inspire you to burst into song, and even if the deep structural problems of our system remain, it shows that at the right moment, with the right people in charge, the country can still make progress.

Politics changes all the time, but over the past few decades, a particular cycle has repeated itself. A Democrat gets elected president. Their party labors mightily to pass consequential bills. Not all of them succeed, but many do. Eventually, a Republican wins the White House, and their party cuts taxes for the wealthy and corporations, then does little else with its control of Congress.

You can’t say elected Democrats didn’t work their hearts out on these bills, especially the Inflation Reduction Act, even if the result is (as always) imperfect. But try to imagine the Republican Party as it’s currently constituted doing what Democrats just did.

Picture Republicans spending a year or so negotiating with one another, producing version after version of a complicated bill, trying to balance competing interests within their party, persisting through repeated setbacks and ultimately producing a victory everyone in their party can live with.

You can’t, because Republicans just don’t have it in them. The only subject they care enough about to craft a complicated bill on is taxes, which is relatively easy because they all agree they should be lower, at least for corporations and the wealthy.

But give Republicans a difficult legislative task — such as following through on their oft-made pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with what Donald Trump memorably called “something terrific” — and they flounder and flail.

There was once a time when Republicans were capable of crafting legislation that could even garner some Democratic support. But that’s a fading memory. After the tea party and the triumph of Trumpism, the number of Republicans interested in using the legislative process to solve complicated problems keeps dwindling.

Say what you will about the superannuated Democratic leaders: At least they know how to pass a bill. Yet the Democratic base is often less satisfied with the quality of its party’s performance than the Republican base is when its party controls Washington. That’s part of the cycle, too. When a Democratic president is elected, expectations run high for a wave of transformative new laws — and the long and painful legislative process inevitably makes people feel at least some measure of disappointment even when a good deal is accomplished.

It’s tempting to tell anyone feeling disillusioned to grow up, that governing is hard and nobody gets everything they want. But I would argue against tempering our hopes for this presidency and those to come.

Taking the governing process seriously means acknowledging the importance of the division of labor, with different people playing different roles. It’s the job of activists to think creatively and press relentlessly for change, which often means saying that legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act doesn’t go far enough. It’s the job of progressive members, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), to criticize the bill — but give it their votes so it can succeed.

It’s the job of other members to advance the parochial interests of their constituents — and negotiate and compromise. It’s the job of the White House to tell everyone it’s a spectacular accomplishment that should make us all rapturous with joy.

The rest of us should be able to say that this bill is a great achievement for what it does on climate and prescription drug prices and a good deal more, precisely because we know how hard governing is. Mature citizens want to be stirred by grand visions of the future while knowing that the reality will be difficult and involve trade-offs and letdowns.

That’s an inevitable part of the cycle of politics, too: dreaming, then working, then accepting something less than the dream, then deciding to keep working and dream again. So let’s give President Biden and Democrats in Congress the credit they deserve even as we demand they go further and do more. It’s the only way to get anywhere.