The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This Congress has gotten more done than you might realize

The sun shines on the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Aug. 12. (Susan Walsh/AP)

In Washington, the smart money is always on political and legislative gridlock. And lately, experts have taken to warning — all too plausibly — of far worse. Just the other day, President Biden met with a group of historians who told him of parallels between contemporary threats to democracy and the unstable periods just before the Civil War and during the 1920s and ’30s, which saw the rise of Hitler and Stalin. Perhaps it’s just some irrational late-summer exuberance, but we’d like to argue the other side: that the national cup is half full, at least regarding the United States’ basic ability to conduct public business. As a midterm election approaches, green shoots of governability are poking through the surface of what is otherwise a scorched political landscape.

Specifically, the 117th Congress has compiled a significant legislative record since it convened on Jan. 3, 2021. Albeit narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats in the House and split three ways in the Senate — the third “party” being a de facto micro-group made up of Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) — Congress has rebounded from the mob attack of Jan. 6 and gotten things done. Since March 2021, lawmakers have passed: a $1.9 trillion plan to help the economy recover from the covid pandemic; an infrastructure package with $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, ports and the like; a plan to repair the Postal Service’s balance sheet; a long-overdue anti-lynching law named for Emmett Till; a modest but meaningful gun safety law; a $280 billion bill, the Chips Act, to bolster scientific research and domestic semiconductor production; and the tax-climate-health plan known as the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed the House Friday.

Especially remarkable is that some of the measures — postal reform, infrastructure, anti-lynching, Chips and gun safety — enjoyed bipartisan support. That was true also of repeated measures providing military and economic support for Ukraine in its war with Russia and NATO membership for Finland and Sweden. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell got Senate confirmation to a second four-year term on a bipartisan basis. A bipartisan Senate group has made progress on Electoral Count Act reform, and there is a decent chance that vital measure will pass before this Congress ends. The Respect for Marriage Act to protect same-sex marriages from any possible adverse Supreme Court rulings is struggling to hit the 60-vote threshold in the Senate but might do so, given that it passed the House with 47 Republican votes. There was no federal default; the debt limit was raised enough to last through this year because Democrats agreed to a special procedure that let Senate Republicans who had been obstructing the bill save face.

None of these new laws is ideal or anything close. Some erred by going too far in pursuit of their goals: The American Rescue Plan, as the $1.9 trillion covid recovery law was known, probably overdosed the economy on spending and contributed to inflation. Others clearly did not go far enough: With its expanded background checks for under-21 gun buyers, plus increased mental health spending, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is no substitute for needed bans on high-capacity magazines and assault rifles. As for the new Inflation Reduction Act, it probably won’t affect inflation one way or the other — and lacks key social policy reforms such as a permanent expanded child tax credit. Yet it will provide substantial new funding for green energy and health insurance subsidies. And it is paid for — plus a small deficit-reduction margin — by breaking long-standing taboos against raising revenue or using Medicare’s buying power to extract lower prices from the pharmaceutical industry.

In short, for all the often justified despair over political dysfunction — and over institutions, such as the Senate filibuster, that make legislating such a slog — Congress produced incremental progress. The key was to tune out the Twitterverse and engage in old-fashioned give and take, through negotiations across party lines and, sometimes, within them. Given the backlog of unmet social, economic and environmental needs, incremental progress is frustratingly, well, incremental. And yet it has the advantage of probably being the sort of progress voters actually had in mind when they elected a divided Congress — and a relatively moderate president with long experience as a senator, Joe Biden — in November 2020.

Radical ideologies, such as the 1930s-vintage totalitarianism that the historians discussed with Mr. Biden, hold out the seductive — inevitably false — hope of redemption through upheaval. Democracy, by contrast, offers change with stability. Both at home and abroad, doubt grows that the system can still deliver on that more modest, but infinitely more humane, promise. All the more reason to take note of — and succor from — evidence that it can.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).