“Congress has to rise to the crisis. It is too serious,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said recently. “If we can’t work together in a bipartisan, bicameral way in the midst of a persistent pandemic that is causing such harm to people’s health and their economic stability, then we will have failed the American people.”
Yet Congress blew past a deadline Friday to give millions of Americans a continuation of much-needed extra unemployment benefits. And after a week of negotiating, the parties are still not close to a deal that leaders on both sides agree needs to happen. Each side blames the other.
Their inability to act at this moment of crisis raises the question, perhaps more than any other major legislative debate: Is Congress broken? The answer, according to some former and outgoing members of Congress in a new report, is: Maybe.
“I guess there’s room for optimism, but the reward system has to change,” former moderate Republican congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said in an interview.
One reason this specific coronavirus legislation isn’t moving, when other relief bills recently did, is that the urgency lawmakers felt this spring to quickly approve trillions of dollars in aid has faded. It has been replaced by traditional bipartisan battle lines that are strengthening as the election nears, The Washington Post’s Erica Werner and Seung Min Kim report.
Republicans, in particular, were hoping the virus would be less of an issue by this summer and they wouldn’t need to spend trillions more to keep the economy from caving in on itself.
But it’s August, and the pandemic is now worse than it was in the spring, according to health experts that include White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx. House Democrats — seeing blue states hit hard this spring — passed a $3 trillion plan in May. But Republicans — whose states started suffering after reopening this summer — were caught off guard by the need to take action.
Now, congressional analyst Molly Reynolds makes the case at the Brookings Institution that Republicans want to pass a bill that will help them keep their tenuous Senate majority. But they can’t agree on what that is — is it going big on unemployment payments and coronavirus testing, as some vulnerable senators are pushing for? Or is it a return to worrying about the national debt, as some conservative senators argue?
Then President Trump convoluted things by pushing his own ideas, which are at odds with those of the rest of the party. And now there is a sizable group of Senate Republicans who just don’t want to spend anything close to what economists say is needed right now to help the economy, reviving a dormant concern about the national debt.
But there are deeper reasons Congress has found itself immobilized, former members say. The nonpartisan Association of Former Members of Congress interviewed 31 recently retired members on their way out the door to ask why they think Congress gets stuck so often, on issues big and small.
The group’s report found that one reason, particularly pertinent to this coronavirus debate, is that bipartisanship is not often rewarded by party leaders.
Party leaders’ primary job is to stay in power, and working with the other side can threaten that.
“[L]eadership warns them to avoid giving opponents in swing districts any opportunity to claim credit or to offer an amendment that might leave their own majority party members casting a difficult or unpopular vote,” the study’s authors write.
It’s a choice of self-preservation over action. When it comes to having Congress spend money on the pandemic, the public urge for action is clear. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 72 percent of Americans want Congress to spend money to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, 55 percent want Congress to increase funding to help schools, and 66 percent say it’s important and/or a top priority that Congress extend its $600-a-week extra benefits.
Yet those are all issues Congress and the White House are fighting over right now, as self-preservation tightens its grip three months before the election. In part because the stakes are so high, to give the other side a break is simply untenable to some in Congress.
Republicans don’t want to approve as much in unemployment help this time, and they want to peel off and pass some unemployment help now, then decide the rest later. Democrats know their leverage to get Republicans to agree to $2 trillion in other priorities, like state and local funding, comes from keeping the package whole. So they’re at an impasse, blaming each other.
Outside of the pandemic, Senate Republicans offer an extreme example of prioritizing self-preservation above all else. They have molded themselves into the likeness of Trump, even though they privately disagree with the president on any number of issues and approaches to governing. They think they have no choice but to stand by the president if they want to keep their majority this November, because his voters are their voters.
Some Republican thinkers and strategists are so frustrated by their party leaders’ capitulation to Trump that they’re beginning to argue the only way to fix it is to get rid of Senate Republicans’ majority and start over.
“My hope is that Trump will lose in November, Republicans will lose the Senate, and the GOP will be forced to rebuild with conservatives focused on the power of ideas,” former Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, who helped write the Republicans’ post-2012 election autopsy report, wrote in an email to NPR recently.
Conservative commentator Bill Kristol recently told The Post he doesn’t think he can go back to the party because it has refused to repudiate Trump: “[L]iberating the party from Trump or Trumpism seems awfully far-fetched.”
And an increasingly prominent anti-Trump GOP group, the Lincoln Project, is running ads against vulnerable Senate Republicans, like Collins, accusing them of defending Trump over the health of the party and the country.
As for the rest of Congress, there’s a case to make that the rest of the public is just as frustrated. Just 15 percent of Americans approve of the job lawmakers are doing on the pandemic response, according to a recent Associated Press/NORC poll, compared with 32 percent for Trump and 51 percent for local governments.
Outgoing members interviewed before the pandemic hit say it took years for Congress to sink into such a rut, so it will probably take years for it to rise above. And even then, setting aside partisanship is the primary method back to, well, bipartisanship.
“We reached this point,” Dent said of Congress in recent years, “where many members see their political reward by tacking to the base. They don’t see the political reward through consensus and compromise. At least not enough of them.”
Unfortunately for those waiting on Congress’s help, consensus and compromise is exactly what it’s going to take to pass this coronavirus relief bill. That is harder to come by than ever these days.