The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats have a few more weeks to enact their agenda

Should they choose to do so.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) addresses a crowd on Aug. 3, 2021, before Congress recessed that summer. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

A year ago — or perhaps a bit before that — Democrats found themselves in an enviable position. They had secured control of the House and Senate by the skin of their teeth and President Biden’s popularity had the party speculating about a Rooseveltian overhaul of the federal government. But that optimism was soon blunted by the resurgent coronavirus, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and opposition from party moderates in the Senate.

Now the picture for Democrats has flipped 180 degrees: Biden is broadly unpopular, and if the November midterms merely result in Democrats losing their congressional majorities — instead of decimation — it will be viewed as a best-case outcome. It’s likely that Republicans will control the Senate in 12 months’ time and nearly certain that they’ll control the House.

In other words, Democrats have a closing window to enact their agenda or guide the priorities of either chamber. Come January, for example, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot will almost certainly be shut down. But if history is a guide, as it tends to be, the window for passing legislation is even smaller than that.

It’s probable that there are only a few weeks left for Democrats to use their majorities to do so.

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This isn’t some weird commentary about the nature of time. It is, instead, commentary about the weird nature of Congress.

The House and Senate, as you may know, take a lot of recesses. We are assured that this does not mean they’re not working; they are simply back in their districts tending to constituents (a process that involves a lot of golf and fundraisers). But it does mean they aren’t in Washington and that — even with proxy voting having been implemented during the pandemic — they aren’t casting votes, either.

I pulled data on the number of votes cast in Congress each month since the beginning of 2005, using the database at GovTrack. A pattern is obvious: There are points at which Congress simply stops doing much at all. One is August, shown in gray on the chart below. The other is the October before an election. (Why? Because members of Congress stop working so that they can spend time trying to convince voters how important the work they do in Washington is.)

In other words, two of the months in which Congress will do the least fall between now and January.

In August and October of election years, Congress has since 2005 cast only about 1 percent of its votes. Add in the November of the election (the dotted line on the graph) and the total climbs to 2.2 percent. Just not a lot gets done.

Granted, June, July and September of election years see more activity. But that’s my point: Those are the weeks that the Democratic majority likely has left to get anything passed.

At some point soon, we’re going to start hearing members of the Democratic leadership start making noises about how important it is that Congress work through their August recess. There will be some predicate for this, some bill they insist must be dealt with before everyone heads back to their districts. But despite that manufactured urgency, the call to skip the August recess is not unique. Someone suggested it last year. And in 2020. And in 2019. And in 2018. And in 2017. And in 2016. The last time no one suggested it was 2015 — but they did each of the four years before that.

Perhaps this year Democratic leaders will convince members of Congress that working through the August recess is actually a good idea. Someone will certainly raise the idea, soberly insisting that their collective duty dictates it. Then it almost certainly won’t happen.

Then there is the lame-duck period after the election: In 2010, 2014 and 2018 — all of which saw big shifts away from the majority in the House — there were big spikes in voting in December. It’s possible that something similar will occur this year, should Republicans do particularly well. But it’s unlikely that the legislation being considered will be bills that address core Democratic priorities. The moderate senators who have slowed the party’s agenda since Biden took office are not going to be newly inspired to move to the left in the face of strong national support for Republican candidates.

Many Democrats worry not only that their agenda won’t be passed but that the failure to address systemic disadvantages the party faces will make it less likely that they will be able to pass any agenda in the future. Look for some Democrat to raise that point in a few weeks as the party discusses not having an August break and then look for congressional Democrats to take an August break.