Donald Trump sent shock waves through Washington when he released a video in which he called the $900 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress on Monday “a disgrace,” suggesting that he wouldn’t sign it. While it is impossible to predict what happens next, the best explanation for what the president just did came from journalist Michael Kruse in an article at Politico titled, “Is Trump Cracking Under the Weight of Losing?” The obvious answer to that question is, “yes.”
Aside from that drama, there are some things we can learn about how Congress is likely to function under a Biden administration based on what happened with this legislation. The first thing to keep in mind is that, as has often happened in the past, important legislation was tacked on to an omnibus spending bill. Congress didn’t just pass a covid relief bill, but annual appropriations to keep the government functioning. That’s why you hear members of Congress complaining that the bill was over 5,000 pages.
Negotiating something that massive allows members to insert their pet projects—some of which survive, while others don’t. That is what Rep. Alexandria Ocazio-Cortez was complaining about when she tweeted that one provision in the bill would make illegal streaming a felony. She wrote that, “Members of Congress have not read this bill. It’s over 5000 pages, arrived at 2pm today, and we are told to expect a vote on it in 2 hours. This isn’t governance. It’s hostage-taking.” She’s right. A democratic republic requires transparency as the governing process unfolds.
On the other hand, Jonathan Chait points out that, included in this massive bill was “a huge package of energy reforms that will result in major greenhouse-gas reductions.” He suggested that this is how major legislation is likely to pass in the future.
The larger lesson here is that, in the modern era, constructive legislation is still possible — as long as the issue stays below the radar. High-profile policy fights tend to become grist for right-wing media, and once Fox News is on the case, there is no such thing as a compromise reasonable enough that it won’t be presented to conservative viewers as a socialist plot. But negotiating issues privately, dumping them into a giant must-pass bill, and passing the whole thing within hours short-circuits the demagoguery cycle.
Chait is absolutely right. As David Frum so presciently noted ten years ago, the real leaders of the GOP are right-wing television and talk radio personalities who have no interest in compromise or governing. Their business model depends on feeding red meat to their viewers/listeners in order to keep the demagoguery cycle going.
This is the dilemma Democrats face due to the fact that Republicans have abandoned the democratic process of governing: they can either further erode democratic norms by hiding important legislation in huge must-pass legislation, or fail to address the challenges we face as a nation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, transparency is more likely to kill legislation than to advance it.
At this point, Democrats are the only party defending democratic norms. Abandoning those mores amounts to joining Republicans down the rabbit hole to authoritarianism. But the GOP has gone down that hole precisely because it has been willing to sacrifice democracy at the altar of power. Addressing the needs of the American people is not their concern. If, in defending democratic norms, the left allows itself to be neutered, that simply empowers Republicans. In 2011, former GOP operative Mike Lofgren explained how that happens.
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.
As with all dilemmas, there are no easy answers to this one. But denying the reality of what Democrats face, while simply championing one response or the other, only deepens the problem, cutting off avenues for an actual solution. Democrats who promote transparency as a critical part of the governing process are making an important point – as are those who insist that their party do what is necessary to make whatever progress is possible.