In Defense of Congress
There is an obsession in the media these days about the inability of Congress to do big things. Inaction on tax reform, the stalled repeal of the Affordable Care Act, infrastructure spending, and the lack of progress on a budget, are all flashing warning lights about gridlock on the legislative highway.
But is all the handwringing justified? Not really.
There are some good reasons why the big-ticket items are mired in the legislative slow lane. “Under the radar issues” are often eclipsed by stories about Congressional inaction and are overlooked due to the drama and controversy swirling around the big partisan brawls.
Let’s first look at why the bigger ticket items get bogged down.
Keep in mind, Congress never acts quickly on major legislation or easily resolves large economic or cultural problems; it’s the opposite of an efficiency machine. In a big country like ours, with diverse views, the legislature is tasked with finding common ground on issues with diverse viewpoints. Who is entitled to government-funded healthcare? How much should people pay in taxes? What’s the right level of federal investment in infrastructure? And how do you pay for it? Opinions vary widely on these questions. Progressive Democrats support different solutions than conservative Republicans. And there is a wide swath of others, somewhere between the left and right buoys on the river of American politics.
This reality about public opinion, mixed with some of the structural features of American government – like separation of powers and rules that empower minority views – has two results. First, Congress will never win a popularity contest because it debates divisive issues publicly. So much of what the public sees – and what the media covers – is focused on cantankerous debate, partisan controversy, and deep policy differences. Finding consensus is neither easy nor common and usually doesn’t thrill those asked to compromise. And that means the “big” changes the media often laments Congress strikes out on are about as rare as a baseball no hitter.
Second, while bipartisan consensus and accomplishments are elusive, the terrain is not completely barren. Over the past six years Congress found common ground to: reduce the deficit and control spending (The Budget Control Act); pass major mental health legislation; fund opioid spending; provide major reforms to speed the drug development and approval process and infuse the National Institutes of Health with billions in new federal investments (all included in the 21st Century Cures Act); reform the Medicare payment system to physicians (the so-called “Doc-Fix”); improve the system of regulating chemicals in commerce (Toxic Substances Control Act); modernize energy infrastructure; and unleash more spectrum to improve the performance of the mobile phones on which so many of us now depend. Not a bad track record.
Even this year, lots of legislative accomplishments have eluded the media’s radar. For example, there wasn’t a lot of attention focused on the passage of Kate’s Law in the House a couple weeks ago, a bill that many argue will make communities safer by allowing stiffer penalties for those who commit crimes after being deported and then return to the United States. Nor was there a lot of press coverage recently when President Trump signed legislation to give the Department of Veterans Affairs authority to make it easier to remove employees who don’t follow the rules and also create new protections for whistle blowers. Some argue these accomplishments are legislative small potatoes, and perhaps some are. But sometimes “small is beautiful” in the legislative process. These seemingly minor bills not only elude partisan speed bumps, but can also fix real world problems. Included in the 158 bills the House has already passed this year, for example, are measures to speed the construction of hydroelectric plants, improve access to maternity care, promote a 21st century energy workforce, hasten the development of nuclear energy technology, make the government use more energy efficiency technologies, and help sports trainers move critical medicines across state lines.
None of these bills made the front pages of major newspapers or the network news, but they address concrete issues, help people and garner broad bipartisan support.
Missouri Rep. Wagner Unexpectedly Opts Against GOP Bid to Unseat McCaskill
On Monday Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner (R) announced that she will not challenge Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in 2018, leaving the GOP field open for what likely will be a highly competitive Senate race. Several high-profile Republicans have been publicly urging state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R) to enter the race. Many see Wagner’s decision as a huge blow to the party’s chances of flipping the vulnerable seat. Sources close to Wagner were telling Republicans on Capitol Hill that a run was imminent, so the news, dropped just one day before the July 4 holiday, caught many by surprise.
Wagner had long been expected to enter the race, is a prolific fundraiser, had been U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg under President George W. Bush, and was also a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, and chair of the Missouri GOP. She’s served in Congress since 2012 and already had $2.7 million in her federal campaign account. Republicans will now turn their attention to other potential McCaskill challengers, including Hawley and Reps. Blaine Luetkemeyer and Vicky Hartzler.
On its website, CNN said that Wagner’s “decision to forego a Senate bid – in a solidly red state the last few cycles...reflects the reluctance of some Republicans to raise their political profile in what looks to be a caustic and challenging election cycle.”