At the end of July, I wrote here about what Congress should and should not prioritize in negotiations over another round of relief for Americans suffering from the public health and financial blows dealt by COVID-19. Considering the virus’s persistence and the mounting economic toll, I underscored that this additional legislative effort “was always a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if.’” But it appears that sense of urgency was felt by everyone except congressional negotiators.
Congress both failed to reach a deal on providing relief before going on recess and rejected a Republican-crafted package, all while the Trump administration tried to cut corners by drafting executive orders of dubious legality that would not have anywhere near the same effect as legislation. With Yelp data suggesting that roughly 60 percent of business closures during the pandemic will be permanent and medical experts warning of a possible autumn surge in COVID-19 infections, timing for the relief gridlock could not be worse.
Unfortunately, it also falls into a common pattern for Congress that one would not have thought possible as the United States faces such an immediate crisis. A POLITICO report incisively characterized the negotiations as “Republican and Democratic senators […] ramping up their partisan rhetoric, trying to make sure they put the other party’s motives for the deadlock in the worst possible light,” with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blaming Democratic obstruction as the cause. Not to be outdone, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) blasted the Republican relief bill as a “skinny deal.”
Congressional leaders’ reliance on negative partisanship may be a good electoral turnout trick, but it both portrays Washington as hopelessly divided and lets the major issues facing the nation metastasize out of control. On and off Capitol Hill, Americans hoping for action end up caught in the gears of rhetoric-driven leadership that has overtaken effective legislating as a means of reaching voters.
Indeed, rank-and-file House members of both parties fed up by party leaders’ disinterest in legislating took it upon themselves to negotiate their own relief bill, a “$2 trillion plan that includes a second round of stimulus checks, unemployment aid, and small business loans that they say would last through at least next spring.” Its fate is uncertain as Speaker Pelosi and Sen. McConnell spar over who is responsible for the deadlock, but the very existence of this auxiliary negotiating channel speaks to a serious defect in how congressional leadership views its priorities.
It should come as no surprise that they are also weakening their institution in the process.
President Trump blamed his decision to issue executive orders in response to the gridlock — a suspension of payroll tax collection, unemployment increases, and freezes on evictions and student loan collections — on Democratic obstruction. The move is the latest entry on a long list of unsanctioned presidential edicts in response to Congress’s failure to have broad, substantive debates on issues demanding a legislative solution.
While always a concern to be sure, legality should not be where our concern over the president giving cover to congressional inaction ends. R Street Institute Senior Fellow James Wallner caps off this long-running sequence of events best, writing “the pervasive tendency to rationalize Trump’s executive actions as complying with the law highlights a trend among politicians to disregard the Constitution’s separation of powers when necessary to achieve their political goals.”
VEEP creator Armando Iannuci could not have conceived of a satire greater than the endless cycle of party leaders negotiating amongst themselves, failing to reach an agreement, and the White House filling the vacuum in a way that still does not sufficiently address the core issue. From the national debt to healthcare reform to immigration to budget bills, this phenomenon is not hard to spot. Congress is meant to have a vigor for debating and legislating solutions to major issues facing the public, especially during a time of crisis. The president has an important role in this process, but we have become far too accustomed to viewing presidential actions as a clean-up act for party leaders.
As the United States continues to endure the negative ramifications of the pandemic, Congress cannot afford to allow party leadership to chase electoral messaging narratives with the expectation that the president will bail them out with half-baked versions of solutions they should have developed themselves. A looming second wave and permanent economic damage demands reform to the unfortunate way of doing business Congress has grown accustomed to. We should hope they realize the gravity of the current moment as much as all of us depending on them.