The effort to provide additional relief for victims of the COVID-19 pandemic has become the poster child for what’s wrong with the legislative process.
Nearly four months after the Democratic House passed a $3.5 trillion bill to help individuals and businesses affected by the coronavirus, the leader of the Republican Senate introduced a pared down, skinny version of the measure.
But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposal is designed primarily for political reasons, since it almost certainly won’t pass the Senate, so what then? Through months of on-and-off negotiations, the three parties to the talks — the White House, Senate Republicans and the Democrats — have agreed on little except that the GOP favors less money than the Democrats.
This is not how the legislative process is supposed to work. So how did we get into this mess?
For one thing, reliance on secret negotiations among top legislative leaders to resolve the impasse, rather than on the normal legislative process. The leaders haven’t come close to agreeing.
For another, McConnell’s effort to ensure Senate GOP solidarity has proven difficult. Some GOP lawmakers, like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, suddenly rediscovered concern about the massive federal deficit they didn’t have when they were cutting taxes. But Republican senators running for reelection want to be able to say they voted for something.
Still, even if McConnell unifies the 53 GOP senators, it takes 60 votes for the Senate to pass anything, and Democrats consider his plan totally inadequate.
Finally, the White House has seemed for most of the summer in no hurry to pass anything, perhaps hoping that any action comes when it most helps politically, closer to the election. (Trump’s unilateral actions last month seem mainly to have created confusion, not stimulus.)
I covered Congress for many years when it was functional, and here is how it used to work:
On any important issue, the White House presented Congress with its recommendations — or even sometimes draft legislation.
After one house acted, the other house had basically two options to pass the legislation, either bring up that measure, amend it and pass the amended version or start fresh and pass its own bill.
If the two houses passed different versions, a conference committee consisting of members of both houses met to craft a compromise. That was often the toughest part of the process, but it generally worked because, back then, compromise wasn’t a dirty word. The White House could weigh in at any point, but its view was especially important during the conference, to ensure any final version was acceptable to the president and would become law.
That’s how they teach it in school, and it’s how things generally worked. But the Trump administration generally doesn’t propose anything up front. McConnell won’t let the Senate vote unless the White House agrees, one reason the Senate has only voted on 32 amendments the past two years, less than any prior single year. And the House habitually votes for more than either the White House or Senate will accept.
Compromise has become even more of a problem since Mark Meadows, the old House tea partyer, became the White House chief of staff.
As a North Carolina congressman, Meadows was one of the GOP nihilists who drove GOP Speaker John Boehner out of Congress with their negative tactics. Now, the tea party is running the Trump administration.
Besides Meadows, other tea party alums include Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Budget Director Russell Vought. Meadows is less willing to compromise than Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was, when he captained the White House negotiating team.
The negotiations have seen some moves toward compromise, but not enough. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lowered her initial asking prize of $3 trillion by a trillion, urging the White House to meet her at $2 trillion from its starting point of $1 trillion. The White House is talking about $1.5 trillion, and McConnell wants less.
Everyone has focused on denouncing what they oppose, rather than pushing what they would accept. The Senate won’t take Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s plan to repeal the 2017 tax law’s limit on deducting state and local taxes. The House opposes McConnell’s proposal protecting employers from lawsuits if recalled workers get the virus. And the White House rejects Pelosi’s plan to help states and localities, though recession-caused revenue losses mean some will lay off essential workers like police and teachers.
So what to do? Besides more of the same, here are two options:
— Legislative. McConnell could unfreeze the legislative process by abandoning his current efforts, bring up the House bill and allow amendments so the Senate can pass its own version. But the result might be unacceptable to Trump.
— Mediation. Trump could invite all sides to the White House, or some appropriately neutral place, and keep them there until they agreed. After all, he sold himself to the nation as a great negotiator, a skill he has seldom shown since getting to Washington. (But he cast doubt on his own efficacy Monday, declaring, “I don’t need to meet with them to be turned down.”)
Expect more of the same.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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