DOMEocracy

hardline political news and analysis

What is the GOP’s Calculus?

When the House passes the Senate version of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden and House Democrats will register their first big legislative victory of the 117th Congress. No less a curmudgeon than Bernie Sanders has acclaimed the bill as “the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working families in the modern history” of the United States. The fact that the reconciliation bill comes from the Budget Committee he chairs probably has something to do with his hyperbole.

Other are less effusive. “When people find out what’s in this bill,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said over the weekend, “they’re going to lose a lot of any enthusiasm they may have for it right now because this was not really about coronavirus in terms of the spending.” Instead, he insisted, the bill, which enjoys the support of 7 out of 10 Americans, is “a liberal wish list of liberal spending just basically filled with pork.” 

Wow! That’s a lot of “liberal’ and “liberal spending” and “pork” in one sentence; solid framing, Sen. Barrasso.  But not all the liberals are buying it. “This trend is outrageous,” fumed Rep. Bonnie Coleman (D-NJ) on Twitter. “What are we doing here? I’m frankly disgusted with some of my colleagues and question whether I can support this bill.” Lefty progressive allies like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (DMN) registered their dismay as well, especially with the exclusion of the $15 minimum wage that had been in the House version.

Let’s clear up the drama first. Coleman, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar and others on the left will naturally support the bill. What they “are doing here,” to answer Coleman’s question, is passing the best bill that can get through the House and Senate. That’s the nature of the legislative process. If the critics have any magic up their sleeves about how to grind out a few more votes to include the minimum wage or reverse other changes made in the Senate, now would be an excellent time to let us in on the strategy. Otherwise, please stop trash talking an important Democratic victory that contains not only massive relief for business, schools, state and local government and the unemployed, but also makes the biggest investment in reducing child poverty in decades.

Besides, there will be enough trash talk from the Republicans, not a single one of whom voted for the legislation. Even after the minimum wage was excluded, the unemployment benefits pared back, the relief checks more targeted. Don’t they have any closed schools or shuttered small businesses in their districts? No unemployed constituents or poor children? No one needing a vaccination?

What they do have is a memory. They remember how some of them grudgingly supported the TARP legislation negotiated by the Bush administration and Democratic congressional leaders to keep the economy from plunging into the yawning abyss opened up by the marriage of Bush’s under-regulation and unconscionable Wall Street greed. (Bailing out hedge fund managers had merit because, in true Republican form, some of the benefit trickled down to the rest of the economy.) And they mostly supported the Bush stimulus in January, 2008 when the economy first started lurching towards recession.

When the next round of stimulus was needed a year later, under the new Obama administration, the Republicans decided to take a powder; no House Republicans voted for the bill (even though a third of it was tax cuts) and just three supported it in the Senate (after adding billions of dollars in spending they favored – and then calling for other parts of the bill to be reduced). Republicans decided to let the recovery price tag be the sole responsibility of the Democrats and bet that if the economy remained weak, they wouldn’t be blamed when election time rolled around for having opposed the bill. 

And they were right! The bill was too small (shaved down to satisfy the moderates), the tax cuts too tiny and the impact too deferred to generate voter support. Instead, Republicans chastened Democrats for rolling up deficits (having themselves created a tsunami of red ink during the Bush years) and the Tea Party took it from there, ousting Democrats from the House majority and effectively curtailing the Obama legislative agenda.   

The Republicans are playing the same game now: vote no, complain about deficits (after having run them up again under Trump) and hope voters overlook their unwillingness to support recovery legislation.

Will it work? Yeah, it might, especially if the recovery and covid mitigation don’t proceed as quickly as hoped. And the House and Senate margins are a lot closer now than they were in 2010; if the Republican arguments gain traction, winning the majority will be a lot easier this time around.

Making sure those GOP arguments are countered is now a crucial step for Biden and his allies. They cannot repeat the Obama administration’s lamentable messaging of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. No aggressive or effective promotion of the law occurred. The administration refused advice to send relief checks (or even notices) to impacted families, instead choosing to deduct less in taxes from paychecks. Not surprisingly, over 80 percent of Americans didn’t even know they had gotten a tax cut! 

Joe Biden was in charge of the ARRA messaging effort as vice president, and he seems to have learned the lesson that passing a bill is only the first step. Promising not to repeat the stealth selling job on ARRA, Biden has pledged a full-throated effort to market the new covid relief law, “showing the American people that their government can work for them.” 

Let’s hope he and Democrats get it right this time. The Republicans will be working full time to convince voters it is all a huge waste of money and that they were right to oppose it.  Every one of them. 

Collins re-enacts her martyr role, but did Biden learn his lesson?

[as published in The Hill, February 4, 2021)

Immediately after voting to acquit Donald Trump in his first impeachment trial early in 2020, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) — facing a highly competitive re-election campaign — rationalized her decision. The disgraced Trump had learned “a pretty big lesson” that would guide his future behavior, Collins insisted, justifying her vote against conviction. 

Say what you like about Collins, she was dead right on that one: Trump learned he could escape culpability because his Republican myrmidons would cover up whatever mess he left lying around. The acquittal stoked Trump’s supercharged sense of invulnerability, producing the unapologetic seditionist who loosed a mob on the U.S. Capitol.

Now the question is how President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats deal with Susan Collins’s propensity for duplicitous behavior.

Collins revels in portraying herself as the senator elected from Maine but representing the dwindling rational center of American politics. She prides herself on engaging in negotiations with Democrats, when they are in charge, and pleads for compassion and support when pursuing self-serving goals as well as collaboration.

 I remember her bemoaning in 2009 that she had been called “Benedict Arnold” by fellow Republicans for negotiating with President Obama and Democrats over the stimulus bill. And it is true: Collins, her Maine Republican colleague Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) did join with Democrats to pass that bill, but only after Snowe and the others had hugely inflated its pricetag to $838 billion by adding non-stimulative spending like the Alternative Minimum Tax and funding for the National Institutes of Medicine (a favorite of cancer-survivor Specter).

Then these same Republicans were shocked to discover, in Captain Renault fashion, that the cost of the bill was so high and demanded that House Democrats (who had passed their version with no Republican support) slash $77 billion that genuinely aided individuals, states and local governments ravaged by the Bush recession. Collins even wanted an additional $20 billion in cuts from the 2009 stimulus, and the three Republicans walked out of the negotiations for a while when the Obama White House refused.

A special target for Collins was the House’s support for school construction funding that would help communities with a dearth of school buildings and provide jobs for hard-hit construction workers. Collins resolutely opposed funding new construction, and demanded local communities be limited to spending the money on the renovation of existing buildings. House Democrats were infuriated, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had little choice. “I’m playing cards,” Reid glumly explained “They give me three aces, Susan pulls out a full house.” Collins played the hand for all it was worth. “No matter what I did,” Reid said, Collins “had the better deal.”

Biden, who was a part of those negotiations, was surely remembering those manipulative machinations as they sat in the Oval Office on Monday discussing the COVID relief bill.

This time, with Democrats having only 50 votes in the Senate, there is no chance of Collins providing the crucial vote to reach the filibuster-proof margin of 60, unless all the Republicans who met with Biden decide to buck Mitch McConnell. That isn’t likely, even if Biden capitulated and agreed to Collins’s cuts from the House-passed bill.

But doing so would cost Biden mightily. Selling out House Democrats after they cast a tough vote would reignite trepidation within Speaker Pelosi’s caucus. Under Obama, the House repeatedly supported expansive legislation only to have the Senate demand the House accept a shaved down bill. Moreover, Collins and her allies are demanding Democrats drop provisions that are crucial to the party’s progressive base, including an increase in the minimum wage that would benefit low-income front-line workers who have suffered so much during the COVID pandemic and boost federal tax revenues to boot.

Any promise by Collins to support provisions dropped from the COVID bill sometime in the future deserves the deepest of skepticism. When Democrats agreed to strip down the 2009 bill to meet Collins’s demands, the legislation provided far less than most economists estimated was needed to stimulate the economy and shorten the recession. Yet when efforts were made to supplement the initial money later that year, Collins and company were nowhere to be found. No further relief was approved, and the recession dragged on longer than it otherwise might have.

Collins reflexively plays the martyr role, but it is just a role.

I know Speaker Pelosi wasn’t impressed with the senator’s professed self-sacrifice in 2009. “You’re getting good press,” she told Collins. There is a good reason Democrats have cynically observed Collins “is always there when you don’t need her.”

Once again, Collins is sitting in the Oval Office demanding that a new Democratic president dilute a stimulus urgently needed to address the failure of his Republican predecessor, whose policies Collins supported.

We know Trump failed to learn the “big lesson” in 2020; now the question is, did Biden in 2009?

Congress Must Not Reward Trump’s Misconduct

[This blog originally appeared in The Hill, January 14, 2021]

The House has voted a second time to impeach President Trump – this time on a bipartisan basis for inciting a mob to lay siege to the U.S. Capitol. It remains uncertain when the Senate will take up the resolution and even less clear if two-thirds of its members would vote to convict, which would bar Trump from seeking federal office in the future. 

         But there are three important and well-justified steps Congress should take that will punish the outgoing president and prevent him from bleeding taxpayers and potentially jeopardizing national security during his post-presidency. Each could be achieved through a simple act of Congress that, by all rights, should receive overwhelming bipartisan support.

         Cancel Trump’s Pension. Like all former presidents, Trump becomes eligible for a pension immediately upon leaving office. Taxpayers will begin footing a bill of $219,200 a year for the rest of his life, more than three times the income of the average American. That is a particularly generous annuity for someone who paid virtually no income taxes for most of his life. Why should the taxes of hardworking Americans underwrite a self-professed billionaire given his behavior that, at a minimum, has bordered on sedition? 

         Terminate Trump’s Secret Service Protection. Trump will enjoy lifetime protection by the Secret Service, as will his wife and minor child. Even without the controversy incessantly swirling around him due to his political activities, Trump may well require personal security given the strong sentiments his divisive tenure has engendered. But the wealthiest former president in history hardly needs  taxpayers to foot a bill that would run to hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, if not more,  to provide for his round-the-clock safety. Like other prominent and wealthy people who are potential targets for criminal activity, Trump would surely pay for personal security protection even if he never had served as president. Let’s let him do so! Providing government agents as security for Trump is particularly galling given his encouragement of a violent mob that assaulted congressional police at the Capitol, resulting in one officer’s death and numerous serious injuries.

         Eliminate national security briefings. As a courtesy, former presidents are permanently provided briefings on classified national security information after leaving office. The briefings are predicated on the idea former chief executives should remain informed if called upon in his retirement to offer sage advice to his successors. It is safe to assume that neither President Biden nor any other Trump successor is likely to solicit his insights into matters of national security. Nor should Trump, who has repeatedly demonstrated an alarming affection for totalitarian dictators, be entrusted with classified information that he might be tempted (or blackmailed) into sharing with America’s adversaries. Biden could direct the CIA and other agencies not to brief Trump, but Congress should establish the principle as a matter of law so no future president restores the briefings.

         Neither Trump nor any former president is entitled to a lifelong pension, permanent security protection or access to classified security information. The American people extend these privileges as a matter of respect for a former leader’s service to the nation. But just as members of the military, of Congress and of private companies are denied pension and other retirement benefits when their conduct violates the law and recognized norms, so too should Trump be sanctioned. Congress may not choose to remove Trump within the next week, but it has the power to assure he will not enjoy lifetime benefits that should be restricted to those who have served the nation with honor.

John A. Lawrence is Visiting Professor at the University of California Washington Center and author of The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship.

Keep the Capitol Secure But Open

[This blog originally appeared as a column in The Hill (January 8, 2021)]

I can remember as clearly as if it were yesterday my arrival at the Capitol in March, 1975, as a new staff person for freshman Rep. George Miller (Calif.). I had been to Washington many times (mostly during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations) and a close family friend who had been our congressman in New Jersey in the 1960s had sent me many cards and mementos of the building. The image of the domed marble and sandstone edifice on the Hill was familiar.

On that cold winter night, the dome was lit brilliantly against a black sky and I was nervously preparing to begin my career as a House employee. As my new officemate dropped me at the Longworth Building, the sight of the massive dome struck me as never before. “Wow,” I said, “if that sight ever stops affecting you emotionally, it’s time to leave.”

When I did depart nearly four decades later, the sight of the dome had no less impact. By that time, the Capitol had become something far more than an iconic office building. For me, like thousands of men and women who have spent countless days and many late nights walking its corridors, meeting in hideaway offices, negotiating the maze of underground tunnels, giving tours to awestruck friends and constituents, there is an historical sacredness to the Capitol, to walking up the stairs worn down over many generations by the Clays and Cannons, the Reeds and the Rayburns, the Lodges and the Kennedys.

It is impossible to describe the anger generated by the attempted desecration of the building by a rampaging mob bent on disrupting our constitutional government. As one who devoted considerable time as chief of staff to Speaker Pelosi on working with those charged with upgrading campus security, it was distressing to see the ease with which the supposedly fortified building was both invaded and vandalized, the operations of Congress disrupted, even if for a few terrifying hours.

In the aftermath, there will be concern that the Capitol does not become a cloistered fortress, surrounded by a tall metal fence, its public galleries separated from the chambers by bulletproof plexiglass shields.

When terrorists shot up the House in 1954, when police officers were killed in 1998 and after 9/11, many suggested installing such safety measures, but congressional leaders felt it crucial that the Capitol remain open to visitors, petitioners, observers and protestors who wanted to see their legislators engaged in debating and voting.

That same determination to maintain the operations of Congress  despite the risks was evident on Wednesday night when the joint session resumed until the prescribed counting of electoral votes was completed at 3:40 a.m.

Members have joined together to decry the violence and violation of the Peoples’ House. Some who had intended to raise protracted objections to the vote certification evidently reconsidered, not wanting to appear sympathetic to the trespassers. Yet even this tragic confrontation does not seem to have completely diffused the partisanship that poisons our politics. An overnight YouGov poll found that one-fifth of all voters — and more than double that number of Republicans — approved of the attempted takeover. Hopefully, successive polling will reflect a broad and bipartisan rejection of such tactics.

Certainly, a thorough after action review of the response by security officials on the Hill, in the Department of Defense (which authorizes use of the District of Columbia’s National Guard) and the D.C. government is essential. Those who work in the Capitol complex, and those around the world who look to the United States as an exemplar of democratic government, need to know that the operations of our Congress will be conducted without fear of intimidation and violence.

Hopefully, changes in campus security will not result in having to impose barriers to separate visitors from their elected officials. If that is the outcome of Wednesday’s distressing violence, the enemies of our Constitution will have scored a battle in which they must never prevail.

Incomprehensible

The incomprehensible scenes at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 were profoundly sad and infuriating to anyone who has worked on Capitol Hill. The ability of armed, enraged and destructive insurrectionists – openly encouraged by a seditionist president – to breach the temple of democracy compels a thorough and aggressive response. I have little doubt such a reaction will be forthcoming quickly.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, sweeping improvements were made to the security protocols on the Capitol’s campus. I took part in many meetings reviewing the recommendations of security professionals for upgraded detection and response strategies and state-of-the-art hardware to ensure the safety of the thousands of people who work in and visit the complex. Yet only the presence of the coronavirus precautions minimized the number of people who were in the building at the time of the invasion, and one dare not imagine the casualties or worse that would have occurred had a normal complement of people been in the Capitol.

It is difficult to understand how things could have gotten so out of hand despite much advance warning that there would be thousands of demonstrators in the city protesting the certification of the electoral college vote. Could no one have predicted the inciting remarks of President Trump near the White House nor his egging on the crowd to swarm over the Capitol? Perhaps once the assault was underway, a decision was made to focus on evacuating members and staff to safety over risking lives to prevent the intrusion. There certainly were methods for stopping the invaders before they smashed their way into the House and Senate chambers, where but for the evacuations, members could have been kidnapped, injured or worse. In the view of many who viewed the incursion with stunned horror, extraordinary resistance by law enforcement would have been justified. But it also would have created martyrs which is the last thing that should be given the mob.

An after action review is needed and surely has already been ordered. With all of the money (and it is a lot) spent on upgrading the campus security since 9/11, the ability of a bunch of thugs to smash their way into the building is all but inexplicable. The window and door glass, for example, is supposed to be bullet proof; was it not hammer proof as well? If the security upgrade took into account a possible plane crashing into the building, could it not also anticipate an unruly mob attempting multiple entries? I in no way diminish the dedication and courage of the men and women who safeguard the Capitol; they are stalwarts and they take risks every day. But we need to know what went wrong in planning for this not unforeseeable infiltration.

There also must be accountability for the instigator of the riot, Donald Trump. When Trump felt threatened by demonstrators at his gates last May, he was not subtle about how he would respond. Had the protestors breached the White House gates, he seethed, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen,” he tweeted. “People would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents [were] just waiting for action.” Fortunately, the protestors did not force his hand, but what happens to Trump now? Does he just continue in office and in his post-presidency without being called to account for inciting a riot intended to obstruct the constitutional operations of government? While he leaves office in two weeks, those could be very perilous weeks given the power he continues to possess. And as he luxuriates and tweets at Mar-a-Lago protected by taxpayer-funded security guards for the rest of his life, is he to be exonerated of his culpability in the most egregious attack on American government since British troops burned the Capitol (and the White House) in 1814?

One clear decision about his post-presidency must be made, regardless of whether some prosecutor, somewhere, indicts him for any number of offenses (including his effort to extort the Secretary of State in Georgia). It should be clear that Donald Trump cannot continue to receive classified materials after January 20th as is typical for former presidents. His only engagement with foreign leaders will likely be to perpetuate his friendship with tyrants or to cut deals for hotels and casinos, neither of which merits receiving classified material. Even more important, Trump has demonstrated a cavalier attitude towards safeguarding intelligence material even while in office. Who can forget his instruction to the CIA to share intelligence on counterterrorism with Russia or his unmonitored conversations with Putin or  Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, not to mention his lovefest with Kim Jung Un and other despotic tyrants? Out of office, he would be a one-man Wikipedia of classified documents.

It is unlikely President Biden or his successors would even consider sharing classified material with someone as irresponsible and dangerous as Trump (not to mention someone so susceptible to blackmail), but when the Capitol is safe and Congress is back to legislating, the members  might want to think about a statute banning him from access to information vital to the security of the American people.

Still Breaking the Glass Ceiling

With all the confusion and drama as the 117th Congress convened this Sunday, it was easy to miss two announcements that merit recognition. Two appointments by the newly re-elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi illustrate how she has relentlessly used her power to break congressional glass ceilings by elevating those who, like herself, have typically been excluded from the highest echelons of power on Capitol Hill.

On New Year’s Eve, Pelosi announced the appointment of Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben to serve as the Chaplain to the House of Representatives. Adm. Kibben is replacing the retiring Father Pat Conroy who has served in the role since Pelosi appointed the one-time attorney in 2011. Adm. Kibben will be the first woman to occupy the Chaplain role in the history of the United States. And by selecting a member of the military, Pelosi, who has been notable in her strong support of veterans, highlights the men and women who serve in uniform and in harm’s way as distinct from the misguided policies their civilian leaders sometimes thrust upon them.

On New Year’s Day, the speaker announced the appointment of Catherine Szpindor to serve as Chief Administrative Officer of the House, another of the officers she designates. Szpindor, who served as Chief Information Officer for the House from 2015-2020, has the kind of background in technology that Pelosi admires and that will be essential to implementing some of the operational reforms proposed by the House’s Select Committee on Modernization (which Pelosi created in 2019). As the first woman to serve in the CAO role since its creation in 1995,  Szpindor will direct over 700 employees.

Taken together, the appointments of Adm. Kibben and Ms. Szpindor illustrate Pelosi’s longstanding effort to elevate highly competent women to some of the highest staff positions on Capitol Hill. They are far from her first designations that deserve recognition. In 2007, during her first term as speaker, Pelosi appointed former labor official and White House staffer Lorraine Miller as the first African American woman to serve as Clerk of the House. When she regained the speaker’s gavel two years ago, Pelosi named Cheryl Johnson, a longtime House and Smithsonian staffer, as the second African American in the position.

In addition to these recent appointments, Pelosi has also appointed the first Hispanic and the first LGBTQ Reading Clerks, the first female Legislative Counsel and House Inspector General, as well as the first woman to serve as chief of staff to the House speaker.

These groundbreaking appointments help respond to questions about  why Pelosi has not created a clear line of succession to ensure a smooth transition to a new generation of leadership. But neither she nor any other speaker has the power to establish such a line of succession; such  decisions are made by the Caucus. Those aspiring to such an office  must make their case to their colleagues, as did Nancy Pelosi herself when she thrust herself uninvited into the race for Whip in 2001, defeating Steny Hoyer who had been assiduously working his way up the leadership ladder.

Where she has had the power to place people into positions that give them power and the possibility of rising on their own merits, Pelosi has assiduously done so during her nearly two decades as leader of the Democrats in the House. The Democratic Caucus in the 117th Congress is 70 percent composed of women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals; in many cases, Pelosi has played a key role in recruiting and financing their campaigns with the specific goal of creating a diverse Caucus that more closely resembles the nation’s population.

Once in office, Pelosi has strategically placed women and minority members in key committee positions early in their careers, including on powerful exclusive committees like Appropriations and Ways and Means, so they could gain the expertise and seniority to secure subcommittee chairmanships. Ultimately, many will compete for full committee chair positions that no longer are automatically accorded to those with the most service under their belt. A quick review of the House Democratic chairs of committees and subcommittees, as well as important positions at the leadership table where sub-caucus members and representatives of incoming classes are now present, reveals by far the most diverse collection of members in history in either the House or Senate.

This record of elevating newer, minority and women members to positions of influence on Capitol Hill has been overlooked in the periodic speculation about why Pelosi has not “designated a successor.” But it is the kind of strategic planning that has characterized her long tenure as the leader of House Democrats, and it will significantly change the nature of the institution in the years that follow her service to the House.

Five Unmet National Needs Revealed by Covid

As World War II was finally coming to an end in Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill found a silver lining in the devastation his nation – and most of the world – had endured. “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Churchill declared, an aphorism recycled sixty years later by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as the United States confronted the 2008 financial crisis.

A little over a decade later, our country (as well as the rest of the planet) is arguably confronting its worst crisis since World War II or the Great Depression. If there is any upside to the devastating cost of the Covid pandemic, it may well be that it has exposed systemic problems that compel creative public responses as we emerge from this dislocating beginning to the century’s third decade.

The absence of reliable and affordable child care is forcing mothers to leave their jobs. Covid has demonstrated that many of those on whom society relies cannot assure their children safe child care. In September, two-thirds of all single mothers with children under the age of 18 were employed, a drop from 76 percent a year before. Particularly hard hit were Black and Latinx women. In many cases, they were compelled to leave their jobs – including essential jobs – because of the need to care for their small children. We know enough about the beneficial results of high quality child care to adopt a nationwide program so that mothers need not choose between the essential income and security of their job and the well-being of their children. 

Health and mental health care inequity is a national scandal rooted in racism. In the midst of the worst public health crisis in a century, the Republican party appallingly has remained committed to reversing advancements in insurance coverage and preventive health care. Donald Trump and his congressional myrmidons have continued to challenge the Affordable Care Act, obstructed enrollments, prevented Medicaid expansion and continued to lie about having a better replacement plan. We need to strengthen and expand ACA, including a public option, and aggressively build health and mental health programs to serve populations disproportionately impacted by Covid and other communicable diseases. Among indigenous people, Covid is 3.2 times as high as among the general population; among Black and Latinx people, it is 3 times as high, and the rate is also higher among Asian and our Pacific Island populations.

Tens of millions of Americans – not just the poor – are living on the brink of hunger. An astonishing 54 million Americans will confront hunger in 2020, a 45 percent increase from last year. Nearly 26 million Americans report they do not have enough to eat each week. Food banks and other relief programs are overwhelmed while public program like SNAP and WIC are severely underfunded; current congressional negotiations would raise SNAP benefits by 80 cents a day. Millions of Americans who never imagined they would need to rely on food distribution centers are standing in line for hours waiting for aid; others are resorting to shoplifting, with staples like pasta and baby formula the most commonly stolen items.

Absence of universal internet access isolates communities and prevents work and schooling. At the top of any infrastructure initiative should be the provision of internet access to every home in the United States. Native American reservations and pueblos, as well as rural communities, are especially isolated by the lack of internet service which means jobs and income, as well as children’s capacity to stay on top of school work, are lost. Congress has been talking about universal broad band and the internet for more than a decade; Covid demonstrates the ability to log on during health, weather or other crises is essential, not a luxury. Handing out iPads and other devices has no benefit if there isn’t a reliable way to go online.

Our plans for continuity of government are woefully inadequate. Congress made some important steps towards ensuring the functioning of government during a period of crisis, although the innovations were decidedly limited. Both the House and Senate instituted virtual hearings, but the Senate did not allow for proxy voting (as did the House). But Covid might not be the worst crisis that could challenge the government’s capacity to function. A natural disaster, terrorism or military attack could incapacitate or kill large numbers of legislators, staff, and other officials and replacing them rapidly – a special challenge in the House where governors must call for special elections and cannot appoint successors – would be critical to national security. The federal government has undisclosed plans to allow the government to convene in such crises, but Covid has revealed massive holes in those plans that must be addressed immediately.

Perhaps it is expecting too much to ask government leaders to address such sweeping but crucial needs when for months they have been unable or unwilling even to keep people in their homes and fed, provide relief to small businesses and ensure equitable access to educational instruction. Covid will come to an end but the deep-seated problems it has exposed will not without concerted action by government and public support for addressing these national failures. The lightning-fast production of a Covid vaccine demonstrates we can solve complex and costly challenges, but addressing a medical-scientific crisis is far easier, in some ways, than developing the political consensus and determination to remedy the non-viral dangers Covid had exposed so clearly. The new administration and the new Congress have their work cut out for them.

Biden is the Wrong Target of Progressive Critics

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party, including activists in the House of Representatives, are in a snit over President-elect Biden’s Cabinet selections, his White House staff announcements and any number of other decisions which purportedly establish that he has already allegedly fallen short of expectations and demands.

Too many of Biden’s selections have ties to lobbying firms, they charge, have represented corporate clients, have voiced limited support for progressive policies from criminal justice reform to universal health care to climate change. Others have faulted Biden for not appointing more women and minorities to top-tier Cabinet and White House jobs, although there is a remarkably high level of diversity in those already named and many positions yet to be announced.

The disapproval is emanating from many of the same critics who were quite adamant back in 2019 and early 2020 that the former VP was too moderate to win either the nomination or the general election against Trump. Quite apart from the wisdom or merit of their policy pronouncements, the accuracy of their political analyses (as well as those of many others) is open to question.

While the Left is certainly a major source of party energy, it is hardly monolithic, containing a small number of self-proclaimed socialist members of Congress as well as a much larger number of members focused on securing more incremental policy goals. There are dozens of members of the Progressive Caucus who have spent years or decades advancing legislation on health, energy, environment and education policy, and much more, who do not concur with the priorities or timetables of the Left critics in or outside Congress. It is a frustrating but accurate observation that “We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose,” as nearly everyone who has been a successful legislator would acknowledge. Visionaries are important in setting policy objectives; they are not always the most skilled at navigating the course to achieve those objectives.

Instead of caterwauling against Biden, progressive critics need to do a better job at convincing their colleagues in Congress and voters in general to support their objectives. All of these critics occupy absolutely safe seats or private sector jobs funded by ideological hardliners where purity is an easy virtue to embrace. Just periodically firing off finger-wagging fusillades at Biden or Pelosi or others in leadership roles for failing to embrace preferred nominees or policy positions is preaching to the choir. The tougher (but essential) job is to convince more Americans in and out of Congress that their policy goals are worthy of support.

There were any number of times during my years on Capitol Hill when a few passionate members would insist on bringing legislation to the House floor although it clearly lacked sufficient support to pass. Speaker Pelosi offered a ready response: “Go get the votes.” The critics would often insist that was her job, not theirs, but that isn’t the way the Congress works these days; leaders don’t threaten and bully colleagues into taking positions they believe are inimical to their personal views or political self-interest. Ask John Boehner how well punishing his dissenters worked. It is a perfectly fair question to ask the leftist critics of the Democratic leaders to identify whose minds they have changed and whose votes they have secured. 

Pelosi argues, cajoles, compromises, promises, capitulates, negotiates, pressures and more to secure the votes she needs, but ultimately, it is always the responsibility of a bill’s proponents to “get the votes.” And, “if you don’t have 218 votes,” the speaker would remind colleagues and advocates alike, “we’re just having a conversation.” A vigorous conversation, which can be satisfying, doesn’t do nearly as much to improve the lives of millions of Americans as does a signed piece of legislation, even if imperfect.

The narrowness of the 2020 election in many crucial states, as well as the weak Democratic performance at the congressional and state house level, indicate that progressives need to find ways to convince more Americans of the wisdom of their agenda, not simply fire broadsides at Biden or other Democratic leaders governing with razor-thin majorities. For the speaker or Schumer to insist that marginal members vote repeatedly for bills that lack support is a prescription for returning to the minority.  Pelosi obviously isn’t afraid to push her members: one need only review the history of 2009-2010 to attest to her willingness to push important votes she knew would cost her marginal seats. But given the electoral outcome in 2010, when she had nearly 40 more votes to spare compared to her likely margin in 2021, she is unlikely to choose to go down that road again.

The point is not to lecture progressives to stifle their visionary goals, but to encourage them to go to work persuading skeptical Americans of the desirability of their agenda. Castigating Biden and others for not going where the majority of voters and legislations are reluctant to tread only enhances the Republicans’ efforts to delegitimize and undermine his presidency. In other words, stop proclaiming sole ownership of the moral high ground;  “Go get the votes.”

End the Circus on the House Floor

Prior to the election, there was a considerable amount of speculation that, should Democrats win a narrow majority in the Senate, the supermajority filibuster might be modified or eliminated from Senate procedures. @House Stake in Filibuster Reform Once justified as necessary to ensure the minority a role in lawmaking, the filibuster morphed into a tool of obstruction for the Senate minority. Democrats might still win the Senate in January, but even if they do, the slim margin makes it unlikely they could modify Rule 22, the cloture process for ending a filibuster.

But there remains another parliamentary anachronism – this time in the House of Representatives – that deserves careful reconsideration as the Democratic majority prepares for the biennial task of rewriting the rules. Like the filibuster, the motion to recommit – or MTR – was devised as a means of ensuring the minority a fair shot at amending legislation. Also like the filibuster, the MTR no longer serves its alleged purpose and functions instead as a legislative penalty shot that is carefully fashioned to penalize the majority.

Everyone hates process; I get it. But you can’t understand the MTR without a little bit of explanation. When a bill comes to the House floor, only those amendments put in order by the Rule governing the debate (written by the majority-controlled Rules Committee and approved, typically as a matter of party fealty, by the majority) are allowed. In a sharply polarized House where the parties are at near parity, permitting the wide-open amendment process of past decades (still allowed in committees) would virtually guarantee an unrecognizable and probably unpassable end product. So, the Rules Committee holds a hearing and screens the amendments both sides want to offer, allowing only a small number to be offered. (If you disapprove of those limits, you can try to defeat the Rule, but that rarely occurs.)

At the end of the floor debate and amendatory process, the MTR allows the minority to offer one amendment that it alone develops; neither the Rules Committee nor the majority floor manager need see or approve of it. Whether the MTR passes or fails, the the House votes on final passage. (In the past, an MTR could also be written to send the revised bill back to its committee of origination, which was often considered a kiss of death.) 

In practice, that sounds sort of fair: the minority gets to offer a “perfecting” amendment to clean up some feature of the bill its members dislike. But typically, the MTR (which rarely passes) is not written to improvethe bill but rather to insert a poison pill that embarrasses majority members who oppose it and lessens the chances of the bill passing the Senate. For example, Republicans had a bill to weaken the Affordable Care Act and Democrats offered an MTR that any members voting to cut benefits for their constituents could not avail themselves of government supported health insurance (i.e., their congressional health plan). Or, Republicans offered an amendment to a Democratic health bill prohibiting convicted sex offenders from eligibility for Viagra under their health plan.

Developing these MTRs was great fun when Democrats were in the minority, and it is a fair bet Republicans enjoy dreaming up the most cringe-worthy MTRs every bit as much. No sooner is the vote cast on an MTR than the majority staff scrutinizes the list of those who opposed the apple-pie-and-motherhood motion and eviscerating press releases, emails and social media posts are launched to the offender’s district. Great political theater but precious little value in tweaking or improving the legislation at hand.

But as useful as the MTR might be for serving political goals, it should go the way of the 19th century’s silent quorum. https://www.politico.com/story/2009/01/house-quorum-rule-changed-jan-29-1890-018113 . “I personally think the motion to recommit is a game,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer recently declared and he should know since his office was in charge of dreaming up the MTRs when Democrats were in the minority. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose staff also played a major role in developing the MTR in the minority, was more circumspect. “That’s up to the caucus to decide,” Pelosi responded. 

The minority would virulently object to zany plan to alter or end the MTR, but their opposition matters little in the upcoming vote on the House rules. More problematical is whether some in the majority – in this case, Democrats – would misguidedly view modifying or ending the MTR as unfair to their minority colleagues. Holding such a belief requires a suspension of knowledge of how the MTR has been perverted and abused in recent years.

Instead of devising implausible arguments for retaining the MTR, Democrats would better to spend their time considering how it might be modified. Some have suggested a supermajority be required to pass the MTR; another possibility would be to guarantee the minority at least one floor amendment on any bill, although that amendment could just as easily be crafted to be a “gotcha” MTR look-alike. Perhaps the minority should be allowed to offer amendment that received the highest number of votes during committee consideration of the bill. And there might well be other possibilities.

Democrats, who will be living with a small and vulnerable majority in the 117th Congress,  should have that serious conversation and modify the MTR before they are once again forced to endure embarrassing votes on bill after bill. Yes, there will be misguided criticism from Republicans and the press, but it is more important to make rule changes that allow the House to operate as a serious legislative body than to entertain the antics of politically-inspired pranksters. After all, if you write rules that permit clowns to run the floor, you shouldn’t be surprised that voters consider the Congress a circus.

How to Succeed in Congress

Scores of new representatives and senators will soon be assuming their positions on Capitol Hill. Regardless of their past careers and experiences, they will all face challenges in adapting to their new roles as members of Congress. Indeed, one of the most significant transformations any newly elected member must successfully navigate is the change from thinking largely in personal terms – “what is my message, what are my opinions, what is best for my constituents” – into serving in a caucus and a diverse institution where working collaboratively and making accommodations to other viewpoints is essential to achieving one’s personal goals. 

Based on my 38 years as a House staffer (the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi), and as the author of the 1974 House reformers (The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship), I biennially offer these incoming, energetic, perhaps idealistic legislators some unsolicited advice to help them transition successfully to life in Washington and make them more effective public servants.

1. Assemble your staff carefully and manage them wisely. Capitol Hill is full of people who will puff up your ego to serve their own self-interest.  Always have someone on your staff who can tell you that you are wrong. Use your staff to make you a better legislator.  Let your staff ask a question at a meeting.  You pay them lots of money for their expertise and judgment, but too often, they stand silently like ornaments because members don’t want to appear to be dependent on staff. Your people are your team, not just a cheering section to make you look good.  And don’t fill your Washington office with campaign staff. Select some people who know issues and how the Hill functions. They will make life a lot easier for you.

2. Assume nothing!   Many embarrassing mis-steps occur because novices “assume” Congress works like things did back home.   This isn’t the state legislature or city council or your business or law firm. Capitol Hill is unique, for good and bad. Commit yourself to learning how it works: the procedures, the rules and the personalities. 

3. Don’t confuse “advocacy” and “politics.” Advocacy is telling people what you want; politics is getting other people to do what you want. These are completely different skills.  The campaign is over. Your job in Congress is to get work done, to not to bloviate. If that is your preferred style, trade in your voting card for a soapbox. 

4. Don’t get discouraged.  Legislating is an ongoing and often lengthy process that can easily take two or three Congresses to pass major legislation. Your opponents are waiting for you to give up. You rarely win or lose entirely. Our system wasn’t designed to be efficient.  After a few months of the molasses-like pace of legislating, you might agree with political scientist George Galloway who observed,  “Congress is an oxcart in the age of the atom.”  Keep in mind: Galloway said that in 1946. 

5. Don’t think that just because you changed the world it is going to remain that way.   Don’t be so impressed with a victory that you neglect monitoring its implementation.  Many statutes gather dust because disapproving bureaucrats simply ignore them.  Also, keep in mind: there’s nothing wrong admitting a law needs modifications, improvements or updating once it encounters the real world outside Washington. That is where the terms “reauthorization” and “technical correction” come from.

6.  Be dissatisfied.  If you aren’t, get dissatisfied. If you can’t, get out of the business.  Politics is about righting wrongs not managing programs or balancing ledgers.  There is always something to get angry about. And don’t complain about how hard the job is.  No one wants to listen to some $174,000 a year officeholder complain about how hard they are working. 

7. Take your work seriously but not your own importance.   An experienced politician once said, “Anytime you think you’re really important, take a ride down the freeway about ten minutes and see who knows who you are.”  If you work really hard, acquire sophisticated political skills and achieve some legislative victories, you might – might – achieve  higher office. But you probably won’t, so enjoy what you are doing.

8. Become the “go to” expert.  Members seek out knowledgeable colleagues, so become one. Find an issue on which you want to be regarded as an expert and avail yourself of every resource to earn that distinction. Don’t try to master every issue or speak on every subject.  As Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, “You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when you’re talkin’.” And don’t make speeches to your colleagues, especially if they drag out already insufferably long discussions. As Mo Udall observed about protracted meetings, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.”

9. Get to know your colleagues. Congress was more effective and enjoyable when Members fraternized outside the legislative mosh pit.  Go to the gym. Do some traveling with colleagues (stopping at a military base or hospital, and getting a briefing from the embassy).  Telling constituents about your new buddy from the other party helps to dispel suspicions you’re becoming one of those partisan hacks everyone hates. 

10.  Don’t live in fear of defeat.  Pay attention to your constituents’ needs and opinions, but don’t “twist yourself into a pretzel with those kinds of political calculations,” as one member once advised. You will rarely regret casting a vote of conscience, but a vote against your own best judgment can haunt you for a career.

       Lastly, incoming Members often ask what to read to make them better legislators. If you need advice on procedure, ask the Parliamentarian, and if you are interested in earlier congressional reform, pick up my book that followed the reaction to the wave election of 1974. But be sure to read Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, a classic account of how well-intentioned leaders ignore evidence even when they knew doing so would yield catastrophic results. We’d be in a much better place as a nation if some of your new colleagues in Congress had read this book before the coronavirus arrived.