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Is Congress reasserting itself?

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In tracing the trajectory of presidents, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama to Donald Trump, I detected a common thread of hope: from “a place called hope,” to “hope and change,” to “sure hope we can survive this.”

But this past week, I discovered a fourth thread of hope that traces from the Congress, and that is signs of hope that the First Branch will reclaim its rightful role in our tripartite system of government.

I am neither a cock-eyed optimist nor a far-sighted optimist. But I am near-sighted, both oracularly and in disposition. For the first time in many months I am seeing signs that Congress is wanting to strengthen its own role in our system of governance and to push back against an overbearing executive branch.

Close observers of Congress have long wondered why it has not moved sooner to reclaim its powers in the wake of the Trump juggernaut. It had no immediate response to the president’s election and his bold assertion of powers. Congress was in what seemed a state of shock and  paralysis, at least, that is, until it moved to impeach the president at the end of his third year in office over his phone call with the president of Ukraine seeking dirt on Hunter Biden.

My read was that Congress was ambivalent about how to proceed given conflicting signals from the electorate. House Democrats’ retaking control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections was a clear signal of popular discontent with the new regime in the White House and the president’s GOP subalterns in Congress.

That dramatic change not only emboldened House Democrats to impeach the president, even knowing that the Republican-controlled Senate would not likely convict and remove him; but, perhaps more importantly, it prompted them to undertake a long, overdue self-examination, both as a party and institutionally. The new class of Democratic freshmen, many of whom had flipped previously Republican-held seats, were wary of appearing too partisan or of overreaching.

This is especially apparent now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, as the more moderate members of the Democratic Caucus are pressuring Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her leadership cohorts, to strike a deal for getting more relief out to the country. Their common refrain seems to be, “We will not go back home to campaign until we have a done deal on the books.” And Speaker Pelosi has consequently made a similar vow and announced a new willingness to come down from the $3.4 trillion relief bill the House passed last March.

The new push for bipartisan compromise came into stark relief last week when the Democratic leadership scheduled a vote on a continuing appropriations resolution to keep the government operating through Dec. 11. Unfortunately, the Democrats had not negotiated the terms of the CR with either House Republicans or the White House, and the measure was pulled in favor of a new bill that gave Republicans and some rural Democratic members the farm assistance they wanted in return for more food assistance for those hit hardest by the pandemic. The compromise measure handily passed under a suspension of the rules (requiring two-thirds vote), 359 to 57 on Sept. 22.

The following day House Democrats unveiled a bill titled, “The Protect Our Democracy Act,” that was aimed specifically at reclaiming many of the powers of Congress the president had siphoned away, quite often by ignoring congressional demands for administration witnesses and documents. The legislation was reminiscent of the many reforms enacted in the wake of the Nixon Watergate scandal, characterized by White House “stonewalling” of Congress.

Then, on Thursday, Sept. 24, the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress met to report its final set of some 40 recommendations to strengthen the capacity of the House to do its work better. The select committee was formed at the beginning of the current 116th Congress with the full backing of the leadership and a recognition that important institutional changes can only be fashioned and successfully implemented with the full backing of both parties.

Under the strong leadership of Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Vice Chairman Tom Graves (R-Ga.), the select committee held numerous hearings over the last two years, taking suggestions from current and former members, staff, and an array of public interest groups dedicated to making the First Branch stronger and more effective. All told, the committee produced 97 recommendations on everything from budgeting, technology and staffing, to bipartisan retreats and greater legislative transparency. Although the select committee did not have authority to report legislation directly to the House, Kilmer has promised to introduce a bill embodying the reforms and will likely have a broad bipartisan cohort of co-sponsors.

Where there is hope, there is change. And the events of this past week raise the hope that real change is on the way.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Derek Kilmer Donald Trump Legislative Branch Nancy Pelosi Tom Graves

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