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What will the new Congress bring?

As the 116th Congress limps out of town this week (or next), you may detect a slight bounce in its otherwise halting gait. That is because presumably attached to a final, omnibus appropriations bill will be a bipartisan $908 billion compromise pandemic relief package after months of stalled negotiations. On Capitol Hill, necessity is the mother of compromise: over two dozen federal stimulus programs benefiting hard-hit individuals, businesses, cities, and states are due to expire later this month. Nothing focuses the minds of members like a looming crisis.  

The question is, what, if anything, does this positive end note portend for the new Congress that convenes in January? Is it a one-off legislative feat or a harbinger of things to come? Can the 117th Congress, with its razor thin majorities in both chambers, sustain the momentum and spirit of compromise displayed in its predecessor’s final month, or, will it return to vicious, cutthroat partisan back-biting as it heads toward the 2022 mid-term elections?

I will go out on a limb and predict it will probably be a bit of both — partisan combat interspersed with flashes of bipartisan cooperation in addressing ongoing national challenges. It is not fantastical to think Congress can walk and chew gum at the same time; or, in this case, fight with the opposition party with one hand while exchanging conciliatory fist-bumps with the other. Most Congresses in recent times have demonstrated the ability to get important work done while positioning themselves with campaign themes, messaging and votes that appeal to their base constituencies.

One thing is certain from the outset of the next Congress, and that is that it will remain consumed with pandemic related problems well into the new year. President-elect Joe Biden has made it clear that bringing the coronavirus spread under control and managing the safe and equitable distribution of the vaccine will be his top priority. The current relief package will expire at the end of March, so planning and drafting legislation for the next iteration must begin even before the inauguration.

Beyond that, much will depend on the kind of legislative program the new president unveils upon taking office and how it is received by both parties in both houses of Congress. Biden has indicated he wants to work closely with leaders in Congress to ensure maximum cooperation and success. 

But Congress can also initiate legislation to deal with other outstanding issues, especially cleaning-up the shredded government left behind by the Trump administration. Last fall House Democrats introduced a catch-all reform package titled, “The Protecting Our Democracy Act.”  Seven House committee chair sponsors, in a joint statement, indicated the purpose of the legislation is to “prevent future presidential abuses, restore our checks and balances, strengthen accountability and transparency, and protect our elections.” The bill runs the gamut from protecting inspectors general and whistleblowers, to enforcing congressional subpoenas in the courts, increasing penalties for officials who engage in overt political activity, and guarding against foreign interference in our elections.

Regardless of the final party composition of the Senate following the Jan. 5 run-off election in Georgia, both parties will have a stake in shoring-up the institution and putting the government back on the right track. And, chances are good that the new president, as a former long-term member of the Senate, will back such efforts.

Another thing the House can do is reconstitute the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress to continue its work to bring the chamber fully into the 21st century. The select committee made some 97 recommendations in the current Congress, many of which have already been adopted and implemented. But there is plenty of work still to be done, especially during this difficult period of trying to legislate in the midst of the pandemic. The extension of the select committee has been endorsed in a letter to congressional leaders by a coalition of 38 good government groups and 16 individuals. The bipartisan makeup of the select committee (six Democrats and six Republicans) has served well in reporting back unanimous proposals.

One does not have to look far to find other steps the new Congress can take, working together, to strengthen the institution and the country (think infrastructure). Call them confidence building blocks or the glue to pull things back together, but the Congress is capable of operating both as a partisan political institution as well as a national problem solver.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars 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 Bipartisanship congressional gridlock congressional reform Joe Biden

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