Is lawmaking today a game of principals?
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Are the leaders of Congress today, whether by design or necessity, slowly taking over the legislative process at the expense of individual member participation and committee deliberations? If so, is this a temporary phenomenon of the pandemic or a precursor of a new normal?

This may seem to be a misleading question. After all, party leaders have had an active hand in the legislative pot for decades now. But, as times and conditions change, the quantitative variances morph into qualitative, cultural changes. Even as the pandemic threat and restrictions recede and workplaces return to normal, almost everyone agrees there is indeed a new normal. It will take time, however, to fully understand and incorporate this new normal into a post-pandemic workplace culture.

Congress is no different. Like other workplaces, Congress, its members and committees have been introduced to new ways of doing things, some of which are more convenient and efficient than they are protective of the old workplace norms of camaraderie, cooperation and consensus.


Committee leaders, both majority and minority, are caught in this workplace crossfire of competing norms. Regardless of party, the answer comes back the same: see what you can get from the other side, and, if it is not acceptable to our side then reject their offers and proceed full speed with our party’s position. The answer for the majority is more ironclad and forceful since it is responsible for eventually enacting something into law.

This may seem elementary politics, but it has taken on more urgency and momentum today for several reasons, not the least of which is the need for the fragile Democratic majority to make a record for itself and the new Biden administration in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections. Historical trends point to a minority party takeover in Congress in such non-presidential elections years. That’s why the majority sees an urgent need to make its mark now and take it to the voters next year.

All this gets back to two strategies majority Democrats are using to secure enactment of their priority legislation — both of which I call “a game of principals.” The first option is at least to engage some key figures on the minority side to work a compromise deal on major issues. If that fails, after a reasonable time for compromise, the second option is to jam through the majority preference, either in committee party-line votes, or, more likely, to bypass committees altogether and negotiate deals between leadership and committee chairs.

Major examples of these two committee bypass options presented themselves in the House last week. In neither case did the bills follow the old “regular order” of committee hearings, debate, markup (amendments) and reporting.

The first instance, in which the minority was engaged, was on H.R. 3233, creating a bipartisan, independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHas Trump beaten the system? Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi MORE (R-Calif.) had delegated to Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoSenators introduce bipartisan bill to secure critical groups against hackers House erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role McCarthy yanks all GOP picks from Jan. 6 committee MORE (R-N.Y.), the ranking member on the Homeland Security Committee, authority to negotiate a compromise with Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonDemocrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe, eyeing new GOP reinforcements Pelosi considering Kinzinger for Jan. 6 panel: report House erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role MORE (D-Miss.). Katko and Thompson succeeded in forging a bipartisan compromise, only to have the rug pulled out from under them by McCarthy, operating at the beck and call of former President TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE who strongly opposes any commission. When the measure reached the House floor, it passed 252 to 175, but with only 35 Republicans voting in favor.


The second instance occurred on H.R. 3237, the $1.9 billion emergency security supplemental appropriations bill in response to the Jan. 6 attack. Whereas in the past urgent supplementals have usually had widespread bipartisan support, in this case the House Democratic majority made no pretense of including the minority in negotiations. The bill sailed through the House after just one-hour of debate and no amendments on a near party-line vote of 213 to 212.

Woodrow Wilson observed in his 1885 doctoral dissertation that, “Congress in its committee rooms is Congress at work.” Today he would probably have to revise that to read: “Congress in its committee rooms is Congress in absentia; the real work is being done instead in the majority party’s leadership rooms.”

This is not something new. The trend has been evolving over the last several decades as committees have become more unwieldy in size and responsibilities and their membership has become more polarized and hyper-partisan. Deliberation has given way to partisan polemics and posturing, with the measure of success being gauged by the results of the next election and not by whether any real-world problems are being solved. That said, there should be no need in a post-pandemic world for Congress to continue to quarantine its full brainpower.

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