While disasters approach, Congress is caught up in games
As we decide whom to vote for in midterms elections this November, let’s remember an observation by architect Buckminster Fuller, “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.” Congress should chisel those words on its walls because partisan combat has become more important than preventing the unprecedented calamities bearing down on America.
Americans are rarely happy with Congress. Gallup has conducted more than 360 surveys since 1974, asking citizens whether they approve or disapprove of the legislative branch’s performance. In 94 percent of the surveys, the majority disapproved.
That was the case again last month. Gallup found that 76 percent of Americans disapprove. They feel members of Congress are out of touch with their constituents, ignore public opinion and listen only to lobbyists and wealthy donors.
Another reason is that Congress isn’t doing its job. Democracy, national security, and the planet’s hospitality are “code-red” threats, but Congress is gridlocked and preoccupied with partisanship. Republicans, in particular, seem motivated by only two objectives: Winning back control of the House and Senate and remaining on the good side of former President Donald Trump.
This is especially evident in the Senate, where Republicans vote as a block against President Joe Biden’s agenda and Democrats’ efforts to confront some of the nation’s biggest threats. Because a couple of rogue Democrats routinely nullify their party’s tissue-thin majority in the Senate, the Republican strategy works very well. Biden’s approval rating has tanked, and rank-and-file Democrats are getting frustrated at their own party. A Reuters/Ipsos poll earlier this year found one in four Democrats feel their party has not taken advantage of holding the White House and majorities in Congress. Meanwhile, 28 percent said Democrats were “too busy fighting each other or lacked resolve.”
However, the most significant barriers to an effective legislature are arcane Senate rules that subvert majority rule and set Congress up for failure. They allow any single senator to derail legislation and undermine a new president’s ability to govern.
Past congresses created these rules long ago to prevent the “tyranny of the majority,” only to permit the tyranny of the minority. Whatever the original intent, it is ridiculous that one member of the Senate can thwart the other 524 members of Congress by declaring a filibuster to prevent action on a bill. Using another rule that goes back to the mid-19th century, one or more senators can put indefinite holds on bills and the confirmations of presidential appointments.
Senators can and do use these rules for ignoble reasons like preventing a president from fully staffing his administration, frustrating the other party’s agenda, settling a score or getting publicity back home. Last year, for example, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) held up the confirmation of dozens of President Biden’s State Department nominees because he was upset about one of Biden’s decisions. At the end of Biden’s first year in office, the Senate still had not confirmed 40 percent of his appointees.
Holds, confirmation delays and party-line votes all increased over the last half-century as intense partisanship replaced comity in Congress. Congress seems more like a cage fight than “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” as the Senate was once called.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is not shy about this. “One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration,” McConnell said a year ago about the Biden presidency while Americans were dying and businesses closing because of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2010, he said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Leaders set tone
Three realities are important here. First, Congress helps set the tone of discourse in the rest of the country. Second, it takes a village to get things done in Washington. Third, partisanship steals time and attention from some of the most serious threats in our history. For example:
- Lawmakers in at least 13 states are considering bills to undermine the electoral process, but the Senate has refused to vote on legislation to protect the integrity of elections.
- The failure to confront climate change would cost the country $2 trillion annually, according to the Office of Management and Budget. But the Senate has failed to pass Biden’s package to help the country prepare for climate impacts and transition to clean energy.
- 700,000 climate refugees from Central America and Mexico are expected to seek entry into the U.S. in 2025, rising to 1.5 million a year by 2050. In addition, experts predict millions of Americans will migrate within the U.S. to escape climate change. These population movements have already begun, but the government has no established strategy to deal with them.
- A national survey last year found 46 percent of Americans think a civil war is likely. “Over the last six years, all of the warning signs for civil war have emerged in the United States, and they have emerged at a surprisingly fast rate,” writes Barbara Walter, an author and political science professor at the University of California-San Diego.
Bipartisan passage of the infrastructure bill last year was a ray of hope that Congress can still get things done. But these and other threats to democracy, national security and the people’s welfare will overwhelm us unless members of Congress get down to business. Elections this November are our next opportunity to elect people who put country first.
William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.
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