Surprise: Despite appearances, democracy is trudging forward
The window for President Biden’s ambitious policy agenda appears to be closing, with dark clouds of divided government visible on the horizon.
Mid-term congressional elections are historically unkind to the party in the White House. Since 1934, the party in power has only twice gained House and Senate seats during the first mid-term election. This history and over 30 House Democrat retirements portend a divided government for the second half of Biden’s first term. Considering Democrats’ razor-thin control of Congress, passing a partisan $2 trillion American Rescue Plan and bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure package are significant accomplishments. While a few key components of the Build Back Better agenda may still get across the finish line, however, the strategy of governing alone has run its course.
Conventional wisdom is that a divided government would turn the next Congress into a legislative wasteland. Republicans would surely oppose the president’s social policy agenda. We can also expect bombastic oversight hearings and some dramatic political theater to animate the Republican and Democratic bases.
However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, predictions of congressional demise are greatly exaggerated. The nation has managed divided government for 20 of the last 30 years. Relieved of inflated claims of a political mandate, both parties in Congress are free to focus on shared priorities. That’s what occurred with Social Security reform in 1983, tax reform in 1986; welfare, immigration, and telecommunications reform in 1996; and trade promotion authority in 2015.
While Congress is less collaborative today, the idea of a divided and reasonably functional government is not farfetched. We are witnessing a trial run of bipartisan lawmaking in the current Congress. From the Electoral Count Act and postal reform to boosting America’s industrial sector and guaranteeing reasonable workplace accommodations for pregnant women, policymakers are advancing bipartisan legislation that will benefit millions of Americans. Though appropriately maligned, the current Congress has avoided painful government shutdowns and has even raised the debt ceiling without threatening the global economy. With both parties bearing responsibility for the basic functioning of a divided government, it is reasonable to expect party leaders to continue to soar over this low, yet critical, bar.
So, let’s look at what the sharply divided, supposedly no good Congress is working on. Note that all these efforts, except for electoral reform, are expected to pass with substantial support from both Senate and House Republicans:
Certifying presidential elections: In the Senate, Republican Susan Collins (Maine) and Democrat Joe Manchin (W.Va.) are leading a bipartisan group of 16 senators who are crafting legislation to make clear that neither the vice president or Congress can ignore or change electoral votes. The group is also working on provisions to protect election workers and may find common ground on other election reform measures.
Competing with China: The Senate passed the United States Innovation and Competition Act in July on a bipartisan 68-32 vote. While the House passed its version (America COMPETES Act) mostly along party lines, the final legislation is expected to hew toward the Senate version and generate a bipartisan vote in both houses. Key elements of the final package are likely to focus on strengthening America’s semiconductor manufacturing capacity, investing in research and development of critical technologies and combatting China’s anti-competitive practices.
Reforming the postal service: The House passed a reform measure this month on a 342-92 bipartisan vote, and the Senate is expected to quickly follow. The bill is designed to strengthen the postal service’s troubled finances while rejecting efforts to end Saturday mail delivery.
Ending forced arbitration for sexual harassment: The president is expected to sign bipartisan legislation, which passed both chambers this month, to end forced arbitration for cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers and institutions such as universities could no longer avoid sexual harassment lawsuits.
Making reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers: The House passed bipartisan legislation in May to require employers to provide reasonable accommodations due to pregnancy, childbirth and related conditions. The Senate is expected to follow suit.
The country faces great structural challenges from climate change to immigration to declining education and diminished economic mobility. In the current loud and tribal political environment, a divided Congress is unlikely to develop comprehensive solutions to any of these massive problems. But we must not overlook a divided Congress’ ability to make progress on them with measures that improve our legal immigration system, accelerate the development of low-carbon technologies, scale-up apprenticeship programs and expand retirement savings opportunities for small businesses and self-employed workers.
Most of the time, stable democracy is trudging forward despite our differences. We are better at it than you may think.
Jason Grumet is the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.