First Six Weeks

Published March 7, 2019 in Warp & Woof


First Six Weeks

Has the 116th Congress Inspired Yet?
William Sundwick
Legislation is a slow process. On January 3, 2019 a new Congress was sworn in. The once and future queen, Nancy Pelosi, became the nearly uncontested House Speaker. And Democrats, for the first time since the 111th Congress of 2009-10, became the House majority. It was an impressive mid-term election romp – best flipping record in over forty years, exceeding even the Republican sweep of 1994 and Newt Gingrich.
The Senate, not so much. Indeed, Democrats lost a net two seats in the august senior body. Granted, the founding fathers intended the upper house to be essentially “anti-democratic” in its design. As if the non-proportional makeup of the Senate were not enough, minorities use the filibuster to further their status quo goals. No clear signs that either side in the Senate wants to dilute their privileges there. Perhaps the 2020 presidential campaign now cranking up will force the issue, perhaps not.
But, what of that mercurial lower chamber? Many of us had great expectations for the new Democratic controlled House of Representatives. There would now be hearings, subpoenas, radical legislative proposals. Morning had arrived in America.
Or, had it?
After six weeks in session, we can see things brewing, but legislation is a slow process. We’ve already seen exciting media circus hearings with Michael Cohen, but regarding the business of crafting real legislative proposals, it seems a bit frustrating. There are bright lights, however. Elijah Cummings, as chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee has captured the spotlight, so far, with that Cohen testimony on February 27. Jerry Nadler at Judiciary is ramping up, and we’ve seen his first work – H.R.8, the “Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019” pass the House. H.R. 8 and its companion H.R. 1112, “Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2019,” constitute the first meaningful gun control legislation in nearly ten years (since before Sandy Hook). No small accomplishment.
Eliot Engel, chair of House Foreign Affairs, has held interesting hearings on Middle East policy, and the situation in Venezuela, envoy Elliott Abrams testifying. And the Subcommittee on Elections of the House Homeland Security Committee has recently visited Atlanta for “field hearings” on the 2016 elections in that state.
The most important bill yet to be introduced in the new Congress is H.R.1 “For the People.” The omnibus legislation is aimed at many ills in our current political environment, from corruption to voting rights to election interference. It is very ambitious and has captured the attention of several House committees.
But the most spectacularproposal thus far is the “Green New Deal.” It was introduced as a resolution by freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (and Ed Markey in the Senate), but yet to go on the official calendar for any House committee or subcommittee. We may see it brought up soon, but judging from the initial reaction of the Speaker, it is not clear when. Since it has become such a high profile, sexy proposal, all announced Democratic presidential contenders are forced to take a position on it – one to the left of the Speaker or other “old guard” Democrats, like Sen. Diane Feinstein.
Michael Cohen also testified before Adam Schiff’s Intel Committee twice, in closed session. Criminal conduct of the president was plainly revealed during the open hearings. And, Richard Neal, chair of Ways and Means, is now prepared to subpoena the President’s tax returns, thanks mostly to an adroit question posed to Cohen by Ocasio-Cortez.
Other significant actions include the new Medicare For All Act of 2019, to replace last Congress’ H.R. 676, introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal on February 27. And, It may be interesting to see what happens when President Trump vetoes the resolution to invalidate his border “national emergency,” expected to pass both House and Senate as I write.
The bigger issues surrounding the 116th Congress may be the large number of judicial confirmations sailing through the Senate, or the strange case of S.1, introduced by Marco Rubio on Jan. 3 (first day of new session) – it essentially endorses state laws barring support for anti-Israel “BDS” (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). Legal scholars feel this is endorsing unconstitutional restrictions on the First Amendment. It passed the Senate easily – but has not yet been brought to House floor. While the House gets all the media attention, the Senate continues to quietly undermine democracy.
Since legislation (the “sausage making” of government) is such a slow process, it is perhaps understandable that mass media tends to focus more on colorful personalities in politics. The circus atmosphere around the process comes from certain personalities who are adept at demanding attention. These people often rise to the top in politics, just as they do in entertainment; people like our President, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Bernie Sanders, or Steve King. They are all stars. This is not necessarily a bad thing. They contribute to greater public awareness and sensitivity toward real issues. That, in turn, leads to pressure – both during election campaigns and while in office.
The greatest danger during a presidential primary campaign is that the sausage making in Congress is easily ignored. Once the election occurs, too much animosity has spilled over from top-of-the-ticket battles. Arguably, Congress has been less than fully functional over the last decade because of these battles — from 2008, to the reaction of 2010, then 2016. The 2018 mid-terms showed some cleavages between certain freshmen (Ocasio-Cortez, and others) and House leadership. Senate Democrats have been largely saved from this by the disappearance of most of the “blue dogs” in the past few Congresses (Joe Manchin survives). A strong presidential candidate for 2020 can bring the Senate with them, and we should see a cooperative arrangement between executive and legislative branches commensurate to the mounting emergencies we face with climate, inequality, and democracy itself.
As it stands now, however, the “unity” mantra needs some pumping up in the Democratic Party. Let’s see some division among Republicans for a change! To answer the question in the title, yes – it is inspiring, within reason.

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