Year-end grade for the 118th Congress: barely passing

Jonathan Bernstein

 

Let’s start with the good news about the first session of the 118th Congress. Lawmakers successfully avoided — or postponed — any major self-inflicted disasters. The debt limit was extended on time, averting a potential default. Temporary spending bills were passed before the deadline, twice, pushing any possible federal government shutdown until January. And several other key programs, such as those contained in the farm bill, similarly were extended.

It’s a bit of a myth that no significant legislation passes during election years and even more of a myth that important laws can’t be passed with a divided government. But so far, this is shaping up to be a historically inactive Congress — just barely doing the minimum. Fewer than 30 bills will be enacted into law this year, by far the fewest since at least 1973. Even that’s probably an understatement, given the minimal effect of what did pass compared to what happens during a typical session.

This is one time where it’s easy to see who’s at fault. That would be House Republicans, the party and chamber that took a week to elect a speaker last January and then spent three weeks in October dumping him and choosing another. Senate Republicans, the majority of Senate Democrats, and (to the extent they could) House Democrats were all willing to bargain in good faith on many items and achieve compromises.

House Republicans basically had two poses. They were either attempting to pass show bills that the most extreme party members could endorse and coerce the rest of their conference to support, or they allowed the Senate versions of must-pass items to get through, usually with more Democratic votes than Republican. They also set a modern record for bills they tried to pass on the floor that were defeated in final votes, yanked at the last minute because they didn’t have the votes, or failed to win procedural votes. The latter used to be something that happened every few years, but it became common in Kevin McCarthy’s House.

And while it’s true that Congress managed to avert major disaster this session, plenty of important things fell through the cracks. For example, aid to Ukraine, Israel, other allies, and border programs hasn’t been approved. Lawmakers also failed to meet the deadline to re-authorize PEPFAR, leaving the fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa in limbo. And while passing temporary funding measures has prevented a government shutdown, keeping spending on autopilot makes it impossible to adjust for changing circumstances — or, for that matter, the priorities of the new House Republican majority. In each of these cases, the inability of House Republicans to agree internally or to bargain with other actors within the system has not only harmed the nation, but also prevented them from having policy wins.

This isn’t to say that Senate Republicans or Democrats in either chamber are perfect. After bipartisan cooperation on spending bills in committee, most of those measures stalled on the Senate floor; aid to Israel and Ukraine is stalled while members try to cut a deal on border policies. There’s room for argument about which party is most at fault for those impasses, but at least there have been serious good faith negotiations between the parties in the Senate. House Republicans haven’t even tried.

On the Senate side, the confirmation process is still broken, highlighted by Alabama Republican Tommy Tuberville’s long and unsuccessful effort to change Pentagon abortion policy by blocking routine promotions. That’s the one that got attention, but Republicans continue to slow-walk every executive branch and judicial nomination, including those they actually support. Republicans deserve the bulk of the blame there, but Senate Democrats have also failed to respond in any kind of aggressive way.

Congressional oversight has taken a back seat for years and didn’t improve this year. The House mainly focused on repeating wild and false accusations generated by Republican-aligned media. The Senate wasn’t much better. The chamber put some pressure on the Supreme Court following the ethics scandal involving justices, but not much. And executive-branch oversight was limited, although a few hearings were held, such as a session on air-traffic safety, following media attention to the problem.

Prospects for anything better in 2024 seem unlikely. New House Speaker Mike Johnson has already drawn attacks from the House Freedom Caucus, demonstrating more than anything that they are the problem, not the ideology or skills of individual party leaders. It’s still possible that House Republicans will insist on an extended government shutdown in January or February, and unlikely that Congress will pass this year’s long-delayed spending bills. As far as other problems facing the nation being solved, don’t count on it. We’ll be lucky to get through 2024 without one of those self-inflicted disasters finally happening.

 

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.