Analysis: Legislating by crisis is the rule on Capitol Hill
By Andrew Taylor
WASHINGTON — After a three-day government shutdown and months of dysfunction on immigration and the budget, a group of senators and their leaders have settled on a bold plan to untie their latest legislative knot: having an actual debate on the Senate floor.
It speaks volumes about Washington’s chronic partisanship and atmosphere of distrust that the idea of having a floor debate about how to deal with about 700,000 so-called Dreamer immigrants is seen as a fresh approach.
But under the current norm on Capitol Hill, crises and do-or-die deadlines are about the only way most legislation ever moves. Leaders in both parties increasingly rely on must-do measures such as temporary funding bills to advance legislation that not too long ago would have travelled on its own. That has the benefit of speed and convenience — but only if Republican and Democratic leaders are in sync.
The upcoming Senate immigration debate would break from that pattern. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has recently only allowed two types of legislation to come to the Senate floor — bills that are immune to Democratic filibusters and legislation that can breeze through with the blessing of Democrats.
Now, McConnell is hamstrung, needing Democrats like Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York to solve the immigration problem as well as a bundle of more than $1 trillion worth of overdue spending bills. Agreement has been lacking, despite obvious benefits for both sides.
All sides agree on giving Dreamer immigrants protection from deportation. And there’s ample appetite for a budget deal that would add tens of billions of dollars to Pentagon and domestic accounts. But there’s no guarantee of success, despite sweeping support and plenty of incentive for each side to compromise.
Meanwhile, the routine, must-do work of Congress — things like reauthorizing flood insurance and federal aviation programs — has stalled. President Donald Trump’s promises on infrastructure haven’t left the drawing board. Taking on tricky issues like sentencing reform seems like a longshot at best, and a massive undertaking like a farm bill that would open up sensitive questions like changes to food stamps feels almost beyond reach.
What’s more, this menu of issues is before a Congress filled with inexperienced lawmakers and weak committee chairs, as well as GOP leaders who often appear risk-averse and hamstrung by Trump’s unpredictable moves.
On immigration, for example, it seems that the last place to look for a solution is the committees of jurisdiction. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has been sitting on his hands since Trump rescinded the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
In the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has introduced legislation addressing DACA, but only as part of a grab-bag of hard-right ideas on immigration. He hasn’t scheduled a committee vote. Goodlatte’s measure appears to be far short of the support needed to move it through the House, so conservatives have demanded help from House GOP leaders in reworking the measure and getting a floor vote.
Not long ago, committee chairs would have been embarrassed at being bypassed or having to go to leadership for help. But long gone are icons like House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif. They operated as power centers independent of leadership. It’s difficult to imagine the cantankerous Stevens sitting still while his cherished spending bills languished.
Weaker figures have emerged, such as Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and his House counterpart, Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. Cochran, 80, hasn’t held committee votes on four major bills, including defense and homeland security, and hasn’t released a separate hurricane aid measure.
To be sure, the GOP-controlled Congress passed a landmark tax cut measure that is a career-defining accomplishment for many lawmakers. But that bill passed under fast-track, filibuster-proof budget rules that aren’t available next year.
Among the few remaining dealmakers in Congress are old-school senators like Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., partners on a major 2016 rewrite of the education law No Child Left Behind. Both are powerful members of the Appropriations panel, known for its bipartisan ways. Murray says the key to winning is to let the other side win, too.
“It begins with hearing what the other side really has to have in order to be successful and you share a common goal at the end of the day of the legislation you want to do,” Murray says. In the case of DACA, Murray says, it’s best to keep toxic immigration issues out of the bargain. “Do you want to narrow it so you can accomplish something or do you want to expand it so it can’t get done?” she asks.
But Congress is filled with junior lawmakers who have never seen the place function. Many of them have joined a bipartisan group on immigration, an untested and probably unwieldy group that hasn’t been tested yet by leaks and backbiting.
A recent success story was a six-year extension of a broadly popular health insurance program for children of low-income families. But it took an imminent crisis to make that happen, the deal passing only when it was added to Monday’s shutdown-ending temporary funding bill.
Still looming, assuming bickering leaders and the White House can agree, is a catchall spending bill. Such measures, brought before the rank and file as foot-tall, take-it-or-leave-it packages, used to be criticized as examples of all that is wrong with Congress.
Now, they’re viewed as successes.