Opinion by Paul WaldmanColumnistDec. 28, 2020
Americans are not happy with Congress. In fact, the latest Gallup poll shows approval of Congress at a mere 15 percent — higher than the all-time low of 9 percent registered after congressional Republicans shut down the government in 2013, but lower than the recent high of 31 percent after the Cares Act was passed earlier this year.
None of this is surprising. Even if many Americans have a baseline presumption that Congress is worthy of nothing but contempt, when it gets things done the public is happier, and when it fails they grow disgusted. Watching the agonizing conflict over another round of pandemic relief, they naturally concluded that Congress is doing a terrible job.
So if you can’t stand Machiavellian maneuvering, meaningless grandstanding and a general lack of results, the next few years might drive you nuts. Assuming that Republicans win one or both of the runoff elections in Georgia and thereby keep control of the Senate, the fight over the latest pandemic relief package will soon seem like a model of efficient bipartisan legislating.
Congress will, however, be a busy place, even if there’s not much to show for all the activity. While people like me have predicted that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will allow no bills of any real consequence to pass when Joe Biden is president, the reality will be somewhat more complicated. In the end, no major bills will pass — unless they somehow achieve a goal Republicans are eager for — but along the way, there will be lots of bills offered, debated, wrangled over and then ultimately crushed beneath McConnell’s boot.
The reality of Republican control won’t keep Biden from offering up all the agenda items he ran on as legislation; he’ll have to do it if for no other reason than to show he’s trying to follow through on his promises. So the bills will get a full consideration in the House: Ideas such as a public health insurance option or comprehensive immigration reform will be subjected to lengthy hearings and floor debates, turned into bill text and eventually voted on.
Meanwhile, over in the Senate, McConnell will labor to drag things out as much as possible. Following a play he ran to great effect when Barack Obama was president, he’ll likely say that Republicans are willing to work with the administration and Democrats on these bills, teasing that there might be some theoretical alteration to each one that would win their support.
Months will go by, with Democrats saying, “How about if we drop this provision or change that one?” and Republicans replying, “Hmm … no, but keep trying.” There will be cajoling and arguing and complaining and angry outbursts and everything else that makes Congress look like a place that generates heat but no light. Eventually the bills will all die.
In response, the public will grow disgusted with Congress — which is just fine with McConnell. In fact, it will show his strategy is working. As a general matter, voters usually like and reelect their own representatives even if they hate Congress as a whole (this is known as Fenno’s Paradox, after the late political scientist Richard Fenno), so gridlock itself doesn’t do much to endanger his caucus. It will, however, hurt Biden.
Voters will attribute the lack of results to “Washington” and not to Republicans specifically, regardless of the fact that it’s their fault. The blame will then fall on Biden and his party. The worse McConnell can make things, the greater the chances Republicans will win a sweeping victory in the 2022 midterm elections.