Americans continue to have a dim view of Congress. And for good reason.
Legislative gridlock due to closely divided houses is one factor. But the top leaders of both parties, who epitomize Congress to most Americans, are doing little to instill confidence.
Several months ago, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called her Republican counterpart, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a “moron.” Her fellow Californian responded by suggesting it would be “hard not to hit” Pelosi with the speaker’s gavel if he wins it from her in next year’s elections.
Now, the two Senate leaders, Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Mitch McConnell, are at it. That’s more serious because the Senate’s rules, unlike those of the innately more partisan House, require the parties to work together to get anything done. From all reports, they rarely do.
The feud between Majority Leader Schumer and McConnell has been percolating for some time. Their personal relations were hardly helped when Schumer was one of six senators to vote in 2017 against confirming McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, as the Trump administration’s secretary of transportation.
But it erupted more publicly last week after McConnell caved and did something he should have done much earlier, permitting a vote on increasing the legal limit on the federal debt.
Schumer, who took the chamber’s leadership from McConnell after Republican infighting cost the GOP two Georgia Senate seats, was hardly the gracious victor in what was, inevitably, but one round in a continuing battle likely to last throughout the year – and beyond.
After 11 Republicans, including leadership allies, retiring senators and GOP moderates, voted to allow a two-month debt ceiling increase to pass with only Democratic votes, Schumer took the floor and, accurately but unnecessarily, denounced McConnell’s maneuvers.
“Republicans played a dangerous and risky partisan game,” the Democratic leader said, adding, “Republicans must recognize in the future that they should approach fixing the debt limit in a bipartisan way.”
That produced grumbling from some Republicans who facilitated the action and from West Virginia’s maverick Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, whom Schumer needs to pass President Joe Biden’s social spending program.
“I don’t think it was appropriate at this time,” Manchin told CNN’s Manu Raju, accusing “both sides” of “playing politics.”
McConnell responded with an unusually strong-worded letter to Biden. He sought to blame the impasse on Democrats and, even more unnecessarily, added, “Whether through weakness or an intentional effort to bully his own members, Senator Schumer marched the nation to the doorstep of disaster.
“This tantrum encapsulated and escalated a pattern of angry incompetence from Senator Schumer,” he added. “It has poisoned the well even further.”
McConnell reiterated Republicans would not again help raise the debt ceiling, vowing, “I will not be a party to any future effort to mitigate the consequences of Democratic mismanagement.”
The need for periodic votes raising the debt limit has been troublesome for whichever party is running the government at the time. Enacted a century ago, it was intended to help Congress control federal spending, but it has been spectacularly unsuccessful.
The reason: It basically ratifies prior spending and tax actions, rather than brake future ones. Failure to act would force the U.S. government into default, unable to pay bills or collect debts, threatening economic disaster.
As a result, Congress always eventually acts, but often after each party tries to extract political advantage. In this case, McConnell wants to force endangered Democratic incumbents to vote on a package containing both the debt ceiling hike and Biden’s spending measures. In fact, it’s needed because of the $7.8 trillion debt increase during the last four years, due to former President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cut and the bipartisan-backed measures to bolster the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans like to point out that many prominent Democrats, including Biden and Schumer, voted against debt ceiling increases during the George W. Bush administration. But they were symbolic votes that didn’t affect the outcome, unlike votes in the current 50-50 Senate.
In a sense, these battles reflect the underlying differences today between the parties. Each new Democratic president, like Biden, has sought to expand federal domestic programs, for the most part without the 60 Senate votes needed for most action. That gives the GOP leverage.
Republicans, meanwhile, are less interested in new programs than in stopping existing ones and cutting taxes; the last three Republican administrations did so without providing offsetting revenue, just like the Democrats did on spending measures.
Indeed, Trump had the most minimal legislative program of any recent president – primarily tax cuts, his border wall, the unsuccessful effort to repeal Obamacare and confirmation of conservative federal judges.
Because the House is likely to remain hopelessly enmeshed in partisan warfare for the foreseeable future, the burden is on the Senate to do something to lower the rhetoric and restore some of the comity that once existed. But that’s hard to do when the leaders rarely talk to one another.
When I covered the Senate in the 1970s, personal relations between Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield and Republican Leader Hugh Scott were so close they traveled to China together, soon after President Richard Nixon’s initial ground-breaking trip. (House Speaker Tip O’Neill regularly golfed with his GOP counterpart, Rep. Bob Michel.)
Unfortunately, there is very little of that today.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may email him at carl.p.leubsdorf @gmail.com.