“It has been a horrible year, hasn’t it?” That is what Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenators reach deal on framework for reauthorizing Violence Against Women Act Democrats push Manchin on ‘nuclear option’ for voting rights Manchin convenes bipartisan group to talk Senate rules reform MORE (R-Alaska) opined as Congress adjourned for winter break.
Members of Congress are always on the receiving end of criticism from their constituents and the public at large. But you know things are bad when members themselves start dissing the legislative branch of government.
With Congress deeply polarized, numerous legislative endeavors did not find bipartisan majorities in 2021, including the Jan. 6 investigation, how to proceed on Biden administration nominees, overhauling the nation’s crippled immigration laws, forcing the conversion of electric utilities to renewable energy, strengthening gun safety laws and reforming policing rules — to name a few unresolved questions.
And Democrats are busy blaming each other for the failed session and the inability to get President BidenJoe BidenFederal class action lawsuit filed over treatment of Haitian migrants Staffer who had contact with Biden tests positive for COVID-19 Overnight Defense & National Security — New rules try to tackle extremism in the ranks MORE’s Build Back Better plan for climate and social spending through the Senate, along with little progress on voting rights legislation, which Republicans have blocked using the 60-vote legislative filibuster.
Yes, Biden and Democrats can argue that 2021 brought about some legislative successes, including the $1.9 pandemic aid plan and the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law. And they did, ultimately, get the confirmation of 40 judges and many national security officials. But much more was promised than was delivered. And a deadly blow came when Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOn The Money — Dems lay blame for Build Back Better blowup McConnell: Manchin’s opposition to Biden plan ‘great shot in the arm for the country’ Harris says ‘stakes are too high’ for Build Back Better to be about Manchin MORE (D-W.Va.) announced that he could not vote for Build Back Better.
In a tit-for-tat response, Senate Majority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerManchin says he will not vote for Build Back Better: ‘This is a no’ Senate confirms 40 judges during Biden’s first year in office, the most since Reagan Cruz to get Nord Stream 2 vote as part of deal on Biden nominees MORE (D-N.Y.), threatened to bring a vote on the Build Back Better bill early next year — hoping to expose other Democrats who don’t support it.
The constant stalemate that gridlocks Congress has real-life consequences for Americans. Failing to vote on Biden’s legislative package before Christmas means that lawmakers could not act in time to extend a federal program providing payments to more than 35 million American families with children. That is about as concrete as things get.
The bottom line is that both political parties in Congress have lost face. Americans’ approval of the job the 117th Congress has been doing slipped six points in the past few months, to 21 percent, the lowest thus far in 2021. That is far lower than the year’s high point of 36 percent after Congress passed the latest COVID-19 economic relief package, known as the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
So, what can be done to fix a broken branch?
First, fix the rules. Clearly there are operational issues to be addressed if one senator, in this case Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump says he would not impose boycott against Beijing Olympics Chris Christie tries again Will — or should — Kamala Harris become the Spiro Agnew of 2022? MORE, can slow up an entire slate of 56 national security nominees. No single member of Congress should have that much power. The rules have to be changed to avoid too much power concentrated in too few hands.
Secondly, congressional rules have to be better understood and explained to a smart public. Some of the explanations for how Congress passes laws are downright confusing. Even raising the borrowing limit to make sure the federal government did not default on debt incurred under Presidents Trump and Biden had to go through nuanced, complex and totally confusing rules.
Thirdly, Congress must show results in order to boost confidence in it. Both sides have to get something done, ideally together, for any American to think this branch of government is serious. And Democrats have to stop fighting with each other.
As congressional Democrats continue to struggle to reach consensus on the scope of major new social spending, rank-and-file Democrats’ approval of Congress has subsided. This is not a new pattern; in fact, it is nearly identical to Democrats’ ratings of Congress in 2009, the last time Democrats took the reins in Washington.
As America struggles to get out of a deadly pandemic, and Americans hunker down with families and friends for the holidays, we need fresh thinking. It is time for creative solutions to age-old problems of governing. We have to stop whining and start winning. 2022 is nearly upon us, and most of us just want a new beginning — another chance to feel proud about our country, its government and its citizens. This should not be hard. We are still the greatest nation on the planet. We just have to start acting the part.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.