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In our opinion: Why can’t Congress govern through a pandemic?

That Congress refuses to properly govern during a pandemic-induced recession is not by design. It’s inexcusable.

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Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, of N.Y., walks to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

That Congress functions on a molasses-like timetable is no secret. That’s mostly by design. But that Congress refuses to properly govern during a pandemic-induced recession is not by design. It’s inexcusable.

Lawmakers were nowhere near meeting their self-imposed Friday deadline to pass another relief aid package aimed at helping Americans struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus. This, despite weeks of notice that unemployment rates showed little sign of improving and the ongoing reports from businesses pleading for more assistance. 

Without agreement, President Donald Trump wielded his executive pen on Saturday to do what Congress wouldn’t. That’s misguided on three fronts: First, the president seems enamored with jump-starting the economy to boost his reelection campaign, even if it means siding more with the price tag proposed by House Democrats. His choice to enact a payroll tax deferral is something lawmakers from both political parties have rejected. Third, it’s unclear — and extremely unlikely — the president has legal standing to appropriate relief funds.

But that pattern is how a lot of heavy lifting has gotten done in the past few decades. As Congress sits still, stymied by inaction or an unwillingness to come together, its constitutionally mandated duties have morphed into power struggles between the legislative branch and the White House. The White House and an army of executive agency bureaucrats seem to be winning.

It’s a decline that lies at the feet of Congress. It’s “failing as an institution,” asserts Yuval Levin, a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He resolutely captures the body’s demise: When members “look to the institution as a means of displaying themselves rather than letting it form their ambitions into agendas, they do not become socialized to work together.” 

Lawmakers are performing rather than legislating, he claims, and too many would rather watch their bill get blocked and point fingers on live TV than craft solutions on behalf of the country. Just a few leaders in each chamber control much of what comes in and goes out, rendering the bulk of legislators underutilized. 

With an election less than 100 days away, those leaders are wrestling with the prospect of offering their constituents the relief they need at the expense of caving to the other party’s demands.

Acting unilaterally, the president is likely to put forward much of what congressional Democrats are hoping to achieve, which would frustrate both Republicans, who disagree with the price tag and its sweeping assistance, and Democrats, who would essentially hand their goals to a president up for reelection.

It’s all about calculating political wins. None of it is about crafting a bill the country needs.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which helped out-of-work Americans with an extra $600 dollars a week, expired on July 31. Its lapse is expected to hurt economic recovery, according to many economists. Trump’s order calls for a $400 benefit. And even if the House and Senate could reconcile their differences as early as this week, the rollout could take weeks to reach the states.

Republican concerns over the benefit’s disincentive to work are worth noting, as are the concerns shared among a surprisingly small number of lawmakers that unchecked spending soaring into the trillions could lead to financial catastrophe down the road.

Yet, it’s Congress’s job to bridge those ravines of disagreement. Proper statesmen and women understand the art of negotiation and the value of compromise. Grandstanding has no place in that playbook, especially when the country needs swift relief.

Governing is neither easy nor popular, and we understand the complexity of the moment. Still, America needs representatives willing to do the work the Constitution demands of them — passing a reasonable stimulus package, and then getting to work clawing back what they’ve willfully given away.