Jockeying in Congress regarding President Joe Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda is intense, and media focus is relentless. Nonetheless, this is business as usual in Washington.
The White House courts the public, but opinion polls show relatively broad public support only for the proposed efforts to modernize infrastructure. The public rightly regards the nation’s transportation networks as vital. The distinctive economic and political circumstances that permitted presidents Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson to pass ambitious legislation do not exist today.
In Virginia, the significant victory by relatively unknown political newcomer Glenn Youngkin, Republican candidate for governor, is one indication of this. He came from behind to close a gap trailing Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe. The latter’s long career as a Democratic fundraiser and fixer worked against him this time.
Biden’s low and sinking poll numbers and inability so far to inspire broad active public support is a principal problem. Perceived fumbling and ineffectiveness are greatly compounded by the disastrously mishandled United States withdrawal from Afghanistan.
American citizens, along with a large proportion of the Afghans who helped us, remain behind in that beleaguered country. We deserted our friends along with fellow Americans. Biden’s self-righteous self-defense has only further weakened his public support, rightly.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have gained prominence, gathered influence, and are taking heat from other Democrats as well as biased media for their opposition to White House plans, as currently proposed. In the evenly divided 50-50 Senate, their opposition has proven decisive so far.
Yet legislative battles, with intraparty as well as partisan division, is nothing new. An instructive, telling example is the retirement of former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. His September 2015 announcement stunned everyone, including friends and allies. Boehner concluded an especially difficult tour serving in that top leadership post.
Boehner as Speaker was a partisan Republican, but also a dedicated legislator. He rightly takes pride in having gotten laws passed. That meant compromising occasionally with Democrats while working simultaneously to hold together increasingly fractious House Republicans.
In 2013, Republicans managed to shut down the government as part of the effort to derail the Affordable Care Act. Democrats led by President Barack Obama used this to political advantage. Boehner’s decision made another shutdown less likely, deflecting far-right Republicans.
The practice of holding the federal budget hostage to controversial partisan maneuvers has now gone on for many years. In 1994, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives after 40 years in minority status. Their majority was led by new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, who dramatically accelerated the trend of shifting that office from a relatively nonpartisan to highly partisan pulpit.
Then as now, White House Democrats and Congressional Republicans played an escalating game of budgetary chicken. The federal government was shut down briefly. In the political and public media maneuvering, President Bill Clinton gained politically by skillfully putting the onus on the Gingrich Republicans.
Democrat Sam Rayburn of Texas remains the longest-serving Speaker of the House. From the 1940s into the 1960s, he successfully practiced bipartisanship, despite the challenging politics of that era.
Rayburn possessed exceptional political skills, but also, today intense partisanship more clearly separates political parties lacking conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. Additionally, our partisan, pervasive media raise the political temperature.
However, there is nothing new about the challenge of managing Congress.
Learn More: John Boehner, “On the House”