A Divided Congress

Jeannette Rankin, first woman elected to Congress

In 1917, Jeanette Rankin became the first woman to serve in Congress. The Montana progressive was also the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into both World Wars. After more than two decades out of office, Rankin was returned to the House in 1940 because of the threat of another war. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she commented upon election in 1916. “But I won’t be the last.”

Rankin was certainly right about that, as the number of women in the new Congress demonstrates. More than 100 women were sworn in as members of the House Thursday, with about one-third of them new members who replaced men. The vast majority of females in the House are Democrats, just one indication of the huge gender gap in American politics that favors Democrats. Many, but not all, of the new women members are progressive and will likely push the Democratic caucus to the left while challenging the leadership. 

From the left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Veronica Escobar of Texas, and Sharice Davids of Kansas.

A photo shared by now-representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democratic first-termer, shows the diversity of the new Congress. Among the new members: Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, the first African American woman from Massachusetts to serve in Congress, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of the first Muslim women in Congress (along with Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib), Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas, the first indigenous women in Congress (Davids is also the first openly LGBTQ person to represent Kansas). Also in the picture is Veronica Escobar. She and Sylvia Garcia are the first Hispanic females elected from Texas.

The liberal wing of the Democratic caucus is much larger than the conservative wing. The last time Democrats controlled the House, in 2010, the Blue Dog coalition, a group of the most conservative House Democrats, was nearly equal in size to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the two factions wielded comparable influence. The Blue Dogs, for example, succeeded in making the Affordable Care Act more conservative than progressives had advocated. Now, the disparity between the two wings is huge, with progressives outnumbering conservatives by a nearly four-to-one margin. 

On policy, this may not matter much in the short run. Progressive policies like Medicare-for-all, even if enacted by the House under liberal pressure, are not likely to pass the Republican-dominated Senate or earn President Donald Trump’s signature. Still, some governing has to be done, and House progressives will push bills — such as those funding the government — to the left and exert pressure when the House leadership has to negotiate compromises with Senate Republicans and the president, in the same way the ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus forced House Speaker Paul Ryan to accept more conservative legislation in the last few Congresses. 

Moreover, progressive agitation in the House Democratic caucus will help set the party’s agenda for the future. Single-payer healthcare and aggressive action on the environment, including a Green New Deal that addresses climate change, are among the topics of concern to progressives, and these issues will influence the party’s debates as it gears up for the 2020 presidential election. If the Trump presidency continues to implode, there is a good chance a Democrat will be elected president next time around, and he or she may have a Democratic House and Senate. If so, legislation introduced by liberals in the new House will be a blueprint for action in 2021.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

The excitement generated by the new members in the House largely is absent in the Senate, where the dynamics are very different. Republicans remain in control of the upper chamber, and Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear he will not allow the Senate to take up legislation to restart the federal government that does not have the president’s approval. As McConnell’s spokesman put it, “It’s simple: The Senate is not going to send something to the president that he won’t sign.”

McConnell may be reading the politics of inaction correctly. Trump’s position that funding the government must include money for his wall may play well with his ever-shrinking base. McConnell may not want to endanger sitting Senate Republicans by tempting them to vote yes on a funding compromise that does not include additional money for the wall. But, his deference to the president is yet another indication of how Congress has abdicated its traditional role as a coequal branch of government.

In 1789, in the very first Congress, an important precedent was set when the Senate refused to defer to the executive branch. President George Washington wanted to negotiate a treaty with the Creek Nation which would be a model for the new government’s policy toward Native Americans. The Constitution stipulates that treaties require the Senate’s “Advice and Consent.” Washington had no idea what “Advice and Consent” meant, and he was inclined to think the Senate was more akin to an executive council than a legislative branch, so he decided to appear before the Senate. The Senators peppered him with questions, ultimately deciding to refer the issue to a committee. An angry Washington declared, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!”

The awkward meeting established an important precedent: In the future presidents communicated in writing with the Senate (and House), and the legislature asserted its prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government, as the Constitution intends. Now, we have a Congress that readily cedes its responsibilities to the executive. Such a willingness of Congress to defer to the president has been a trend in foreign affairs for decades, with Congress surrendering, for example, the power to declare war. McConnell’s reluctance to challenge the president on reopening the government marks a new low in legislative deference, and it is inexplicable since the Senate previously agreed to reopen the government without additional money for the president’s wall.

Progressives in the House — indeed, virtually every Democratic member — steadfastly are opposed to providing money for the wall, so it is hard to see how this impasse ends. The only way out appears to hinge on McConnell relenting and allowing a vote on funding bills that do not include additional wall money. Then, the onus will be on the president.

A divided Congress will make for messy governance, at best.

Posted January 4, 2019


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