It’s hard to write about something that hasn’t happened yet, or something that is in the process of happening—or in the process of not happening—and yet here we all are: me, writing about it; you, reading about it. It’s a situation in which dozens (hundreds?) of journalists in Washington now find themselves, trying to cover a legislative process that would be complicated just on its face—the Build Back Better spending package currently clocks in at just under 2,500 pages—and that’s before you factor in the political posturing of the White House, plus 535 congresspeople and senators (and thousands of all of their on-background staffers).
How do we make sense of it, even if it seems like there is both nothing to make sense of yet (the bills are still being negotiated), or if there’s too much chaos, minutiae, and maneuvering to see things clearly?
Here are a few thoughts as we start the week.
First, this is normal. What you’ve been watching for the past two weeks is Washington’s full return to its own version of normalcy. After four years of Donald Trump, and eighteen months of a pandemic that forced the Hill to pass giant, bipartisan rescue packages, Washington is back to what it has looked like since at least the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency: two political parties with radically different aims and visions of good governance, haggling over legislation till the last possible minute. “Normal” is not necessarily a compliment. Normal for Washington for a long time now has been about the impossibility of passing big, ambitious legislation on a bipartisan basis. The parties are now so far apart in how they view the role of government, and their own priorities, that finding a middle ground is pretty much non-existent. Democrats want to use the power of the state to fix society’s ills and believe it can be done, while Republicans want to limit the government’s reach into citizens’ lives. (Alas, few Republicans with an ostensible interest in policy making survived the Trump era.) “Democrats are the party of government,” says NPR’s Mara Liasson. “There are lots of things they want to do with government, like fix the climate, improve health care and education. Republicans, in general, have a much more modest legislative agenda. When they’re in control, they just want to confirm judges and cut taxes, for the most part.”
Whether you call this the messy business of legislating or gridlock, whether you think this is a good state of affairs or not, it is what we have come to expect from the Hill during the obstreperous reign of Mitch McConnell. The Trump presidency temporarily distracted us, the pandemic emergency forced some teamwork, but now we’re back to baseline, however much the rest of the country may hate it.
Second, for all the mayhem on the Hill, everyone is acting rationally, considering their priorities and the incentives arrayed before them. Biden wants to secure his legacy and enfold the growing progressive wing of his party, which gave him quite a run in the 2020 primaries. He has set forth a massive Build Back Better bill, which includes free community college and universal pre-K, paid family leave, expanding Medicaid to include dental and vision, cutting prescription drug prices, incentivizing buying electric vehicles while building a network of charging stations for them, and innumerable other provisions. This is the kind of legislative sweep that would need one of two things to happen: a cooperative Republican Party or massive Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. Unfortunately for Biden, he has neither.
Most of the proposals in these bills are broadly popular, but for a slew of reasons—gerrymandering, faulty messaging, the Senate heavily favoring rural, Republican states—the Democrats didn’t win the kinds of majorities that would give them a wide legislative berth. And it’s hard to pass what Democrats are billing as a once-in-a-generation package without a majority to match. (“Math is math,” as the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser noted.) Under these conditions, any individual senator, or any gaggle of House members, can exert a lot of power quite easily. Given that every Washingtonian’s love language is power, they’d be fools not to take advantage of the opportunity to become kingmaker for a day, either to push for their legislative priorities or stop the ones they dislike.
Most Republicans, on the other hand, don’t want either the Build Back Better or the infrastructure bills to pass. In their view, the former is expensive, economically harmful, and gets the government further involved in things it shouldn’t be involved in in the first place, like subsidizing healthcare or higher education. The latter bill, they argue, isn’t limited to traditional infrastructure, like roads and bridges, and can’t justify the monumental price tag. Very, very little of what’s in these bills are Republican priorities—or things Republicans agree with at all. (Again, see Liasson’s wise summary.)
So why vote for things they don’t want? Moreover, the G.O.P., as former Republican Tom Nichols pointed out, doesn’t really want to govern (at least in the way a Democrat would understand the word); it wants to win. And for that, the other side has to lose. If you’ve heard very little from Hill Republicans recently—except to tell members of their caucus to vote no—it’s because of this strategy they’ve adopted. As one Republican Hill staffer told me, “Never interfere with the enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.” The word choice—“enemy”—should tell you a lot about the view from the right.
Third, are Dems really in “disarray”? On Friday afternoon, a photo went around of McConnell’s spokesperson sporting a “Dems in disarray” shirt while holding a birthday cake given to him by his colleagues that said the same. But is that really true? Think of how many “G.O.P. civil war” stories you read when Republicans were in power, or about how the Freedom Caucus—the far right wing of the G.O.P.—bedevilled Republican House Speakers (and forced at least one of them into early retirement). When you have a two-party system in a giant and increasingly diverse and complicated country, this is what you get: factions within one party that can disagree vehemently about what their party really stands for. It’s hard for a political binary to fully capture the political views of a country of over 330 million people and five time zones.
It’s easy to gloss over these differences when you’re in the opposition—if you’re focused on, say, removing Trump from office, or ensuring that Obama is a one-term president. Obstruction is much easier than governing, and governing is especially difficult when you have a very expansive and involved idea of what governing should look like, which is why Republicans famously abandoned their campaign promises to replace Obamacare as soon as they had the power to do so. Put simply, it is easier to be the party that doesn’t want something to happen, than to be the party that really, really does.
Fourth, the media coverage has been pretty hard to follow. I’ve always been amazed that American journalists write about politics the same way they write about baseball: the obsession with numbers and historical trivia, the straining to find tiny moments of what passes for drama in an inherently slow and boring game. I guess it makes sense, since most political journalists love baseball—as does much of the city’s political class. I personally hate it—and find a lot of American political coverage unreadable. (Sorry, friends.)
The Washington ecosystem of political journalism rewards both a comfort down among the weeds and the dramatization of the blow-by-blow, the hour-by-hour of what are actually pretty standard negotiations. On the print side, the deadlines are relentless and the tiniest scooplet is perfect fodder for the ravenous maw of the content machine. (Twitter also doesn’t help.) It’s hard to look up from the grind and see anything much further than tomorrow or the closest election, let alone the cosmic ramifications of the thing you’re writing about. And at many more traditional outlets, the old notions of objectivity hold sway—nothing is good or bad, it just is, so if there’s a back-and-forth, that’s what you show. The context and analysis are reserved for a different set of journalists in the newsroom.
On the television side, it’s mostly the cable news giants setting the tone and getting all the viewers. And if you want to talk about finding and amplifying drama, no one does it better than cable news. It reminds me of a long-ago sketch when Jerry Seinfeld hosted SNL—bear with me here, because I spent an hour unsuccessfully looking for the clip—where he’s playing a TV news anchor who says things like, “Up next! This common household appliance could kill you! Find out which one it is—after the break!”
Even before Trump, the propensity to report on the sensational and sensationalize the ordinary naturally verged on the comical, from the music choices to the fierce urgency in the anchors’ voices. Now that Trump and his constant drip of drama is no longer there, the cable news networks are finding that they’re back trying to whip their audiences into frenzy so they don’t change the channel. And so we get coverage trying to make ordinary legislative haggling sound like moments of nail-biting suspense.
It is incumbent on us journalists to translate the import of what’s happening on the Hill to the American public, but it’s hard to keep your viewers’ or readers’ attention on something that can get so hairy with numbers and parliamentary procedure. But it’s even harder to imagine that this is the best way to do it. Or as Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from a very purple New Jersey district put it, “The blow-by-blow is intensely interesting to journalists and to members [of Congress], but our constituents couldn’t care less.”
What I’ve kept returning to over and over again these last two weeks is the feeling that we’ve returned to a simulacrum of boring old, pre-Trump Washington. As broken as it was, this reprisal still feels more sane than anything we’ve experienced in the last six years. However much you disagree with the Republicans or the Democrats, arguing about the role of government—about legislative priorities and how to pay for them—is and should be normal. These are the subjects of genuine philosophical difference, and it is the job of the legislative branch to wrestle and wrangle and negotiate and haggle and count votes and write dense bills.
And, if I’m being perfectly honest, there is a guilty pleasure in watching this familiar process, in seeing people argue about pay-fors and tax credits, as opposed to whether a fair and legitimate election was rigged or whether the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol were actually antifa false-flag operators. You could argue that the gridlock and partisanship we’re seeing in the legislative process is part of what has led to the widespread disenchantment in government and the embrace of outsiders who want to tear down the whole damn thing—or fly the plane into the ground, as it were—but for this short moment, there is something about watching the process work, however imperfectly, that feels refreshingly boring and almost quaint. It’s a shame it won’t last.