Those who pine for the days when Congress could actually work – hold hearings, negotiate, bridge differences and act – have something to smile about today. In the Senate, because of the leadership of a New York Democrat and a Tennessee Republican, the Senate did those very things, breaking with a destructive pattern that has gripped Washington for years.
With the prodding of Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate last week approved legislation reauthorizing a child care and development block grant bill that had been stuck in the Washington morass of inaction for years. The two senators, who hold vastly different ideas about the role of government in American life, were frustrated by the sideshow the federal government had become and resolved to try to do something about it.
It was a small enough thing – the child care grants are mostly noncontroversial – but this is a moment in American political life to celebrate small things.
The House and Senate have been in disarray almost since the day President Obama took office in 2009, and certainly since after the 2010 midterm elections. The Republican House has been obsessed with repealing the Affordable Care Act and in the Senate, minority Republicans filibustered just about everything that Obama supported, regardless of its merits. Little of substance was ever accomplished.
Some of the old hands in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike, rued that development. After all, the two houses of Congress were designed as institutions where different, sometime conflicting, ideas could be debated and resolved. The Senate once worked that way – not perfectly, not without confrontation and grandstanding and the whole array of human foibles – but members largely seemed to take seriously the critical role of government and the need to conduct the nation’s business responsibly.
That’s what Schumer and Alexander were reaching for when they went to their chamber leaders, asking to let the process work as designed: bring the bill to the floor, let the committee chair and ranking member manage the debate, pass helpful changes and fend off poison-pill amendments. They got the go-ahead and – what do you know? – it worked.
The bill’s two primary sponsors were ecstatic. “This is how the Senate should operate,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., while Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said the civil and constructive process produced a bill that will benefit “a generation of kids.”
The process worked so well that Schumer and Alexander are already looking at a handful of other bills that could be passed using the same process.
“There’s a yearning on both sides of the aisle amongst the majority of members – not all – to legislate again,” Schumer said.
Added Alexander: “That’s what we’re supposed to do. … Senator Schumer understands that, and I do, too. And I think a growing number of senators welcome that kind of attitude.”
Passage of one piece of legislation won’t guarantee civility and action down the road, of course, especially in an election year when control of the Senate is up for grabs. But it’s a start and if new senators are given a better example of how this chamber should comport itself, then maybe this will lead to something more substantial.