Congressional action, congressional deadlock

J.L. Magee's famous political cartoon of the attack on Sumner from

One remarkable outcome of COVID-19 is the recent congressional cooperation. Since March 6, the body has passed four major measures, costing trillions of dollars, to help small businesses, people out of work, hospitals, and the production of needed medical supplies. This is the result of the consequences of the first government-prompted economic downturn in our history.

In March, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response act with a price tag of $8.3 billion. It was followed by two additional bills to help small businesses and the unemployed. In April, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act with an astounding cost of $2 trillion. The funds unfortunately ran out in just 13 days. It was discouraging to see the many large restaurant chains get a large chunk of the money, while many small companies were left out in the cold.

And now, the fourth and maybe final bill has been enacted when the president signed the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement act. Its cost is $484 billion, again for small businesses (with protections to stop large corporations from dipping into the pot), the unemployed, hospitals, and testing.

Has partisan sniping and gridlock ended? Has the ravaging disease turned Congress into a collegial body that will now legislate for the American people? We ought not be optimistic.  Recent history tells us why.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Mitch McConnell, then the Senate minority leader, commented that he would see to it that the new president would serve only one term (he failed). He ensured that Republicans would never cooperate with him. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010 only because Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. That ended the following year when Republicans gained a majority in the House. Congress became so deadlocked that President Obama spent his second administration signing executive orders because of Congress’s failure to act on any of his proposals.

As majority leader, McConnell in 2016, declined to allow the Senate to consider an Obama-nominated Supreme Court justice. This was the first time in the history of the court this has occurred. He has however happily moved Trump-nominated judicial nominees through the Senate at a record pace: two Supreme Court justices, 51 circuit courts of appeal judges, and 138 district court judges.  

And yet, cooperation between the political parties has led to little congressional action.

Only two major laws have passed Congress since January of 2017 after President Trump took office. One is the Tax Reform and Jobs Act, which mainly benefited high-income individuals and large corporations. No Senate Democrats or independents voted for it, and one Republican opposed it. In the House, no Democrats voted for it, and 12 Republicans opposed it.

The second is the only true bipartisan bill passed in these years: the 2018 First Step act, which permits the early release of inmates convicted of low-level crimes and allows them to be eligible for pre-release programs before they reenter their communities. Its advocates included the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, the Koch brothers, and the liberal Center for American Progress. Eighty-six percent of House members and eighty-eight percent of the Senate approved it.

Today, nearly 300 bills passed by the Democratically controlled House of Representatives lay in wait on Senator McConnell’s desk awaiting his approval to bring them before the Senate. This should tell us that once the medical crisis begins to subside, we should expect Congress to return to the harsh, mean-spirited wrangling between Republicans and Democrats that will again lead to virtually nothing happening in Washington. It could be worse.

It once was.

In pre-Civil War days, Congress was a hotbed of, well, hotheads. Part of a congressman’s sartorial style was a pistol or a knife, usually a large bowie knife. Brawls with fisticuffs and beatings were a normal characteristic of debate, especially in the House of Representatives.  

Personal insults often led to by then-illegal duels, sometimes with pistols, sometimes with swords or knives or rifles. Known as “affairs of honor,” these acts were designed to display courage and dignity, though they were often bloody and frequently perpetrated by Southern congressmen who were enraged by Northern criticism of slavery.

The most well-known incident occurred on the floor of the Senate when South Carolina representative Preston Brooks walked from the House chamber to viciously beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with a cane that had a brass handle. After the cane broke, Sumner was carried out, bloodied and unconscious. It took him months to recover.

I don’t suppose we will see the likes of that spectacle replayed in Congress. But the partisan animosities we once witnessed will stray beyond the present struggle with this aggressive disease. It is not difficult to imagine that once it is behind us, Congress will return to its “business-as-usual” attitude and do very little for the American people. Senate majority leader McConnell has already grumbled that states should declare bankruptcy, which is likely legally impossible, instead of seeking aid for state and local governments in a fifth bill.

Jack Fruchtman, a part-time Aquinnah resident, taught constitutional law and politics for more than 40 years.