American voters were angry last fall. The pre- and post-election data bore this out. Not that you need mechanical evidence these days. It’s palpable. At this point, it’s almost axiomatic. Our dissatisfaction with elected leadership in our country has been building for years. No matter what other political factors helped elevate Donald Trump to the presidency, voters’ frustration with the status quo ― the “system” ― played an outsized role.
As a challenger with no legislative record to defend, candidate Trump took the opening and blamed the system for all of the economy’s ills ― all of society’s problems, for that matter. Everyone was stupid except for him, especially former presidents and current legislators who’ve been working on the nation’s challenges for years. These were always easy cards for Trump to play, even if most folks didn’t think he’d pull off the inside straight that landed him in the White House.
But ripping the status quo is a far cry from the responsibility of trying to get something done once in office. Any office. Trump may be aware of this, or he may not. Trying to understand his cognitive circuitry has become a pointless parlor game. But it doesn’t really matter when it comes to legislative efforts in this administration, because the power to make big change still sits right where it was designed to sit in the first place: the “First Branch.”
By way of example, repairing the U.S. immigration system doesn’t happen just by screaming about it. President George W. Bush tried to achieve comprehensive immigration reform and failed. President Obama, along with the Gang of Eight in the Senate, came closer. The U.S. Senate passed a bill in 2013 with a bipartisan, supermajority vote of 68-32. It was likely to receive a bipartisan majority in the House as well. Speaker Boehner refused to call a vote.
...the GOP majorities in both chambers just don’t have a plan that Americans want them to pass."
Many Trump voters still want an actual wall along the southern border. Setting aside the question of who pays for it, they might just get one. But even with a wall, the underlying challenges in the nation’s faulty immigration system don’t just disappear. And it’ll take Congress to ameliorate this dilemma that has been decades in the making.
The case is much the same when it comes to many of the other national challenges that drove voters’ passions in 2016 ― on both sides of the aisle.
Whether folks were for Sanders, Clinton or Trump, most want to see the health care system get fixed. But the word “fixed” has long generalized an incredibly complex predicament. Americans have voiced their desire to see the Affordable Care Act improved instead of junked, but it’s the how that matters. Trump’s adolescent antics may have quickened his party’s failure on health care last month, but the more relevant truth is that the GOP majorities in both chambers just don’t have a plan that Americans want them to pass.
Could the two parties now be forced to work together to construct effective solutions that might actually arrive on the president’s desk? At this point, lawmakers seem to be at least dipping their toes in the water of negotiation. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has announced bipartisan hearings to take place next month to try to repair the individual market. Likewise, the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus has released a compromise proposal to shore up the insurance exchanges.
“Theoretically, this could be an opportunity for Congress to step up. The problem is, the ability to do that, the resources to do that, intellectual and otherwise, are just not there. Maybe they can step up – who knows. But that’s kind of a longshot we’re depending on to get an agenda moved forward.”
A very sad irony. America’s legislative branch of government, purposely placed in Article I of the Constitution and vested with the most lawmaking power in order to ensure direct representation of the people, has become an unreliable longshot.
Yet here is one more chance. Another shot at redemption sits waiting for the Congress. Infrastructure. Tax reform. Criminal justice reform. Health care. Immigration reform. Each issue starving for legislators to wrest control from a feckless executive branch ― one carrying record low approval ratings as it continues to sit under a cloud of federal investigation. Trump desperately needs “wins.” The details don’t matter; he’ll sign anything. But he can’t sign nothing.
The structural challenges holding back the U.S. Congress are substantial and multiple. You could write a book about it. Or two or three. But members of the House and Senate are still red-blooded human beings. However long a shot, it is still within them to rise above big money and the reelection imperative to do important things. The anemic crew on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue has set the stage for just such a dramatic comeback. On September 3rd, congressional recess concludes, the curtain rises once again on Capitol Hill, and lawmakers take their marks. Americans are hoping against hope for a new plotline.
Michael Golden is the author of “Unlock Congress: Reform the Rules — Restore the System” and is a Senior Fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy