The Secret Congress paradox

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The Capitol.
The Capitol. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

If there's one thing every progressive pundit and activist knows with absolute certainty, it's that Congress is broken and the blame lies with Republicans and oblivious Democratic centrists (like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) who are indifferent to the urgency of passing the Biden agenda. But what if this account of the state of play in Congress is wrong and American democracy is functioning much the way it always has?

That's the provocative question posed by a thoughtful post on Slow Boring, Matthew Yglesias' consistently excellent Substack. In "The Rise and Importance of Secret Congress," Yglesias and his coauthor Simon Bazelon point out that, while high-profile bills dealing with voting rights, infrastructure, and gun control remain stalled by uniform Republican opposition, other significant bills have passed on a comfortably bipartisan basis. One was the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021, which passed in May, showing that not all infrastructure is a no-go in the 117th Congress. Another was the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which Biden also signed in May, and the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which recently passed the Senate with 68 votes and looks likely to clear the House later this year.

As Yglesias and Bazelon note, Congress also passed important legislation in the supposedly gridlocked closing years of the Obama and Trump administrations. The secret of this legislative success? The very fact that the legislation was secret. Well, not literally secret. But definitely not pushed by the White House, and not aligning precisely with the ideological priorities of each party's activist cheerleaders in the media and on the sidelines. The trick, it seems, is for members of Congress to find unpredictable cross-party partners to work with on issues that cut across these divides and then for the president to stay out of it, since his involvement will usually guarantee staunch opposition by members of the other party.

If this is right, the last thing pundits, activists, and presidents should be doing is loudly demanding that Congress pass this or that bill, since doing so will often ensure that the other party will refuse to go along. The road to success, meanwhile, might involve quiet coalition-building and deal-making behind the scenes. Which, come to think of it, may be the way Congress has always tended to work — even if that clashes with what our most highly engaged partisans would prefer.

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