Columnist Lee Hamilton: Congress shows negotiation and compromise can work
There are two especially striking aspects to the "Inflation Reduction Act," the sprawling climate-change/tax-reform/health-care legislation that just passed Congress and was signed into law by President Biden. The first is that it passed on strict party-line votes. And the second is that in an unexpectedly productive Congress, this makes it unusual.
The measure was the product of a year's worth of patient negotiation and compromise in the Senate. And while there are portions of the law that might have had appeal across the aisle -- the idea of allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare was also proposed by former President Donald Trump -- most of that work took place within an ideologically diverse Democratic Party.
In particular, the Democratic leadership of the Senate and President Biden had to be willing to give up on some of the more far-reaching aspects of Biden's "Build Back Better" initiative, including long-sought goals like investing trillions in care for children and seniors, and establishing universal preschool. Instead, in painstaking negotiations, perhaps the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hammered out a bill that for the first time commits the US to billions in spending on climate and energy investments; allows Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices for the first time; extends Obamacare subsidies; strengthens IRS enforcement (which in the last few decades has withered); and requires a 15 percent minimum tax for big corporations. Democrats were also forced to rein in their hopes of boosting taxes on private equity investors in order to win Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema's vote.
It has been a long time since either house of Congress followed traditional procedure -- a robust committee process followed by thorough debate and amendments on the floor -- for major legislation, and this was no exception. Though it incorporates measures originally sought by a variety of senators and House members, it was essentially the result of work by a relative handful of powerful senators and their staffs, making it difficult for rank-and-file legislators to weigh in.
But if the process lacked the time-honored hallmarks of democratic participation, it also produced landmark legislation in a Congress that this year has managed, quietly and in often bipartisan fashion, to be strikingly productive. Among other things, legislators on Capitol Hill have taken steps for the first time in decades to return the postal service to solvency; pass a bipartisan gun bill -- a step that would have been unthinkable a few years ago; boost health care and benefits to veterans exposed to toxins during military service; and pass the CHIPS Act, aimed at investing in cutting-edge technologies and innovations to strengthen US industrial, technological, and military capabilities. All of these were hammered out and passed by coalitions of Democrats and Republicans. Similarly, ongoing work to modernize the Electoral Count Act is a bipartisan initiative. The Inflation Reduction Act's strict party-line passage is an exception this year, not the rule.
Intriguingly, you may not have heard much about this record of accomplishment. As New York Times editorial board member Farah Stockman pointed out recently, Capitol Hill hasn't been known recently for trumpeting its bipartisanship. "Many politicians feel they've been elected to fight rather than compromise," Stockman wrote. "It's uncool to crow about working with the other side."
Which is a bit ridiculous, don't you think? The essence of representative democracy lies in negotiation and compromise -- in working with people of all stripes and ideologies who represent a diverse country to forge common ground and find enough areas of agreement that the country can move forward on the challenges that face us.
Over the course of this year, members of Congress have done just that, despite -- or, it's possible, because of -- a 50-50 split in the Senate and a closely divided House. And by making progress on at least a few issues that Americans care about, they've demonstrated that the institutions of American democracy can work if the people we elect to lead them care enough to make it happen.
Former Congressman Lee H. Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government.