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The many burdens of U.S. Congress

People say getting a Bill through U.S. Congress is like herding cats. It is not. It is like loading a herd of camels. I have visited India 29 times, but the most interesting of those trips was to the annual camel fair in Pushkar.

Finding the right balance

Members of Congress are much like camels. They will not move if they feel the weight they are being asked to carry is too much. A good leader in a congressional setting knows how much the members are willing to carry and shifts the workload from camel to camel in order to find the right balance so the caravan can leave for its destination.

The present Congress is precariously balanced. The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. The House of Representatives has 212 Republicans and 220 Democrats. So, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, has a delicate job to do, only somewhat less difficult than that of Democratic (majority) leader, Chuck Schumer.

Congress is trying to pass three important bills now: one on infrastructure, one related to climate change and the one related to voting rights. Democratic Socialists insist on fixing all the ills of the social safety net at once. This will not happen.

In 1935, the President was Franklin D. Roosevelt and his camel driver was Frances Perkins. Roosevelt charged the Committee on Economic Security, chaired by Perkins, who was Secretary of Labour, to develop a pension programme, a national health programme, and an unemployment insurance programme. But the camels would not move and so Roosevelt decided that the law would provide unemployment insurance; aid for dependent mothers and children, the blind and the physically handicapped; and old-age benefits for workers. He left the national health programme on the table. Roosevelt, passionate about mandatory health insurance, still intended to have the national health programme passed. But when World War II loomed ahead, national health was placed at the sidelines. Roosevelt died at the end of the war. In 1945, President Harry Truman proposed a ‘universal’ national health insurance programme to Congress. His plan that all Americans would pay a certain amount in fees and taxes each month to cover the healthcare programme’s costs was shot down in Congress.

President Bill Clinton delivered an ambitious and complex proposal for universal health insurance for all Americans. Unfortunately, it had been designed by someone who had never been near a camel-loading yard. He had no experience in dealing with the camels of Congress. The effort to get the plan passed was spearheaded by Hillary Clinton. The plan was perfect but it failed.

When Barack Obama came on the scene, he announced that he was going to try to bring healthcare coverage for everyone. He got the camels moving again. But after him came a leader who knew nothing or just didn’t care about social benefits for the ordinary working people.

Crucial days ahead

The 2020 presidential election created the situation which we are now facing. President Joe Biden knows about camels. His climate change bill, which includes an expansion in tax credits for clean energy, restrictions on methane, etc., is hanging by a thread. The Senate is set to vote on the voting rights bill. The bill is backed by the whole Democratic caucus but doesn’t have the 60 votes it needs to overcome a Republican filibuster. Ms. Pelosi has said “it’s about time” the Democrats, who are divided on the infrastructure bill, pass it. It is getting delayed as progressives first want the full $3.5 trillion that Mr. Biden promised for new and expanded social programmes and other initiatives. All these bills face the possibility of being left on the table.

Some of my old colleagues believe that they can load the camel and if they beat it enough, it will finally get up and move. I hope they don’t lose the opportunity to move forward this time. They will get no credit for wanting everything and getting nothing.

James McDermott served in the U.S. Congress in the House of Representatives between 1989 and 2017 for Washington’s 7th Congressional District


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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 9:22:11 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-many-burdens-of-us-congress/article37079397.ece

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