Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 7 February 2024

 America’s ‘do-harm’ Congress


Edward Luce edward.luce@ft.com · Feb 8, 2024


Harry S Truman famously branded Congress as “do nothing” in 1948. To be fair, the then Republicans were obstructing the Democrats’ agenda because they disagreed with it. Today’s Republicans, on the other hand, are blocking steps that they urgently demanded which reflect their priorities. To enact them would show that government works and America’s existential border crisis can be fixed, which would harm Donald Trump’s case for the presidency. They will not take yes for an answer. America is suffering by design from a “do-harm Congress”.

It is a conscious effort to darken the horizons for electoral profit. If that means another 10 months of border “emergency”, and Ukrainian setbacks on the battlefield, so be it. The chief instigator is Trump, who says the border bill is a “death wish” for Republicans. His chief instrument on Capitol Hill is Mike Johnson, Speaker of the House of Representatives. After Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, Johnson said: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory threatens the greatest destabilisation of the world order since WWII and constitutes a national security threat to the entire west.”

Today nothing apparently would convince him to approve more Ukraine funding. The same applies to border security. The original Republican idea was to hold new Ukraine money hostage to tough immigration measures. To their surprise, Democrats met them more than three-quarters of the way. They dropped their long-standing quid pro quo to give citizenship to the “dreamers” (children of illegal immigrants) in exchange for tougher border policing. Instead they negotiated a pure border security package with James Lankford, the Oklahoma senator. A measure of its toughness is that most of the pro-immigrant advocacy groups, and the Democratic Hispanic caucus, have condemned it as draconian. The legislation passed muster with Lankford because he is an impeccable conservative. For that reason it flunked the Trump test, which is to maximise chaos.

Many observers say the Republicans are breaking the premise of US democracy, which is to find the bipartisan sweet spot where deals can be struck. That criticism is years out of date. Republicans demanded the goods at gunpoint then released the safety catch after they got them. It is the action of a cult not a party. Like Winston Churchill, whose bust is a common sight in Republican offices, some perhaps think they should “never give in, never, never,” in a just cause. If the cause is so righteous, however, why does it keep changing? For the first 15 months or so after Russia’s invasion, Republicans attacked Joe Biden for not sending Ukraine enough weapons. The same legislators now act as though Ukraine is not worth a cent. What has changed are the odds of Trump returning to office. Most are acting out of fear of the mob, not because of a change in belief. The stakes in Ukraine are if anything higher.

The Truman lesson for Biden is to spell out to Americans over and over again what is happening. Giving a tough speech then moving on to the next theme does not work. A huge share of voters do not pay close attention to who precisely is to blame for Washington dysfunction. America as a society disdains its federal capital. As the antigovernment party, Republicans believe they profit more from congressional chaos than Democrats. There is thus method in their madness — albeit at a diabolical price. Biden’s instinct is to scold Republicans a couple of times but avoid painting them too often in a bad light. This leaves the door open for future compromise. Unfortunately, that approach no longer works. The 270 days between now and the November election will be a legislative scorched earth. It could be electorally lethal for Biden not to make clear who is to blame.

Doing that in practice is by no means easy. Truman drove his point home on his whistle-stop train tour. Successors gave primetime addresses to the nation. But technology has made the captive audience a thing of the past. Nor is Biden in a fair fight. The allegedly biased mainstream media instinctively divides the blame: that is the protocol. The conservative media, on the other hand, speaks in partisan unison with iron message discipline. The only way for Biden to overcome that disadvantage is by laying out the consequences of the “do-harm Congress” again and again in different parts of the country. The alter- native is that America’s most bipartisan president in decades will be punished for the other party’s sins. In today’s hallucinogenic politics, it is Republicans who still own the phrase “Washington is broken”. Could there be a greater irony?

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