Donald Trump would like the world to think that the Democrats are so committed to impeaching him that the important work of the country is not being touched. But there are elected officials, including officials in high places, who are staying focused on work. At least on the House side.
Hundreds of bills have passed the House, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who gleefully (for him) calls himself “the grim reaper,” won’t even bring them to the floor. All the Senate seems willing to vote on are judicial nominations, and, from a doctrinaire conservative perspective, they’re remaking the federal judiciary, potentially affecting people’s lives for generations. Meanwhile, bills are languishing on election security, prescription drug pricing, higher education, defense, health care, climate change, gun safety and renewal of the Violence Against Women law. Even some Republican senators are aggravated by the McConnell’s death grip on substantive legislation.
All is not bleak though. Massachusetts Congressman Richie Neal of Springfield, the powerful and highly respected Chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, is one of those working on a bipartisan basis and even with some members of the Trump administration to reach consensus on some important parts of a legislative agenda. His committee shapes policy in areas of taxes, trade, health care, pensions, Social Security and Medicare, and more. And he tries to do it on a collaborative basis.
Speaking to business leaders on Thursday at a New England Council breakfast, he reported great progress on the new trade pact involving the United States, Mexico and Canada, the successor pact to NAFTA, which he sees as an improvement. A key sticking point has been enforcement of fair labor practices, and Neal has brought AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Trump’s US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer together to work out differences. Negotiators, he said, are “90 percent there.” Neal has also left D.C. to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andres Lopez Obrador to move the pact forward.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Neal says, is determined to get to yes on this improved trade pact but also pledges mitigating global trade’s negative impacts on sectors like manufacturing. One important step was House passage of the Butch Lewis Act, which Neal helped to write and which would protect pensions of workers whose companies are dislocated by global competition. Thirty Republicans supported this bill, which passed but now, like so many others, awaits Senate action.
Neal jokes that he doesn’t subscribe to the old adage, “Never let sound policy get in the way of a good vendetta.” He remains furious that Trump’s tax bill was passed without any public hearings or committee input, but he has set aside his deeply held opposition to work in a bipartisan way with Republican Senator Chuck Grassley on technical corrections. He has worked to educate him on the importance of extending the earned income tax credit and creating a more robust child credit. Grassley, from Iowa, looks to persuade Neal on a biodiesel bill.
Neal likens his approach to the horse trading of longtime Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski and his working relationship with Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff Jim Baker. And, when Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin pressed Neal on the USMCA trade treaty, Neal let him know he was, in exchange, looking for agreement on an infrastructure bill. Though we don’t see enough examples of this kind of give-and-take, Congress has to be about bipartisanship, even in our highly polarized, gridlocked times. It’s why the elimination of earmarks makes legislating more difficult.
Neal applies the same give-and-take philosophy at home. With Republican Governor Charlie Baker potentially looking for federal dollars to help in a major fix of the MBTA, Neal has made it clear that the “price” will be the Governor’s support for much needed, upgraded rail service going west from Worcester to Springfield. This is what makes government work for everyone.
It’s also why I’m opposed to the use of quid pro quo as the driving language of the impeachment debate. Quid pro quo isn’t the issue. It’s what, for whom and why. The issue is Trump’s bribery, extortion and violation of the public trust, taking for himself a benefit from the public purse, that is at stake. Quid pro quo is a neutral term, part of what turns the wheels of the legislative process.
Despite today’s grotesque polarization, not started by Trump but certainly fueled by him in the most incendiary way, and despite how many in the media feed off the combustible dynamics, there are some political figures still interested in governing. Their efforts need better coverage from columnists, beat reporters and cable news bloviaters, to support the substantive outcomes that can derive from bipartisanship and, at the same time, to restore a small measure of sanity and optimism to those whom government is supposed to serve.