A highly significant Congress has completed its two-year term, bookended by a remarkable set of events. In 2021, the violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol kicked off the 117th Congress, soon followed by the second impeachment of President Donald Trump. After a House committee issuing its investigative report on the Jan. 6 insurrection, Congress closed with the surprise appearance of Ukraine’s wartime president, Volodymyr Zelensky, before a joint session. In between, although Democrats held razor-thin majorities in both chambers, its lawmakers delivered robust policy achievements.
How did Congress and the president get so much done in an era of intense partisanship? Anticipating that their control of government would be brief, veteran Democratic leaders managed their internal cleavages and aggressively exploited the rules of the game. The often-divided Senate Republicans seemed to eye the approaching midterms and bargained when compromise would advance their interests.
Successes and failures
The simplest way to evaluate Congress’s performance is to count up its major achievements. In the 117th Congress, such action was most often bipartisan. Democrats attracted the votes of a dozen — and sometimes more — Republicans to shore up the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, ramp up domestic production of semiconductor chips, tighten gun laws, protect same-sex marriage, strengthen protections for women from intimate partner violence, make lynching a federal hate crime, reform procedures for certifying the electoral college vote, revamp retirement savings programs, bolster veterans’ health benefits, send tens of billions to Ukraine to thwart Russian aggression, and confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson as the nation’s first Black woman Supreme Court justice.
Other times, Democrats moved on their party’s campaign priorities alone — including covering the costs of coronavirus vaccines and other pandemic aid, boosting health-care subsidies, expanding tax breaks for low-income Americans, funding clean energy to battle climate change, lowering the costs of prescription drugs and capping insulin prices, to name just a few.
But a better way to judge Congress is to weigh its accomplishments against its legislative failures, when lawmakers couldn’t close a deal or ducked an issue altogether. Seen this way, legislative deadlock has been rising for decades. This time, despite often bipartisan efforts, legislators failed to act on immigration, shore up the nation’s social safety net for the elderly, enhance voting rights, extend tax breaks for low-income families, raise the minimum wage, protect reproductive freedom or bolster cannabis businesses’ access to financial services. Those and other legislative failures will temper how historians ultimately rate this Congress.
Use it or lose it
Democratic control of the House, Senate and White House surely helped Congress to act, although single-party control is never a guarantee of success.
But this time, congressional Democrats shared policy commitments with the president. That mattered. Democrats twice used special, filibuster-proof budget rules to adopt broad swaths of their agenda without any GOP votes: in 2021, the American Relief Plan and in 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). As seasoned leaders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) surely understood that unified party control rarely lasts long in contemporary U.S. politics, and they persevered for over a year to secure enactment of landmark climate and health provisions in the IRA.
Strategic GOP cooperation
Most spectators expected Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to turn the Senate into a legislative graveyard, where House ambitions came to die. Republicans did often band together to block Democrats from securing 60 votes to end debate and vote on measures to protect voting rights, launch an independent, bipartisan probe of Jan. 6, and reform immigration laws, to name a few. At other times, Republicans exploited Democrats’ need for 60 votes to water down policy proposals.
But surprisingly often, a dozen or so GOP moderates, pragmatic conservatives, and retiring senators did cooperate and help pass bills into law.
Why? Two forces seem likely.
First, the GOP wanted to win back control of the Senate. Trump badly damaged the Republican brand among independents and moderate Republican voters. That only increased as the House Jan. 6 hearings kept Trump’s role in the insurrection and indifference toward the violence in the headlines. As McConnell put it after the election, those voters thought GOP lawmakers were “sort of nasty and tended toward chaos.” By cooperating on infrastructure, violence against women, gun regulations, and more, Senate Republicans were trying to woo the suburban and college-educated voters drifting toward Democrats.
Second, Senate GOP leaders may have worried that Democrats could abolish the legislative filibuster — and therefore pursued some bipartisan deals, despite the objections of over half of the GOP conference. Democrats needed only two votes to change Senate rules so that a simple majority could end debate, thus ending the filibuster, but Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) refused to go along. McConnell boasted that bipartisan deals might have kept Manchin and Sinema from agreeing. Could Democrats have ever persuaded those two to join in abolishing the filibuster? Hard to say. Manchin and Sinema swore their allegiance to the 60-vote rule early on. But Republican cooperation on at least some legislation made their positions more tenable.
Democrats didn’t overreach
Democrats also bolstered their accomplishments by not overreaching, a common misstep by new, slim majorities.
First, Democrats often accepted half a loaf rather than refuse a deal. For example, Democrats compromised during negotiations over tightening gun regulations and protecting women from intimate partner violence. Democrats could have stuck to their positions, taking issues to the voters in November. Expecting sizable GOP gains, however, surely diminished the appeal of holding out.
Second, party divisions curbed Democrats’ ambitions. Democratic leaders had to give up key parts of Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Pelosi balanced progressive lawmakers’ demands with those of moderates running in swing districts. Schumer maneuvered for months to secure the votes of Sinema and Manchin in the evenly divided Senate.
Third, the rules of the game constrained Democrats from fully stretching the rules to their advantage. Democrats did create “shell budgets” — stripped down budgets written to unlock the right to advance filibuster-proof measures. And they packed some spending into those bills that would normally require 60 votes. Sometimes the nonpartisan Senate parliamentarian threw a wrench into their plans, leaving them unable to pack in provisions that would have increased the minimum wage or change immigration laws.
When Congress returns in January divided between a Republican-led House and a Democratic-led Senate, the going will be rougher.