13 min read

“Secret Congress” shouldn’t be a secret

Plus, 13 examples of bipartisanship this week, from a landmark nuclear energy bill to measures to help small businesses.
“Secret Congress” shouldn’t be a secret
Bipartisan congressional leaders meeting together this week in the Oval Office. (Photo by the White House)

Good morning! It’s Friday, March 1, 2024. Election Day is 249 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Housekeeping note: WUTP will be going offline next week while I’m away on Spring Break. I’ll see you back in your inboxes on Monday, March 11!

I said earlier this week, in a piece about Gov. Spencer Cox (R-UT) and his “Disagree Better” initiative, that I’d be writing more in the coming months about themes of reducing polarization and bolstering bipartisanship.

Maybe we’re not as divided as we think
Two Supreme Court justices and two governors offer their guide for cross-party conciliation.

Some of you were happy to hear that. Some of you were not. So, today, I want to take a moment to explain why I think it’s important to write so much about bipartisanship, even (or especially) at a time when many readers would prefer to remain comfortably locked in their partisan silos.

In the Cox piece, I shared the main thesis behind the governor’s efforts: that the U.S. really isn’t that ideologically polarized (polls show supermajorities of Americans agree on many topics), but is instead deeply psychologically polarized, having been persuaded by “conflict entrepreneurs” into thinking that we’re more divided on the issues than we are.

Of course, if this thesis is true, much of the blame should be laid at the feet of politicians who have tried to polarize the country for their political gain. But the media isn’t blameless here either. And I’m not just talking about the obvious cable-news culprits, like Fox News or MSNBC. I also mean journalists like me, who (at least try to) cover the news from a more dispassionate standpoint. We might not try to gin up conflict purposefully, but the brunt of our coverage usually gives the spotlight to partisan disputes — an example of bad-news bias — while bipartisan agreements often get short shrift.

The argument has been made, including by Matthew Yglesias and Simon Bazelon of Slow Boring, that these bipartisan pieces of legislation staying under the radar is actually for the best, as it allows for the existence of a “Secret Congress” that can quietly cut deals without getting partisan activists all riled up.

In our highly-polarized short term, I think there’s probably some truth to that. But, in the long run, I think it would be healthiest for our political system if people saw more often that their leaders are able to get along and ink substantive policy agreements. I think that it would restore some of Americans’ crumbling trust in our civic institutions and, perhaps, model for people that civil disagreements (and productive outcomes) are possible in politics.

And I think it would go a long way towards dismantling the affective polarization that Cox is talking about, if people were given prominent examples showing that some of our divisions have been manufactured and, actually, even our top politicians agree with each other more often than we think. (Of course, this doesn’t mean the two parties wouldn’t still disagree on tons of issues, and that those disagreements shouldn’t be reported. Disagreement is good! It’s what democracy is all about. But this would at least clarify what the disagreed-on topics actually are, and allow for the public to see that stuff is getting done and compromises are being passed to address the rest.)

On top of that, as I’ve written before, this focus on productivity is exactly what Americans are asking for from their media: a Pew Research poll in July found that 57% of Americans believe disagreements between the two parties receive “too much” coverage in the news, while 64% said that the policies being worked on in Washington receive “too little.”

A look at what’s working
A lot is going wrong in Washington right now. Let’s look at what’s going right.

Now, maybe Americans are lying and just telling pollsters they want to see more calm, responsible (read: boring) coverage than they actually do. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

But, here at Wake Up To Politics, I’d rather be part of the solution than the problem — and I choose to take the American people’s word for it. If big majorities say they want to hear more about the productive side of Washington, I’d prefer to err on the side of giving it to them. And maybe — just maybe — it can help improve our country’s civic health in the process.

So, let’s get right to it.

Here are 13 examples of bipartisanship from this past week in Washington:

#1: The government will not shut down tonight. Both chambers of Congress voted yesterday to approve a continuing resolution that will fund some government agencies through March 8, and the rest through March 22. The votes were massively bipartisan on both sides of the Capitol: 320-99 in the House and 77-13 in the Senate. The measure is now awaiting President Biden’s signature.

Now, I understand merely averting a government shutdown might seem like a low bar. And it is! But, after this fourth short-term funding bill, there’s hope that a final spending deal could now be in the offing. The “Big Four” congressional leaders — plus the bipartisan leaders of the two Appropriations Committees — released a joint statement this week announcing that they’ve reached a deal on six of the 12 appropriations bills, with agreements on the other six on the way. Hopefully, that means this will be the last CR.

The House also voted, 401-19, to approve a bill that would authorize the Federal Aviation Administration through May 10. (The agency’s authorization is set to lapse on March 8.) Both the CR and the FAA bill passed under suspension of the rules, a fast-track process that the House has used to approve almost every major bipartisan bill this Congress.

#2: The House passed a bipartisan nuclear energy deal, which would bolster the American nuclear industry and reduce planet-warming emissions. The measure would make it easier to build new nuclear reactors by speeding up environmental reviews, reducing licensing fees, and expanding the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Nuclear energy — which does not produce any greenhouse gas emissions — is the largest domestic source of clean energy in the U.S.; almost half of the country’s carbon-free electricity comes from nuclear power.

The bill, which would be the first major update to U.S. nuclear energy policy in decades, passed 365-36-1.

#3: The House passed the D.C. Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Campus Revitalization Act, a bipartisan bill that would transfer control of the old RFK Stadium site from the federal government to the D.C. local government for 99 years. The site, a 174-acre riverfront property, hosted (at different points) an NFL team, two MLB teams, and five professional soccer teams until the stadium was retired in 2017.

If the bill passes the Senate, the D.C. government plans to turn the site into a mixed-use development, likely to include restaurants, shops, housing, park space, and possibly a new stadium to lure the Washington Commanders back to D.C. from Maryland. Lawmakers described it as a “win-win” for D.C. and the National Park Service, as the city can now redevelop the land and the feds will no longer have to pay for maintaining it. The measure passed 348-55.

#4: The Senate confirmed four new district judges, all with bipartisan support — by votes of 77-20, 64-33, 56-40, and 54-44. Are you surprised to see that judicial confirmations aren’t always so partisan? Well, remember that under the Senate’s blue slip tradition, the chamber generally only considers district court nominees if their two home-state senators have signed off. In these four cases, the nominees were for district courts in Florida, and Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio had given their approval, which explains the bipartisan margins.

Biden has already gotten through judges for most of the district courts represented by Democratic senators — so expect to see more lopsided confirmation votes coming up, since many will be for red-state nominees that Republican senators have given their blessing to. In total, with this week’s confirmations, Biden has added 181 judges to the federal bench.

#5: House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) made his most overt comments yet suggesting that Democrats would protect Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) from being ousted if he allows a vote on the Ukraine/Israel aid package. “It does seem to me,” Jeffries told the New York Times, “based on informal conversations, that were Speaker Johnson to do the right thing relative to meeting the significant national security needs of the American people by putting it on the floor for an up-or-down vote, there will be a reasonable number of people in the House Democratic Caucus who will take the position that he should not fall as a result.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) has threatened to trigger a vote to remove Johnson if he allows a floor vote on the aid package. Luckily for Johnson, he may not have to face that particular decision: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) said this week that he is preparing a discharge petition, which would force a foreign aid vote without Johnson’s sign-off.

#6: The House unanimously passed the Encouraging Success Act, which addresses the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program, a nine-year training program for small business owners who are socially and economically disadvantaged. Currently, the program is only open to businesses with assets below $6.5 million; firms that grow beyond that are kicked out of the program. (Any firms with assets up to $10 million are classified as small businesses by the IRS.) That means that participating businesses often face the choice of having to keep their growth down to stay in the program, or needing to leave entirely. This bill would require the SBA to reassess the cap every four years and ensure it is raised in line with market conditions.

#7. Two more small business bills to note. The House unanimously passed a bill aimed at boosting the number of government contracts given to small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans. Currently, all agencies are supposed to shoot for giving 3% of their contracts to such firms; this measure would mandate SBA training for agencies that haven’t met that benchmark.

And, by a vote of 402-16, the House approved the Native American Entrepreneurial Opportunity Act, which would create an Office of Native American Affairs at the SBA, in order to support Native-owned small businesses.

#8: I think President Biden’s statement on Mitch McConnell’s announcement that he will step down as Senate Republican Leader is very much worth reading. Of course, Biden and McConnell have disagreed on many, many things in their years serving together, but as the president noted, the two have also partnered in recent years on infrastructure, manufacturing, electoral reform, and foreign aid bills, among other measures. Not a bad record of bipartisanship.

#9: Countering China is one of the most bipartisan issues in Washington right now. This week, Biden ordered the Commerce Department to investigate the national security risks of cars “that incorporate technology from countries of concern,” and directed the Justice Department to issue regulations blocking Americans’ personal health and financial data from being sold to “countries of concern.”

“Countries of concern,” in both of these cases, largely refers to China.

#10: The Energy Department announced $336 million in funding for clean energy projects in Native American reservations and other rural areas, while the Commerce Department announced the next steps for its U.S. semiconductor subsidies. Both actions stem from bipartisan pieces of legislation: the clean energy funding is from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, while the semiconductor subsidies are from the CHIPS and Science Act.

#11: This one happened some 5,000 miles from Washington, but there’s a bipartisan tie-in: Sweden cleared its final hurdle to join NATO, when the Hungarian parliament approved its application after months of delay. Here in the U.S., the Senate vote to allow Sweden into NATO was about as bipartisan as it gets: 95-1. Hungary’s delayed approval also followed a bipartisan pressure campaign by U.S. lawmakers, who tried lobbying Hungarian officials and introduced a bipartisan resolution calling on Budapest to ratify Sweden’s membership.

#12: Here’s a comment that’s pretty interesting. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) is no moderate; in fact, he’s one of the Republican senators most aligned with Donald Trump. And yet, this week, he singled out a Biden appointee for praise: “I look at Lina Khan as one of the few people in the Biden administration that I think is doing a pretty good job,” he said.

As chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Khan has been one of the key officials overseeing the Biden administration’s antitrust enforcement. Vance’s comment is reflective of the fact that antitrust policy — especially in regards to Big Tech — has suddenly become a bipartisan issue in Washington, as populist-minded Republicans like Vance replace business-friendly conservatives. (Speaking of antitrust, Khan’s FTC sued this week to block Kroger’s $25 billion deal to acquire Albertsons, the largest proposed supermarket merger in U.S. history.)

#13. OK, one last item — this one a bit less serious. Here’s a fun video of Speaker Johnson joking around with newly elected Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY) while he swore him in this week. “Repeat after me: I’m Tom Suozzi, I’m a great guy. I wish I was a Republican,” Johnson jokingly instructed Suozzi to say. As Suozzi laughed, Johnson went on to compliment him on his inaugural speech.

Do I think that Tom Suozzi and Mike Johnson sharing a laugh will heal our political divides? No. But, if it’s true that some American polarization is more about emotional hatred of the other side rather than true ideological differences, I don’t think it can hurt to showcase a small example of two lawmakers from opposing parties getting along. (As I noted Monday, a chummy video Utah Gov. Cox recorded with his Democratic opponent in 2022 was statistically proven to reduce feelings of polarization.)

More than that, I certainly don’t think it would hurt for journalists to highlight news like this week’s bipartisan nuclear energy legislation. Reading statements by the authors of the measure, I was especially struck by how its Democratic and Republican sponsors proudly emphasized that the bill would lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change is generally represented as an issue that polarizes the two parties — and, often, it does — but in at least one major vote this week, it didn’t.

That, in my opinion, is worthy of mention. So far, I’ve only found one national media outlet (The Hill) that comprehensively covered the measure for a general audience. (Axios and Politico’s E&E News also covered it, but only for subscribers to their pricey policy verticals, intended for industry audiences. And Fox News covered it, but with a focus on the 36 Democratic “no” votes rather than the 365 bipartisan “yes” votes.)

In a recent poll, only 8% of Americans said they had confidence in Congress, which put the legislative branch behind any of the other institutions Gallup tested. Undoubtedly, a lot of that distrust is deserved, brought on by lawmakers’ own actions. But maybe that confidence number would be a tad bit higher if more outlets covered what Congress gets done, not only what it doesn’t.

One more thing.

Financially, the easiest thing for a news organization to do is to sign on with one political party or the other, and ride the subsequent clicks all the way to massive profit.

It’s a lot harder to stay afloat as a journalist promoting bipartisanship and highlighting agreement, instead of focusing on emotionally charged disputes.

But I’m trying to do it anyway, because I believe in the mission I explained above. If you believe in it, too, I hope you’ll consider donating to ensure that I can continue writing this newsletter:

More news to know.

The day ahead.

At the White House: President Biden will meet with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Later, he will leave to spend the weekend at Camp David. Vice President Harris will deliver remarks in Durham, North Carolina, on strengthening entrepreneurship.

At the Capitol: Both chambers of Congress are off for the weekend.

At the Supreme Court: The justices will meet for their weekly conference to discuss pending cases and petitions.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe