This is why everyone loathes Congress

Instead of swift, decisive action to address coronavirus, we are treated to absurd, unserious proposals, partisan theatrics, and obstruction for its own sake

The Capitol building.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Where would we be in these troubled times without our federal government? I don't mean the executive branch, which has, ably or otherwise, gone about the business of governing, much less the Supreme Court, whose justices recently delivered their opinions remotely for the first time since Bush v. Gore in 2000. I am talking about Congress, which for all practical purposes might not have existed since March 18 or so.

For weeks now it has been clear to everyone that some sort of comprehensive economic relief package will have to be prepared in response to the coronavirus outbreak. This is especially true for the millions of people employed in the restaurant business and other industries, where hourly earnings and tips began to decrease long before they actually lost their ability to work. As far as I am aware no meaningful segment of the population — not conservatives, not progressives, not even libertarians — is opposed to such action. One likes to think that even Ayn Rand would probably have conceded that people who are told by the government that they cannot report to their places of employment cannot be faulted for not having money to pay their bills and provide for the other basic necessities of life.

You could be forgiven, then, for imagining that this would be a perfect opportunity for the legislative branch to do all the things members of both parties are always saying they want to do: to "put politics aside" and "reach across the aisle" — feel free to insert more of your favorite clichés — in order to "get something done" on behalf of the American people.

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Nothing of the kind has happened. It would take a narrative historian of genius (and infinite patience for unrewarding archival work) to give an account of the wrangling between the two parties in both chambers of our federal legislature during the past two weeks. Many observers have drawn attention to attempts by both parties to use this crisis legislation to further their long-standing agendas (the usual carve-outs for business; a bizarre requirement that beginning in 2023 airplanes provide passengers with real-time estimates of the carbon expended over the day's flight along with their boarding passes.) But really ideology has played a very minor role in this week-long spectacle of performative disagreement. At one point or another during the debate surrounding the relief package, bills favored at least temporarily by both parties have both featured and rejected means testing, for example, and providing direct cash payments in addition to expanded unemployment benefits.

This is exactly what we have all come to expect from Congress in moments of crisis. Instead of swift, decisive action we are treated to absurd, unserious proposals, partisan theatrics, obstruction for its own sake. It is, after all, what happened in 2008, when Republicans decided that all the relief measures they had supported at the end of the Bush administration had suddenly metamorphosed into "socialism" the moment the junior senator from Illinois took the Oath of Office. It would be hilarious if it weren't, you know, deadly serious business.

This is why I am not even remotely surprised that the actions being praised by journalists (and earning the tacit approval of public health authorities) in other countries were not the result of a deliberative process. China, Singapore, and South Korea did not spend weeks allowing nihilist legislators to stall their responses. Even in Britain, where a nation-wide shelter-in-place order was announced on Monday, Parliament had no say. This should not, technically speaking, have been possible under the British constitution. Boris Johnson assumed the role of Lord Protector and suspended public life unilaterally, without votes in the Commons or the Lords, much less Royal Assent.

Was this a good thing? I am inclined to say no, but only because I continue to believe that we have overestimated the seriousness of this virus. The horrifying reality about coronavirus is that if skeptics are proven right, we will still have been afforded a preview of what would happen if this country actually faced a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. A feckless president would worry about his or her approval rating; the two parties in Congress would squabble over pointless details, while the gas-lighting media, only a few weeks removed from scolding the president for taking any interest in the problem at all, prided itself on the thoroughgoingly woke nature of its response to the final doom. And somewhere, the people suffering the most, the people who suffer the most in every crisis, ordinary decent men and women and their families, with little or no help from those ostensibly responsible for their interests, would find a way to survive.

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Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has also appeared in First Things, The Spectator of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, and other publications. He is currently writing a biography of the Rev. Montague Summers. He is also a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.