A Congress of the Lowest Common Denominator

Republicans trashed the democratic process and decades of legislative decorum in crafting tax reform. 

By Peter Fenn, Opinion Contributor | Dec. 18, 2017, at 2:50 p.m.

A Congress of the Lowest Common Denominator

What a mess. This tax bill fiasco is the latest example of a Congress that cannot govern. A legislative body that cannot legislate. An elective body that constantly disappoints the electorate that put them into office.

And this is new. The Republicans made the calculated decision to craft one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in decades in secret. They determined that they were not going to hold hearings, they were not going to call expert witnesses, they were not going to collaborate at all with Democrats. In fact, they shut out many of the Republicans until the very end. No wonder the latest Real Clear Politics average of congressional approval stands at 14 percent.

Never mind that this produced a horrendous excuse for a tax bill – exploding the deficits, providing corporations and the wealthy with the lion’s share of the cuts and ultimately harming the middle class. According to The New York Times, the top one-tenth of the 1 percent see their after-tax income rise the most, followed by the top 10 percent, with the middle 40 percent of wage-earners and bottom 50 percent seeing the largest drops. This is reverse Robin Hood at its worst.

Make no mistake, the only way to pass a turkey like this is to throw regular order out the window, truly change how Congress does business and destroy any semblance of normalcy when it comes to legislating.

If this process was even suggested when I worked in the Senate in the 70s or even any decade in the 20th century, Republicans and Democrats would have been up in arms. Can you imagine a majority leader such as Democrat Mike Mansfield or Republican Howard Baker agreeing to this? The Everett Dirksens or the George Mitchells or Bob Doles or Bob Byrds or Tip O’Neills or Bob Michaels or any leader of either party would have revolted.

Congress has not operated this way, at least until now. Major pieces of legislation went through a process – various bills introduced, committees assigned to examine and study the drafts, open hearings on the proposed legislation, witnesses called suggested by the majority and minority, mark up of the legislation and on to the floor for debate. Then a real conference committee made up of leaders from both parties, from both houses, would meet to iron out the differences. This simply did not happen with this tax bill.

The destruction that this tax bill has wrought is not just the sad substance of the legislation, but how it was passed. This is the ultimate destruction of the democratic process on Capitol Hill, something that the press, the pundits and the historians should focus on and do so soon. If this is repeated again and again, as seems likely, we will see our legislature disintegrate from the greatest deliberative body to a standing joke. The ends will come to justify the means and substance and civility be damned.

In the end, process matters. If our democracy disintegrates into warring factions where one side ignores the rights of the other and insists on jamming through legislation without due process, we will not survive. What is to prevent Democrats if they take control of both houses in 2018 from giving as good as they got? Why would they not undo what the Republicans have done by the same process the Republicans employed?

The Republican leaders and this poor excuse for a president decided to throw out the rule book, to ignore good governance, to condemn the Congress to the lowest common denominator of a dictatorial legislative body. This is not normal. This is not right. And this should not stand. Let us hope that it is a bad aberration and we will get back to regular order sooner rather than later. But I am not holding my breath.