by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Recent weeks have seen the U.S. Congress rise to the challenge of a public-health crisis in some impressive ways. In an era when the institution barely moves, and major bipartisan legislation has been vanishingly rare, Congress responded swiftly by passing three significant measures to combat the coronavirus. All had broad support and seem likely to be useful and effective. …
… And yet, even in the midst of this focused activity, the weaknesses and vices of the modern Congress have been on display. Like most major legislation in recent decades, these bills were produced without much involvement by most members of Congress. Drafted in leadership offices, they were presented to members with very little time to dig into the details. And when some members raised concerns (about the design of unemployment benefits in the third bill, for instance), they were able to draw public attention to problems but had no real opportunity to do anything about them.
Much more important, though, the burst of crisis legislation has tended to reveal the narrowness of Congress’s own understanding of its purpose. As soon as the third bill was enacted, Congress dashed out of town and left itself few options for remaining engaged in the near-term government response. The institution stepped up to provide resources for executive action, but it did not work to empower itself to play its own crucial, ongoing role in the weeks and months ahead.
Most notably, both houses declined to take actions to enable remote work for members. … [M]embers should have created a process for remote work and even remote voting.
Levin has spent much of his time in recent years lamenting the deterioration of American institutions, including Congress. He discussed the issue in a 2018 interview with Carolina Journal Radio.