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Opinion: How Donald Trump Made Congress Great Again

It may help the country — if not the president

President Donald Trump’s rocky relationship with lawmakers has made Congress free enough to act in the country’s best interests, Murphy writes. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump’s rocky relationship with lawmakers has made Congress free enough to act in the country’s best interests, Murphy writes. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

If you were a member of Congress, especially a Republican member of Congress, you could be forgiven for having at least some contempt for President Donald Trump.

He’s used the GOP-led Congress as a punching bag and a scapegoat. He demands absolute loyalty from Republican members, but abandoned them last week the moment he saw an opening to strike a deal to raise the debt ceiling with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

He’s called Republicans losers and flakes. He’s defamed their parents and insulted their spouses. He dispatched a Cabinet secretary to threaten Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, after she blocked an Obamacare repeal bill and told his 36 million Twitter followers that Tennessee is “not happy!” with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., after Corker voiced concern about Trump’s fitness for office. He has openly courted primary challengers to run against members of his own party, even the ones who have voted for almost all of his agenda.

On the plus side …

So it’s ironic that, in more ways than one, Congress is living its best life under Trump. After years of partisan gridlock, bills are moving, or at least being debated. Long-sidelined committees are doing essential work. And in a town where party politics has swamped almost every other governing instinct, members of Congress are showing more real independence to speak their minds and vote accordingly.

Somehow, all of the dysfunction between the Republican House and Senate and Trump’s White House has created a Congress that is showing signs of functioning again. In Oprah parlance, Congress is becoming its best self. In Trump verbiage, Congress is making itself great again.

In the last two weeks alone, Congress has quickly approved disaster relief, raised the debt ceiling and dispensed with a government shutdown weeks before the deadline, three items they’ve struggled with for years. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., struck a five-year funding deal in the Senate Finance Committee to extend CHIP funding for five years. 

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., are holding hearings to repair, not replace, Obamacare. Speaker Paul Ryan and Pelosi are meeting with House leaders on a DACA bill that has tied Congress in knots for the last five years. 

Committee chairmen are leading in their areas of expertise, leaders are meeting to strike deals, and the legislative branch is finally legislating.

A significant piece of the new dynamic has been Congress stepping up as a co-equal branch of government to rein in and even reject the president when he has said or done things few people can explain, even his fellow Republicans.

That was certainly the case when Democrats and Republicans acted almost unanimously, 517-votes strong, to strengthen sanctions against Russia for hacking American election systems, even when Trump made it clear he didn’t want to.  

That was also the case when the House and Senate unanimously passed a joint resolution, which the president must sign, to denounce white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the Klu Klux Klan and other hate groups who caused the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month.

‘Not his subordinates’

Standing up for the country, despite the president’s objections, seems to be the primary motivation behind the Russian hacking investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been serious, disciplined, and bipartisan. And that was absolutely the thinking behind Sen. John McCain’s extraordinary op-ed last month reminding his fellow members of Congress that they don’t work for Trump. 

“We must, where we can, cooperate with him,” McCain wrote in The Washington Post. “But we are not his subordinates. We don’t answer to him. We answer to the American people.”

As much as Republicans in Congress are acting out against Trump, he has been acting out against them, too, beyond just mean tweets. Frustrated by slow Republican progress on his agenda, Trump decided to skip the headaches of a GOP-only deal last week and strike the debt ceiling deal with Pelosi and Schumer, over the objections of his own Cabinet officials. It wasn’t what Republicans wanted, but the deal got done. The crisis was averted, and for once, Congress and the president avoided a self-inflicted wound.

Almost despite himself, Trump has made Congress free enough to act in the country’s best interests and independent enough to act against their own president, no matter their affiliation, if that’s what it takes.

He’s strengthening the resolve of the one group that can make him a success or take him down.

A stronger, more independent Congress may not always be in this president’s best interests, but it is in the country’s best interests, and we have Donald Trump to thank for it. 

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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