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It’s not chaos: This is how debate in the Senate should look

Political Theater, Episode 120

Sens. Kamala Harris and Pat Roberts leave the Capitol on Wednesday night after voting on the coronavirus stimulus package.
Sens. Kamala Harris and Pat Roberts leave the Capitol on Wednesday night after voting on the coronavirus stimulus package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As the coronavirus pandemic ravages the globe, Congress has worked hard to address the human and economic costs. And sometimes that means lawmakers will get testy with one another. But is that so bad?

This week on the Senate floor, there was no lack of high dudgeon about what some of the cantankerous back-and-forth meant for the institution, and, by extension, the nation.

But by the time senators were done clutching their pearls, they had signed off on more than $2 trillion dollars in economic aid to address the pandemic, a record-setting amount put together in the matter of a few days. Warp speed for the Senate, which struggles to pass spending bills on time year after year.

Despite some last-minute hiccups over unemployment insurance and transparency over loans, the plan was eventually approved, and the 96-0 vote was a reflection of a series of political give-and-take. In other words: What politics is designed to do.

“A lot of the dysfunction we see, not only with the coronavirus debate, but also more generally, it stems from a fact that there’s too much comity, too much civility, and not enough conflict in our politics,” says James Wallner on the latest Political Theater podcast.

Wallner, a resident senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a lecturer and fellow at American University and former senior aide to Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., sees the spectacle of senators disagreeing on the floor, and hashing things out on the fly, as exactly the kind of thing we should expect from our politics. In his view, Congress should not be seen as a factory that has to produce something, anything, to look productive. It’s an important gathering place for people to resolve how we live together.

That might not be the most comfortable thing for a lot of people. But when you look at the result on the coronavirus response from Congress so far, the conflict, the disagreement, helped spur something everyone could point to and say: This is a result of a lot of folks figuring this out.

That is not such a bad thing.

Show Notes:

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