Out with the old Congress, in with the new

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Every Congress has its highs and lows and its peculiar personality. Those that live with it daily see it up close, get familiar with the ups and downs. For a brief review of the outgoing Congress and what we might expect from the next, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Mitchell, the 116th was quite the show, wasn’t it?

Mitchell Miller: It really was. I mean, you think about it a year ago, we were actually in the middle of the throes of the impeachment proceedings. And everybody thought that was going to be the major story for the entire year. Clearly, that was, oddly enough, only a historical footnote really, when you look back at it. But what’s really remarkable about the 116th Congress is after you came through that impeachment proceedings – and everything was very, very bitter, of course, between Democrats and Republicans here – and then all of a sudden you have everything going on with the pandemic. And somehow Congress, in a rare moment of clarity, decided to get together and actually pass the CARES Act. So the CARES Act, $2 trillion going out to the country and to individuals, small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program. It really was the hallmark achievement of the 116th Congress. Unfortunately, lawmakers throughout the year leaned on that achievement over and over again, I can’t tell you how many times I heard floor speeches or news conferences where lawmakers from both parties say, “Well remember when we all got together on the CARES Act and we approved this, we came together.” Unfortunately, that became a recording that went over and over again, as we went deeper and deeper into the year and nothing was getting done on a new relief package. And that was really a problem as we moved through 2020.

Tom Temin: Sure, they might have been touting the fact that they approved by unanimous consent war against Japan in 1941. That was a great unanimity moment but it was a long time ago. And getting back to the impeachment, and that whole process, of course, the House is democratically controlled. The Republican control is in the Senate. And so really, that was a lot of noise, but almost like one of those explosions are very lightweight material, no effect came from it.

Mitchell Miller: Right. I mean, you look at impeachment, and you think it’s really one of the most profound things that Congress can actually do. But once it moved to the Senate side, oddly enough, it became kind of a foregone conclusion about what was going to happen. We knew that the Democratic controlled House was going to push for conviction, obviously, but the Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had a tight control over how it was done. Lots of histrionics, lots of noise, lots of rhetoric. But when it came down to it, Republicans felt like they handled the proceedings as best they could. Democrats were extremely bitter after how it all played out in the end. But what was amazing to me is, despite all of that bitterness, as I mentioned, it really had to be put aside after everything became clear, early in the spring and March and April, with the pandemic, I was surprised, frankly, that they were able to put it aside as quickly as possible. Now, maybe because, as you alluded to, it was sort of a foregone conclusion about what the House and Senate would do, and how they would handle it? Maybe it wasn’t quite as crazy in terms of politics, as you might have thought it would have been? But of course, obviously, the pandemic – you have a once, literally, in 100-year event, suddenly Congress became much more focused on things that had to help people.

Tom Temin: And each year the bulk of Congress returns, most of them get reelected, but not everybody. And what’s your sense of what it was like for the newcomers to the 116th, to walk into such a bewildering institution in the first place, and then one with so much strife and activity?

Mitchell Miller: Right, I think for a lot of them, it was really a moment of that they couldn’t actually believe. I talked to several centrist members that came in people like Elissa Slotkin from Michigan and Abigail Spanberger from Virginia. These were people who were used to trying to build consensus on various issues. And when they came in, and they’ve said this over the last few months, they were really struck by the fact that, you know, these are can-do people – they thought that they could get things done. And when they came in, they were struck by the fact that there was such a poisonous atmosphere in Congress that there was just really no way to talk to the other side. And that’s why over the year, you have seen considerable efforts to try to get the problem solvers, for example, the group that has Democrats and Republicans trying to get together that most recently it really gave an impetus for the latest relief package to get through Congress. But a lot of these freshmen really could not believe – even though they’re not naive, they know that there’s politics obviously, everywhere they go – but I think they were really truly surprised at how bad it was when they walked into the halls of Congress.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Mitchell Miller, Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. And we should really talk about COVID because I remember early on in the pandemic, you were one of literally two or three people in the entire Capitol building. And I remember how eerie it seemed, you know, you could hear your footsteps echo for 10 minutes. But they got around that, didn’t they in their own crazy way?

Mitchell Miller: Yeah, it was really amazing. You know, I’ve talked about this, this fact that when everything was just empty here at the Capitol, I mean, it was just, you would walk around a corridor or literally, and nobody would be there, or I would walk down through under the Capitol dome, and you would not see anybody except for a handful of Capitol Police and maybe somebody from the Architect of the Capitol. Every once in a while there was a House leader or a Senate leader here. But really, it was very, very eerie during those first few months. And then eventually, when they started to get together for the CARES Act they knew that they had to be here. And then you had a lot of arguments earlier in the year about whether or not members of Congress should physically be here, given the safety and health issues. Obviously, many members of Congress are in the high risk group in part just because of their age. So you had a huge argument back and forth about whether or not for example, the House could allow people to vote for other lawmakers who were not here. And eventually that, of course, did go through. And but that was a big deal, because many of the lawmakers say this is what we were elected to do, you have to be here. Now on the Senate side, they never did give in to allowing another lawmaker to vote for somebody else. Obviously, it’s a much smaller body at 100 people. But still, again, the age is higher than it is on average than it is in the House. So you have a lot of risky situations here in the Capitol. And I must say that early on, a lot of the lawmakers did not wear masks. And there was a feeling that you know, what’s going on with the rest of the country, when a lot of these lawmakers aren’t doing the same thing? So eventually, many of the lawmakers started to wear a mask as we moved into the spring. And as you know, really, the medical consensus was that it was going to do some good to prevent this from spreading. But there were still a lot of holdouts that didn’t want to do that. And then eventually House Speaker Pelosi took to the floor and said, “Look, you have to wear a mask under these certain conditions, whether it’s in the on the House floor, or whether whether you’re walking around in the hallways.” And now that is generally accepted even as we move into this period now where lawmakers are actually getting vaccinated.

Tom Temin: Sure. And I must say Ms. Pelosi, in some of her news conferences had some very fetching masks on, too.

Mitchell Miller: That’s right, she always pairs them fashionably with the color of her dress or whatever her outfit might be.

Tom Temin: And so what are you expecting for the 117th, what do you think we should watch for?

Mitchell Miller: Well I think one of the biggest things, of course, will happen in just a matter of days. We’re going to find out, barring any kind of recounts, or how long it gets stretched out, those two run-off races in Georgia clearly will literally decide the balance of power in the Senate. And that’s going to obviously make a major difference about what President-elect Joe Biden can actually get done. Now, if if the Republicans hold, then what I think will be really interesting to see is how does the House react to all this? Because Republicans, of course, as you know, picked up a lot of seats in the House and the margin that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi now Has in the house with Democrats over Republicans is considerably smaller. So if she has a few defections, especially on that liberal leaning wing of the party, where they think that Joe Biden is a little too centrist, and that the older members of the leadership of the Democratic Party are not taking them where they go, it’s going to be interesting to see how much pull that left side of the party has on the House side, and then going back to the Senate, if the Democrats do pick up those two seats, then obviously, that makes a major, major difference for Joe Biden, because then he can actually push through a lot of the things that he wants to get done. He has made it very clear that he wants to get another major relief package through. I think if the Republicans continue to hold the Senate, that is going to be very, very difficult. I mean, we saw over the past year, it literally took over six months for them to get to the point where we were in December so that they could finally, actually get something passed. So I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for the incoming administration to get things done, if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell retains power in the Senate.

Tom Temin: Well, whatever happens we’re glad you’re going to be our eyes and ears up there. Mitchell Miller is Capitol Hill correspondent for WTOP. Thanks so much.

Mitchell Miller: You bet.

Tom Temin: Find this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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