Joe Biden says he wants to “heal America” as president. The problem for Biden is that the president and, perhaps more important, the presidency thrive on crisis. It is wars and other national emergencies (real and imagined) that have facilitated the radical expansion of the executive office from FDR onward. Keeping the nation in a state of crisis is good for presidents — and good for their hangers-on, who feed parasitically on the swollen executive in chief.
Biden comes into office in an age of big presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump among them. But he also comes into the presidency after having spent nearly 40 years in the Senate. If he truly wants to heal the nation, cooperation and consensus should be at the center of his agenda, as they should be central to everybody else’s approach, too: Bipartisanship and consensus are not sentimental feel-good virtues — they are necessary to creating stable public policy and the prosperity that rests on that stability. That doesn’t mean pretending that our disagreements are not disagreements; it means not treating our disagreements as civil war.
Rather than follow the worst instincts of his executive predecessors, Biden should pay some attention to this week’s rare moment of deep agreement between two very different legislators: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez complained loudly that legislators were given a few hours to read the recent coronavirus-relief bill, which runs 5,593 pages and is the second-largest spending measure ever passed by Congress. Sen. Lee voiced his agreement and expanded in a video, describing how it has come to pass that Congress has forwarded a bill read in its entirety by none of its members and stitched together by a small number of leaders, a half dozen or so, who expect their colleagues to simply proceed on faith and loyalty. When the Bronx socialist and the Utah Republican come down on the same side of the question, it’s time to pay attention.
Biden, who has long experience in the legislative branch, could use his clout as president to push for a return to the steady and stable if plodding and irritating process of making law through the lawmaking process rather than allowing the constant threat of government shutdowns or the blockage of genuine emergency measures to keep the US government in a state of politically induced crisis. Ocasio-Cortez was right to observe that the current model isn’t legislating, but hostage-taking.
The root problem in Congress and the root problem of the presidency are the same problem: The US government has been operating in a semi-permanent state of emergency for decades. Congress has abandoned “regular order” — the committee-based process by which the House and the Senate adopt a budget and produce a series of appropriations bills, working out their differences in conference before sending legislation to the president. In its place we have had a long series of emergency measures, a continuing resolution here and a Frankenstein omnibus bill there, in a process dominated by congressional leadership and, hence, by partisanship. This is a near guarantee of polarization and short-term thinking.
If Biden wants to heal the nation, then the answer isn’t a heroic presidency elevated to the state of a national priest-king, as though the Oval Office were the Chrysanthemum Throne. The answer is a smaller presidency led by a smaller president, who allows our legislature to do their jobs in the way that our Founders intended.
And Joe Biden, that blessed mediocrity, may be just the right man…