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Jonathan Bernstein

Congress Should Cancel Its Summer Recess

With a worsening logjam of executive-branch nominations, lawmakers owe the people some more effort.

Keep it open.

Keep it open.

Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg

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Once again, it’s time for President Joe Biden to show more urgency about his agenda. In particular, he should ask Congress to cancel its August recess to get the people’s business done. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer should back him up.

By now, it’s not news that Republicans, using the filibuster and other foot-dragging techniques, are doing their best to obstruct Senate action. To some extent this is about their opposition to Democratic legislation. But it’s more than that. They’re also stretching out how much time is spent on executive-branch nominations they don’t have the votes to defeat, for example, and even delaying those that they don’t object to.

To be sure, if Democrats had the votes, they’d fight back by streamlining Senate procedures to reduce the time it takes to act; for that matter, they’d also eliminate the filibuster, or at least reduce the opportunity to use it. Since they don’t have the votes, the only other option to fight back against obstruction is to add more floor time by canceling district work periods.

Doing so would be no magic bullet for legislation. Still, it would offer the Senate more space to work on those bills that won’t be killed by filibuster, and allow more time to offer and debate amendments. It might also make the threat of a “talking” filibuster more effective. After all, the reason that filibustering minorities don’t give marathon speeches these days is because the majority party wants to work on other business rather than squander limited time on bills that won’t ultimately pass. More time means more options for the majority, and therefore at least the possibility that a talking filibuster would be worth trying in some circumstances.

Additional Senate time would be especially valuable, however, for the basic work of confirming Biden’s executive-branch and judicial nominations. There’s now an increasing logjam of nominations that have been cleared by Senate committees for final action. It’s likely to get worse, with more than 100 nominations still needing committee consideration. The result has been that the confirmation pace has fallen well behind what it was at this point of Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s presidencies. Leaving town as currently scheduled for two weeks for the Fourth of July and then another five weeks for August recess without making substantial progress on that gap would be irresponsible.

Of course, Republicans want those recesses as much as Democrats do. It’s quite possible that if Democrats threatened to cancel them, Republicans would relent on obstruction; it’s not so long ago that the Senate would quickly confirm lots of nominees just before the start of most recess periods.

And then there’s the question of Democrats, such as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who have been reluctant to push ahead with their own party’s agenda. A big theme of this year is the long effort to convince Manchin and others that Republicans will not be reasonable and that reform is the only viable alternative. Framing the recess question around Republican obstruction might help bring them around. No one seems to know what, if anything, could get Manchin to budge. But showing that other Democrats are willing to give up something they value — time away from Washington — in the fight would likely only help. And if the recess is canceled, Manchin’s colleagues can press home the point that the culprit, again, was Republican unwillingness to strike a deal, and that it’s Republican rejection of Senate norms, not the Democrats’ proposed reforms, that are responsible for undermining Senate tradition.

As for Biden, there’s also the chance to show everyone, from voters to bureaucrats, that he really means it when he says that he wants to tackle multiple crises at once. No, it won’t force his opponents to suddenly drop their opposition. But there is something to leading by example, and if Biden and congressional Democrats are willing to stick around in Washington, it may have some positive effects on those around them. It’s hard to see how it could hurt to start talking about it.

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3. Daniel J. Hopkins and David Masur on the lessons of the Affordable Care Act for climate policy.

4. Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg on protecting the people who administer elections.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Justin Fox speaks with Peter Lindert about the economics of the welfare state.

6. Harry Enten with the case for why the Democrats might do well in 2022.

7. Myah Ward talks with Scott Gottlieb about the pandemic.

8. Perry Bacon Jr. on fighting for democracy.

9. And we had another Election Day here in my part of San Antonio, so I voted. This was a city council runoff, so it was the second election of the year and second of the two- and four-year cycles. Just one vote this time, after voting for mayor, city council and on two local ballot measures in the initial election, so I’ve now voted five times in 2021 on two different days. Here in the U.S., that’s what they call an off-year.

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