After months of reporting the bickering between Democrats and Republicans to hit Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill, it got us thinking — the 45-year-old explainer needed more information. So we enlisted cartoonist Matt Wuerker and the video team to do just that.
Before drawing it all out, Wuerker spoke with Mediafrolic congressional reporter Sarah Ferris to better understand all those extra steps required to pass a bill.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What do people not see or understand about the current process?
If there is a controversial bill, it will contain much more than just the steps to go through the committee and go to the House of Representatives. Weeks, if not months, behind the scenes to negotiate.
It’s so much now: what will be the political impact, what is the reason for party leaders to put this bill on the ground, and how will you get the votes for it if it’s on the ground?
And it’s not just committees, there are also bipartisan gangs that are part of the process?
Yes, if you think of the presidents in both the House and Senate, they are both Democrats. Sure, they agree on many things, but the big hurdle that Democrats have faced for years is the Senate filibuster, that 60-vote margin.
You can’t just have the Democratic president write and approve bills and send them to the president. You have to have dual cooperation, and that’s not in the vast majority of legislation.
But are you going to let the two party leaders from the Democratic side and the Republican side sit in a room and talk things over? New. That’s why this bipartisan group has actually become rogue.
Did the old version of Schoolhouse Rock “I’m just a Bill” omit anything?
The more accurate version of this Schoolhouse Rock video may now be about frameworks and proposals and more than the actual legislation. That’s what both parties have to agree to before you can even agree to write a bill.
A Speaker of the House in charge of infrastructure and transportation, Peter DeFazio, had this entire bill ready. He really wanted the Senate to pass his bill rather than their own bipartisan version. Now his account is nowhere, he is gone. It will never see the light of day.
These very high-ranking committee chairmen like DeFazio who supposedly have all the power, don’t they really have a say in the end?
They go to work behind the scenes. But they are not the ones who at the end of the day will have the hammer, pass a bill from the committee and send it to the floor. The only way it can get to the ground is if the party leaders on both sides can say, ‘We have the votes to pass this on.’
And to complicate matters, when we talk about the infrastructure bill, we’re actually talking about two: the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a separate $3.5 trillion dollar bill that was spun off because they realized that this wouldn’t be allowed by the filibuster. come but instead with atonement?
Right. It is extremely rare for either government party to be able to put together a package that can actually be signed into law. But reconciliation is now the way to go. It’s the only game in town if you want to make substantial policy changes. The only other thing that motivates Congress to get things done is a deadline. And the only other way to try and get bills on the ground is to tie them to a must-pass government shutdown that’s looming.
Another concept that has surfaced that is not part of the Schoolhouse Rock class is vote-a-rama. And to go through this process in the Senate, we had a vote – a rama that went on until 4 a.m. So what the hell is a voice-a rama?
When a party does not have full control over Congress, they will be forced into this process every time they try to create special budget bills. And it comes with these really obscure rules where any senator can propose unlimited amendments. These votes are all political. It’s actually Mitch McConnell and his members trying to get Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema to vote for a potentially controversial topic.
Think of the budget resolution as a checklist of how much money you can spend on certain categories. You don’t have to spend it all, nor do you have to say exactly what it will be for. In principle, each commission receives a certain amount.
Is there a change from board to board in the role of chairmen? Are some presidents more involved in this complicated process than others?
We’ve seen a mix of different personalities and how they try to deal with Congress. Former President Donald Trump had a bit more of a vinegary approach to his Republican conference. He would outright threaten members not to vote for bills. Former President Barack Obama didn’t speak much to Congress. He sent Joe Biden down to do the dirty work. And then, of course, now that Joe Biden is in office, he’s very close to the Senate. His legislative team is in daily talks with all the different groups he really needs to win.
What is the biggest misconception the public has about the current legislative process?
I think people think it’s much more of a linear process and the people in charge of the House and Senate have more leeway in how they decide to prepare these bills. But in reality there are so many invisible barriers.
That’s why Congress is going around in circles with all kinds of extensions. You can recognize that something is a problem, but coming up with even the first step to the solution will never get the votes you need.