President Obama described the last Congress as one of the least productive in history — and he was right. The last Congress passed only a handful of bills that were ultimately signed into law, and was characterized by constant backbiting and finger-pointing.
As of this week there’s a new Congress in town, one in which both the House and the Senate are controlled by large Republican majorities and have an ambitious legislative agenda. And already President Obama has signaled that he would veto one of the bills that the Republicans want to pass first — an initiative that would authorize construction of the Keystone pipeline.
Oh, no! More of that conflict and gridlock that commentators bemoan! I guess that means the swearing-in of the new Congress won’t change anything, right?
Not so fast! If I recall my civics lessons, what we’re seeing signs of now is how the process is supposed to work. The House and Senate write legislation, hold hearings, have floor debates at which amendments are offered, and vote to pass actual, written bills, conference committees resolve differences between the Senate version and the House version, and the President then decides whether to sign or veto. Public veto threats in advance are one method the President can employ to influence the course and content of legislation. And if Congress passes the bill and the President carries through on his threat, Congress can decide whether to try to override that veto.
We’ve become so used to a shriveled, do-nothing Congress that seemed to exist simply to react to the initiatives of Presidents Bush and Obama that we’ve forgotten that the legislative branch is supposed to be a powerful, coordinate branch of government. It’s early yet, obviously, and I certainly won’t agree with the full spectrum of the Republican congressional agenda, but I’m glad that the new Congress at least seems intent on doing what Congress is supposed to be doing — and thereby putting our constitutional process back to work. After all, the system has worked pretty well for more than 200 years.