Reporter's Notebook: George Floyd unrest, coronavirus show limits to Congress' power

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At times like these, one really wonders what good Congress can do.

American cities are in tumult. The most virulent pandemic to grip the globe in more than a century still throbs. There was a good economic report, but all of this is piled on top of burgeoning unemployment and an economic shock not witnessed in 91 years.

Congress would struggle to address such a toxic cocktail even on its best day.

So, how does Congress respond to this?

Let’s start with the marches and protests and the police.

You can’t really legislate human behavior.

The House Judiciary Committee holds its first hearing on police abuse Wednesday. Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, is set to testify. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, plans to offer an amendment to the upcoming defense bill to “demilitarize” domestic police forces. Schatz has suggested that tricking out police departments with military weaponry and apparel has contributed to the perception about police, that it made officers look more like they’re on combat patrol in Iraq than rolling through American neighborhoods.

House Democrats introduced a sweeping measure to curb police abuse this week. It would diminish the shield, which often has protected police from civil action and criminal charges. It would prohibit chokeholds. It would design a registry to keep track of bad officers who bounce from department to department.

“We arrived on these shores in 1619 in shackles,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “We helped build this great country, and all we’ve ever wanted is to be treated equally. Not better, not worse, equals. Why has that been so difficult?”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he may recall members “soon” to consider legislation. It’s faced a murky future in the Senate.

Oh – and members will react. They appear on cable TV and radio. Congressional reporters will stake them out in the halls and by the Senate Carriage Entrance. What should the U.S. do? Did President Trump stoke the embers? Why hasn’t this improved since the days of Rodney King in the early 1990s?

Or, is it really that different from the 1960s? Go talk to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

When it comes to the lawmakers, there are certainly some proposals which could help. They could offer calming words, language which puts the crisis in perspective. But, would it directly address the problem?

All of that power. Is Congress powerless?

Now, let’s pit Congress against COVID-19 and the economic pall.

Lawmakers have approved $3 trillion to combat the coronavirus and try to mitigate the financial contagion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled another bill could be on the way in the coming weeks. Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Josh Hawley of Missouri had plans to encourage people to return to the job market, paying them a bonus. An extension of unemployment benefits may be in the mix as well, and the White House has signaled interest in finding plans to bolster economic growth after this year’s struggles.

Has congressional action helped?

Probably. The relatively improved unemployment figure last week shocked just about everyone. But, help from Congress is hard to assess.

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The coronavirus economic fallout would have been apocalyptic had Congress not pumped trillions of dollars into the economy, propped up small businesses with hundreds of billions of dollars in loans, bolstered unemployment insurance and coughed up funds for more testing, vaccine development and increased money for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. And, without question, moves to soften the blow of coronavirus undoubtedly saved lives and jobs. But, the best assessment of what Congress did and may do yet could be years away.

So, is Congress again enfeebled?

Congress can’t legislate a virus away, just how Congress can’t legislate behavior. Stay six feet apart. Wear a mask. Call in sick if you’re not feeling well. Don’t gather with a group of college friends on the down low. Congress can’t legislate confidence in people, either. Go to that restaurant. Spread out the tables and you’ll be fine. Open your restaurant, even though people have to wait in the street. Surely the restaurant will break even, operating at half capacity, right?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933. The stock market collapsed four years earlier. The Dust Bowl swirled about the plains of Oklahoma and Kansas. Protesters stood outside the U.S. Capitol, demanding food and heated shelter. Congress did little to diminish the economic crater into which the country plummeted during the time of President Herbert Hoover.

The calamity of the Great Depression wrecked Hoover. Hoover was averse to the federal government stimulating the economy. As a result, Congress offered scant relief or even ideas.

Of course, the concern today in Washington has centered around “optics.” Even if the aforementioned $3 trillion in spending wouldn’t actually help in the long run, few could criticize Congress for not acting. Lawmakers would never want the public to lambaste those on Capitol Hill as the “do-nothing Congress.” That’s partially why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., rushed to author a $3 trillion bill of her own, pass it with almost all votes from Democrats and then chide McConnell for turning a deaf ear to the legislation.

“This nation asks for action and action now,” Roosevelt said at his first inauguration address.

Within days, lawmakers approved hastily assembled banking legislation. Congress advanced multiple measures over the next four years. They ranged from the creation of Social Security to infrastructure programs which created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)/ There were farm and labor bills. They even repealed prohibition, giving the government the authority to tax alcohol. This was the New Deal.

And, don’t forget, that even though Congress approved the measures, FDR scored the credit.

By 1937, Roosevelt exhausted most of his political capital in Congress. New Deal efforts faded. But, despite all of the economic engineering, the U.S. never reached full employment until it entered World War II.

New Deal legislation may have alleviated many economic hardships and righted the ship, but the New Deal didn’t guarantee a job. It didn’t eradicate racism. It didn’t upend bias. It didn’t make everyone healthy. And, it didn’t avert what loomed after World War II: a decadeslong, expensive Cold War waged with the Soviet Union.

Today, the nation has been facing a panoply of crises: a battle over race and police brutality, a wounded economy, the threat of a virus – perhaps amplified by hundreds of thousands of people ignoring social distancing and flooding the streets.

So, what can Congress do about all of this? Or, is congressional power just an edifice, a phantasm, which gives the illusion that the people wield power through representative government?

When it comes to the legions of cataclysms now facing the country, Congress could approve money. It could mandate certain policies to make things better. Members also could use their platforms to speak and even lead, inspiring people to do the proper thing – whatever that may be.

But, Congress is facing a virus and demonstrators. There’s not a lot anyone can do against either of those.

The Senate convened last week for the first time since the killing of George Floyd. Senate Chaplain Barry Black prayed for senators as they returned to the Capitol.

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“May they strive to find a vaccine to inoculate our nation against hate, sin and despair,” Black prayed at the beginning of the Senate session.

That’s precisely the type of special powers Congress has needed during a pandemic, an economic downturn and social unrest. Legislative powers, like bills, resolutions and talking points, sometimes seem powerless.