Opinion: Build back a better Congress

The importance of reaching across the aisle.

  • Friday, November 5, 2021 11:15am
  • Opinion

By Rich Moniak

While Democrats bicker among themselves about what should be included in their Build Back Better bill, Sen. Lisa Murkowski seems to be trying something different. She’s reaching across the aisle in hopes of solving a few small problems one at a time.

Since her write-in victory in 2010, Murkowski has charted a more independent course than most senators in either party. The national spotlight focused on her when she broke with her party by opposing the repeal of Obamacare and Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. And after Donald Trump left the White House, she voted to convict him of impeachable offenses.

Liberals in Alaska appreciated Murkowski in those moments. But also remembered are all the times she stood stoically in line with her party, especially when they acted without input or support from Democrats.

Now, Murkowski is warning Democrats that rebuilding trust in our elections won’t be accomplished by “a wholly partisan effort.” That’s why she worked with two Democrats to craft a compromise on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Unfortunately, it was quickly shot down this week when every other senate Republican voted against advancing the bill to debate.

Last month, four other bipartisan bills co-sponsored by Murkowski were introduced. None of them made headlines because they didn’t involve politically contentious issues. And they may not gather enough support to reach the floor for a vote.

One attempts to address the documented shortage of professionals trained in palliative care. Another is focused on improving diplomacy in the arctic. The third would provide federal grants to state and local correctional facilities to combat opioid addiction.

The last is legislation sponsored by Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan, and two Democrats. It would permanently extend federal requirements for every judicial district to promote free legal services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Along with having sponsors from both parties, each of those bills is focused on a single subject. That’s a better way to legislate.

Murkowski’s big bipartisan accomplishment is the compromise to the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan proposed by President Joe Biden. She was one of the four Republicans who worked for months with four Democrats to bring it down to $1.2 trillion.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is focused on improving the nation’s transportation, drinking water, sanitation, and electrical power systems. It includes some climate change provisions related to energy use and conservation. With the support of 19 Republicans, including Murkowski and Sullivan, it passed the senate on Aug. 10.

But House Democrats have refused to vote on it. Last week, Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., explained why. “Members of our caucus will not vote for the infrastructure bill without the Build Back Better Act” she said.

That bill, originally pegged at $3.5 trillion, is best described as progressive wish list. Even after being cut in half, it includes spending for childcare and universal free preschool, investments in affordable housing, Medicaid and Medicare expansion, and additional provisions to fight climate change.

They’re still arguing over paid family leave which isn’t supported by one moderate Democrat in the Senate. They need him because not one Republican supports the whole bill.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m fine the basic objective of each provision in the original bill. But because those programs have nothing in common beyond spending money to implement them, separate legislation should have drafted for each one.

The real problem though is Democrats are trying to enact Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda with the narrowest of majorities in both chambers. And instead of trying to find some support from Republicans for its independent pieces, they’re showing a least half the country that they don’t know how to govern effectively.

Republicans weren’t any better while Trump was president. The lesson for both parties is they need to stop acting like bitter enemies and learn to work together.

“We have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together” Biden said in his inaugural address in January. “And so today, at this time and in this place, let us start afresh.”

He hasn’t lived up to that promise. Neither has his party.

But Murkowski has earned my respect for her fresh effort to build back a better Congress.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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