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The Man Who Did the Math on America’s Partisan Divisions

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By that metric, she said, the last few sessions of Congress have been astonishingly vibrant — and far more bipartisan than most analysts think. For instance, the coronavirus relief and spending bill that Congress passed with the overwhelming support of both parties in December 2020 was the wordiest piece of legislation in American history.

On one level, that’s a sign of congressional dysfunction: Because the normal work (“regular order,” in congressional jargon) of the committees that appropriate taxpayer money has essentially ground to a halt, lawmakers now try to jam huge sums of spending into giant bills that the Senate often must pass by a bare, one-party majority, as it did with the American Rescue Package last year. (Budget reconciliation is the technical term for this process.)

On the other hand, all this action, since roughly 2019, is a sign that Congress is trying to address crises like the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted trillions of dollars in federal spending — an outlay of money not seen since the Great Society or the New Deal.

Scholars of Congress offered multiple theories as to why America’s lawmakers, in both parties, are getting things done. The most convincing explanation? They simply had to.

“Both parties need to believe that action is what the country is demanding,” Lee explained.

There’s a fear among Democrats, too, of the shadow of the next election — and a widespread expectation that they will lose the majority in the House and possibly the Senate, too. That prospect has forced dueling Democratic factions within the House and Senate to put aside their differences and accept the fact that Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat who represents a state Trump won by nearly 40 percentage points in 2020, gets to decide what will and will not pass.

This is what happened for most of the last two years, until Manchin agreed to support the repackaged Build Back Better Act in a truncated and rebranded form called the Inflation Reduction Act, according to John A. Lawrence, a former chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who has written a forthcoming insider account of his time at her side.

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