It remains one of the most arresting photographs in the history of sports — an exhausted Roger Bannister bursting through the tape in 1954 as the British medical student, who died earlier this month, became the first runner to break the four-minute mile.
This Congress regards itself as the Roger Bannister of legislative bodies. Gasping for breath, yet proud of its blistering pace, Congress has now collapsed in a self-satisfied heap for the current two-week Easter recess.
Years from now, school children will thrill to the inspiring tale of how a Congress passed both a tax bill and a spending bill in the same amazing legislative session.
Yes, I’m kidding.
Of course, the tax bill will add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the deficit. And, according to a new AP-NORC Center Poll, 73 percent of Americans believe that the tax bill will help “wealthy individuals,” while only 42 percent feel that “middle income individuals” will benefit from the legislation.
Watch: Trump’s Empty Veto Threat of Spending Bill Could Have a Big Pricetag
As for the $1.3 trillion spending bill, it is telling that a Republican president came very close to shutting down the government by vetoing must-pass legislation approved by a GOP Congress. Nothing could be more inspiring to conservative voters this November than remembering that the president declared, “I say to Congress: I will never sign another bill like this again.”
When Congress returns to Washington next month, it will confront a preelection legislative agenda about as limited as the books on Trump’s reading list.
Granted, the Senate may find itself with confirmation hearings, especially if Trump impulsively decides to fire the rest of his Cabinet. But other than that, a sense of torpor will hang over the Capitol as Congress goes through the motions until Election Day.
It remains baffling that a Congress filled with ambitious men and women could decide, in effect, to take the rest of the year off.
It is like a major leaguer announcing that running down the baseline after hitting the ball is beneath his dignity as an athlete. Or a lawyer deciding that only little people bother to prepare before making courtroom appearances.
Ceding to the chief
In fairness, the Republicans do have modest goals. But most of them revolve around provoking the Democrats into casting votes that can then be used against them in attack ads. Like, say, attaching an anti-abortion rider to a bill called “The Kindness Toward Puppies Act of 2018.”
There is a reason that in seven polls taken since Feb. 1, Congress boasts an average approval rating below 15 percent. About the only thing lower is the popularity of Kim Jong Un.
In an ideal world, congressional Republicans — who control which bills get to the floor — would decide that their political salvation in 2018 lies in actually trying to legislate. Instead of depending entirely on the tax bill (which voters disregarded in the recent House election in western Pennsylvania), GOP legislators might begin trying to solve national problems.
Congress has spent so many decades deferring to presidential power that it has mostly forgotten how to legislate without direction from the Oval Office. But Trump’s erratic reaction to the Republican spending bill should have destroyed the last naive illusions that congressional Republicans have a stable partner in the White House.
Trump cannot be counted on for either leadership or followership. Even his blustery veto threats can be ignored until the president demonstrates that he is willing to actually veto legislation rather than just issue hollow threats.
What might have been
For starters, Congress should return to the difficult problem of securing the legal status of those who qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
Yes, the Senate failed during a series of votes last month to arrive at a compromise that would survive a filibuster. But a legislative impasse does not make the problem disappear. Right now, the courts have stayed deportation of these immigrants, who came to this country without papers as children.
These fragile protections for the Dreamers might not last until Election Day. It is hard to imagine how GOP prospects in upper-income districts would be enhanced by well-publicized mass roundups of these appealing young adults who grew up in this country.
In similar fashion, the clock is ticking as Congress quails in the face of demands for gun legislation. If the political anger is high now, imagine the outcry when — and sadly, it is virtually inevitable — the nation is shocked by another mass shooting.
Trump came to power with only one legislative proposal with the potential to unite left and right, Democrats and Republicans. Every voter who drives, flies or takes mass transit grapples daily with the frustrations of America’s decaying infrastructure.
Amazingly, Trump the Master Builder has failed to come close to coming up with a credible long-term plan to upgrade the nation’s highways, bridges and airports. Rather than waiting passively for the next ineffectual round of Infrastructure Week rhetoric, Congress should attempt to write a big bill independent of the incompetent sputtering from the White House.
None of this, of course, will happen, because the congressional GOP lives in mortal terror of offending Trump supporters. Even later in the year, after most of congressional primaries are over and future GOP majorities hang in the balance, Republicans on Capitol Hill would rather loaf than legislate.
It makes you wonder why any ambitious Republican would ever aspire to serve in a do-nothing Congress.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.