This year’s partisan sniping in Congress has a broader purpose: To establish the idea in voters’ minds that the rival political party is inept.
“Republicans are trying to argue the Biden administration is not competent,” while Democrats are trying to convince the public they are, said Darrell West, vice president, governance studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution.
What’s different this time is that the congressional session is barely two months old, and there’s no general congressional or presidential election for 20 months.
“Everything is fair game. Julie Su is fair game. The East Palestine train incident is fair game,” said Ross Baker, professor of American politics at Rutgers University, citing the Feb. 3 incident in Ohio that involved a toxic chemical spill. Su is President Joe Biden’s nominee for U.S. Labor secretary.
Biden unveiled a budget plan Thursday that he says promotes a continuation of effective, sensitive government policies. Republicans says he’s dreaming, that he’s maintaining an inefficient, bloated government.
Biden’s nomination of Su is being blasted by Republicans as rewarding a former California official who presided over a chaotic state unemployment system. Democrats say she did a good job under trying circumstances.
And so on.
Experts cite several reasons for the early onset of hyperpartisanship and demonizing the opposition.
— Democrats need a gain of only five House seats in 2024 to regain control of the chamber. That means trying to create images of each party early. Creating such images also helps raise much-needed money.
— The Senate now has 51 members who caucus with Democrats. But some vulnerable Democrats in Republican-friendly states, including Montana’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, are up for re-election next year. California, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein is retiring, is considered a safe bet to remain a Democratic seat.
— If Biden runs for a second term next year, Republicans see him as beatable. Biden’s Gallup Poll approval rating averaged 42% last month
— It’s easier to become a breakout star these days. Gone is the time when a newly-elected member of Congress would quietly learn how to get things done. Now that social media and television promise instant attention, new members such as Rep. Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, can quickly gain followings.
Su ‘screams incompetence’
The fight over Su has become a classic battle over what Kiley calls a record that in part “screams incompetence.”
Odds are that Su will be confirmed by the Senate, since no Democrat has opposed her thus far.
Su was Secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Agency as the economy crashed during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Democrats argue she did a good job leading a system overwhelmed by a volume of claims no one saw coming, but was able to get millions of Californians benefits they desperately needed.
“The problem across the nation were these antiquated software systems and the way that we distributed a lot of this stuff was through the unemployment system. To land all that on Julie Su, to claim that this is a question of her ability to lead is just categorically absurd,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside.
“Her experience as California labor secretary shows her dedication to worker protections and her ability to support the workforce of the future,” added Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, D-Los Angeles.
Democrats boost their argument with several data points. Unemployment was 3.6% in February, continuing to record its lowest levels in more than 50 years. The much-predicted economic recession has not materialized.
Republicans offer a different set of statistics and anecdotes. The average 30-year fixed mortgage rate was 6.65% as of March 2, according to Freddie Mac, up from 3.76% a year ago. The cost of living has been rising at its steepest rates in 40 years.
Su opponents cite an August 2022 study from the independent California Legislative Analyst’s Office that blasted the Employment Development Department, which manages the state’s unemployment system, for its handling of the benefit crisis during the pandemic.
“Payments were delayed for roughly 5 million workers during the pandemic and phone lines were overwhelmed by frustrated callers,” the analysts office stated.
“These failures caused hardship for unemployed workers and their families, held back the economy, and spurred frustration among Californians with their state government.”
Preparing for 2024
Battle after battle can be viewed through the thematic prism of showing how the other side is incompetent and needs to be ousted in the 2024 elections.
Republicans are saying the recovery from the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, spreading toxic fumes throughout the area, should have been better managed by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, a possible future Democratic presidential candidate.
The Biden administration put the blame on the Trump administration. Republicans were too beholden to “rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled Obama-Biden rail safety protections as well as EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) powers to rapidly contain spills,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates.
Thursday, Biden unveiled his budget. The government faces two budget deadlines: It’s expected to reach the government debt limit this summer, which means Congress has to find a way to cut spending, raise taxes or raise the limit. And the new budget year starts Oct. 1.
Thursday provided a preview of what to expect until then — and beyond as the 2024 campaigns unfold.
Democrats lauded the plan for higher taxes on the wealthy and sustained spending on key social programs such as Medicare. “We continue to get big things done for the American people to strengthen the economy and to do it in a fiscally responsible way,” said House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-New York.
Republicans blasted the proposal.
“We look at the projections of growth to be very small, we see inflation continue to rise with the runaway spending,” said House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R- Bakersfield..
Congressional hearings on the budget, and Su, and Ohio, and lots more, are due to continue this week, this month and the rest of this year.