One nation divided?
What bipartisanship says about America.
Summary: We’ve all heard of the great divide. The most dysfunctional Congress ever. The end of civility! There’s an impression that nothing passes Congress with bipartisan support anymore. That every piece of legislation has to pass along party lines, setting us up for bloodsport events each and every fucking election cycle. There’s a lot of truth to this. And yet, each year thousands of bills and resolutions are introduced and hundreds are eventually signed into law. We define ourselves along partisan lines, but perhaps we should look more closely at what bipartisan efforts say about America.
Did you know that this Congress has signed 177 bills into law, which incorporate a total of 573 bills and resolutions?
But I thought we were one nation divided?
We are. And we’ve spoken before about the sausage making legislative process, the curse of the filibuster and other quirks that make it very difficult to get anything done. Especially in our Procedural F*ckery episode.
Right. And then we fixed everything with our big “summer of legislation” series.
I will admit some of the steam came out of that one because I did not see the Inflation Reduction Act coming. And even with all the Manchin and Sinema giveaways, I’m impressed. But it did get me thinking. Democrats and Republicans say and do a lot of things to insult one another. And the further apart they get on culture war and identity issues, the more feverish their respective bases get. Democrats are typically able to claim the moral high ground and show grave indignation while blasting out mass emails and spamming for dollars.
Like this one from Nancy Pelosi on September 22nd.
Subject: Humiliating Defeat!
I know you’re getting a lot of emails, but please:
Don’t delete this. Don’t ignore my message. Don’t give Republicans the satisfaction.
Because with Democrats completely neck and neck in the polls - getting complacent is exactly what Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell want you to do.
Or this one from Chuck Schumer on September 16:
Subject: Asking for $10.
Everything we’re fighting for - gun safety, climate action, abortion rights, protections for LGBTQ+ Americans, and more - has never been more urgent. But if Democrats lose one single Senate race this fall, we could lose all our progress.
While Dems are bowling for dollars, Republicans are as well by ginning up the base. But they have very little to talk about now so it’s still all border crisis, critical race theory, transphobia and how dark Brandon is responsible for global inflation.
They’re making a fortune on both sides.
What we don’t hear about are the bills that pass without much debate. Or any debate, for that matter, in cases where House and Senate chambers suspend the rules and move for unanimous consent. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly believe there is a great divide in Congress as reflected in the nation. Or is it the other way around? But I also think there’s a lot more wink wink, nudge nudge than meets the eye.
Here’s my working thesis. I believe in the divide. But I also believe a great deal of it is performative and baked into the culture of fundraising and business as usual. Because when there aren’t points to be scored, Congress still possesses the ability to maneuver legislation without triggering the attack dogs in the media.
If there truly was a divide like the one they sell us, then bipartisanship in any form would be as rare as a Trump tax return in the wild or a synapse firing in Lauren Boebert’s brain. So I thought it would be a useful exercise to comb through all of the successful legislation in the 117th Congress and select some key examples to see what it tells us about the political class of the United States.
It’s been a while so a quick refresher. Quickies examine three seemingly unrelated topics. They typically build on prior essays to illustrate ongoing themes and narratives. So today we’re going to look at three bills that had nearly universal support in Congress to see what bipartisanship can tell us about what matters most to our leadership. Before we get into the first bill, however, let’s limber up and get loose with a little warm up.
The first bill is Senate 1404 referred to as the Ghost Army Congressional Gold Medal Act.
So basically, a bunch of cool artist types from all over were in this special unit in WWII designed to make shit up to fake out the Nazis. They had inflatable tanks, huge sound systems that played artillery noise and blow-up tents that looked like buildings. They would literally stage these elaborate fake mobile divisions that looked like full battalions and it actually worked to divert German attention from real invasions.
The primary sponsor of the bill is Democrat Ed Markey along with original cosponsors Republican John Kennedy and Democrats Bob Menendez, Chris Van Hollen and Elizabeth Warren.
“This bill provides for the award of a Congressional Gold Medal to the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops and the 3133rd Signal Services Company, known collectively as the Ghost Army, in recognition of unique and highly distinguished service during World War II.”
You know it’s a noble cause when you have John Kennedy and Liz Warren cosponsoring the bill. Now this is one of those examples of a bill passing by unanimous consent. So no wrangling, even though there actually was an earlier version of this, but it wound up being updated and incorporated into the successful one. It basically got pushed through for Biden’s signature. If you have a chance, check out the history of the Ghost Army, because it really is a cool story.
Alright, our second warm up bill is HR 1448. The long title for this one is Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act or the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act.
“This bill requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to implement a pilot program to assess the effectiveness of addressing post-deployment mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder through a method where veterans train service dogs for veterans with disabilities.”
Good stuff. Multiple studies have detailed the myriad mental health issues that plague our veteran population. So this initiative, to be tracked and measured over a five-year period, is designed to help improve quality of life, the ability to re-enter society and increase chances of survival as death by suicide is one of the biggest issues returning combat veterans face.
The bill was originally drafted by former Republican Congressman Steve Stivers of Ohio and died in the previous Congress. It was resurrected in this one and had a whopping 317 co-sponsors in the House.
And rounding out our stretching exercise is a bill about a flash point issue from earlier this year. Baby formula. We’re looking at H.R. 8351 signed into law over the summer.
“This bill provides through December 31, 2022, duty-free treatment to infant formula. During this time period, articles of infant formula shall not be subject to (1) any additional safeguard duties that may be imposed under subchapter IV of chapter 99 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule; or (2) any other import quotas, tariff-rate quotas, additional duties, or any other duties, fees, exactions, or charges that otherwise would apply to such articles. Importers shall provide the applicable and anticipated tariff classifications for articles of infant formula on applicable customs entry documents.”
This was actually sponsored by my main man from Oregon, Democrat Earl Blumenauer. And you know I love me some bloomin’ Blumenauer. It had 28 cosponsors, was introduced on July 13th and passed by the 21st. Lightning fast because it was such a fucking no brainer.
Amazingly, even though the House opted for a suspension of the rules, which means “this is easy, let’s just fucking pass this,” there were actually two Republicans who voted against this. Otherwise it was unanimous and it passed the Senate in its full form. One of the two holdouts is career assnugget Louie Gohmert. He had railed against an earlier infant formula bill, complaining about funds going to the FDA, and this time claimed the bill “was a rush to get done without properly considering what [it] would mean.”
The other no vote was Rick Allen of Georgia. And get this: he “voted against the bill incorrectly,” later changing his vote to yes. Can’t make this shit up, Unf*ckers.
Rule One: Protect the “free” market at all costs.
Alright. Let me tell you about a good bill. A solid one. If you believe in the power of free markets. And according to the vote totals in the House so far, nearly all of them do. It’s called the Securing a Strong Retirement Act or Secure Act for short:
“This bill makes various changes with respect to employer-sponsored retirement plans, including providing for the automatic enrollment of employees in certain plans and increasing the age at which participants are required to begin receiving mandatory distributions.”
The House bill had two original cosponsors, Richard Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts and Kevin Brady of Texas. All told the final version actually had 103 sponsors. There’s a previous version of the bill that went through the wringer in 2020 but didn’t make the cut, and another version of it that will likely be incorporated partially or in full to the final bill as it makes it way to the Senate. Importantly, this isn’t law yet as it only recently made it out of committee, in this case the all important Ways and Means Committee.
The committee gave it hearty support and—this part is fascinating to dig through Unf*ckers—referred it in a nearly 600 page report. In case you’re wondering what takes so long for large scale bills to make it through Congress, here you go.
So this bill is a companion of sorts to an earlier bill that stripped away barriers to implementing retirement plans but, as far as I can tell, didn’t move the needle all that much in terms of boosting enrollment to qualified retirement plans. This one has some substantial teeth to it. A surprising amount, actually.
First off, the bill would mandate that all employers with more than ten employees offer a qualified retirement plan—a 401(k), or 403(b) for nonprofit employers—to all employees and that new employees be automatically enrolled. I’ll say that last part again. Automatically enrolled with a 3% deduction to go toward their retirement.
It also does something really smart. Because it mandates every employer provide a qualified retirement plan, which is an administrative fucking nightmare by the way, it is providing funds to cover any costs associated with implementing these plans. And that’s a good thing.
Oh, a whole lot more. It also allows seniors to dramatically increase their contributions. Right now, the level you’re allowed to invest in a plan is capped because these are pre-tax dollars and the original idea wasn’t to allow really wealthy people to just sock away pre-tax money. But Congress recognizes that we’re in the midst of a retirement crisis with more than 40% of Americans claiming they won’t have enough money to retire. And that lines up with stats that show that 40% of seniors currently exist only on Social Security.
And dig this, even though this has been piloted, it was never official. Student debt matching, just like 401(k) matching will be formalized and authorized.
Now importantly, this isn’t law yet. In fact, the Senate is working on its own version of the bill so there’s work to be done to pair the two and move them through to the President’s desk. Although, there are many who believe that this is a 2022 thing due to the overwhelming bipartisan support the bill enjoys.
Sooo…What’s the problem here?
Nothing, if you are of the belief that retirement in this country should be tied to gainful, lifelong employment. And if Congress is any reflection of this sentiment, there were only five “nay” votes and 12 abstentions. 414 members of the House voted for it and it apparently has broad support for the paired bill in the Senate. So if it comes up for a vote this year, it’s likely to hit Biden’s desk for signature relatively soon.
I want to reflect for a moment on Social Security and do a call back to one of our earliest episodes titled The Beatification of Ronald Reagan. In that episode we covered the rise of a Washington gadfly named Alan Greenspan who would become one of the most influential figures in the back half of the 20th and early 21st centuries. What made Greenspan the darling of the Reagan administration was a plan that he conceived to ostensibly lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while Reagan was delivering 11 straight tax increases to the working class. Yes, 11. The Gipper is often remembered in revisionist text as the president who cut taxes. Well, he wasn’t. In fact, he was one of the most prolific tax hikers in history.
Greenspan’s idea was to create a cap on Social Security deductions. The cap increases each year, but essentially everyone pays into Social Security until one reaches $147,000 in wages in today’s dollars. After that, the deductions stop. Most Americans don’t think about it because most Americans don’t make more than this. That’s what we call a regressive tax. Essentially, the highest income earners in the country stop having Social Security taken out of their wages in the first quarter. A billionaire might stop paying in January.
Now, Social Security goes into a trust. It’s not really a trust, more like an accounting trust, but for argument’s sake let’s just say that it goes into one giant pot to be distributed to retirement age people for the remainder of their lives. Let’s also remember from our episode titled Immigration Nation that some $13 billion a year goes into this same pot from false Social Security IDs of undocumented immigrants who will never receive the benefit of these deductions.
So on a per capita basis, these funds are made up predominantly of working class and immigrant wage deductions. Then calculations are made as to what the trust can actuarially afford to pay citizens in retirement. The average payout, again in today’s dollars, is around $1,500 per month. 40% of retired or soon-to-be retired Americans will have to figure out how to live on $1,500 per month.
So the government is looking for ways to augment these figures because it knows that this is untenable. It’s an actual crisis and it prevents tens of millions of people from retiring with dignity. It creates stress on families and children. Robs tens of millions of people from passing along any generational wealth, which is how the majority of wealthy people in this country accumulate wealth. It drives up the cost of healthcare and end of life care as quality of life suffers in these older years.
So if you believe that the only way to guarantee a dignified retirement is to augment the base of deductions that come from wages, then you are both a believer in the free market and a non-believer. Because you obviously understand that the market on its own is incapable of accomplishing this thereby necessitating government intervention to prop it up.
Rule Number Two: Protect the war machine. Even if we don’t have our own war.
We’ll make the second and third rules of this Quickie quick. They pertain to the business of war. And make no mistake, it’s a business.
Our original hot take on the war in Ukraine was that NATO had been unwittingly laying the groundwork for a madman like Putin to justify an invasion of Ukraine through his propaganda channels. President Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks that Ukraine may someday be part of NATO set off a chain of events behind the scenes in the Kremlin that gave Putin cover with his people that an invasion was a necessary defensive maneuver against western aggression.
Then his propaganda machine went into full force painting Ukraine as a nation of Nazi sympathizers. Several Unf*ckers hated this take despite my assertions that correlation in this case did not imply causation and that Putin made a huge and evil miscalculation all by himself. He’s a bloodthirsty bit player from an economic standpoint, merely looking to cement his legacy as a strongman over a rather weak nation of lawlessness, oligarchical rule and corruption.
No matter the take, it left the United States in an awkward position of having to support Ukraine’s war efforts despite the absence of a formal alliance in NATO. As the war drags on, it’s become increasingly evident that Putin did indeed overestimate his capabilities and the resolve of the Ukrainian people. And a significant part of this failed equation has been the Biden Administration’s balancing act in terms of military funding.
And that brings us to the second rule: Protecting the war machine and the Ukraine Lend Lease Act:
“The Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 temporarily waives certain requirements related to the President’s authority to lend or lease defense articles if the defense articles are intended for Ukraine’s government or the governments of other Eastern European countries affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For Fiscal years 2022 and 2023, an agreement to lend or lease defense articles under this bill shall not be subject to certain requirements and provisions that typically apply to such lend-lease agreements, including a requirement that generally prohibits a loan or lease period from exceeding five years.”
The bill started in the Senate in mid-January and was quickly passed and sent to committee. It emerged from committee in April and was basically fast tracked to Biden’s desk with the House voting on the Senate bill with bipartisan cosponsors and support. Ultimately, only a handful of ultra right wing Republicans in the House—such as MTG and Butthead Gaetz—voted against it because they’ve got their own Russia conspiracy thing going on. But on balance it sailed through with a 98% approval from 414 House members.
There are a few ways of looking at this. Russia’s cold calculation was monstrous and in violation of international law. Have we been guilty of the same thing in the past? Yeah. Like a lot. But our transgressions don’t make this specific case of military support wrong. Do I still find it offensive that we failed to muster any attempts at a diplomatic solution to this crisis by calling the world to the table to beat back Putin’s aggression? Yes. Sorry, not sorry.
Just about the only country that stood in support of Russia was Belarus. Did we levy sanctions on both countries? Yes. Did we voice our disapproval loudly at the invasion? Yes. Did we gather friends and foes alike to present a united front against this unhinged dictator with a mixture of global sanctions, red lines and plainly stated threats? Not really. Would it have mattered? Dunno.
Now, are the Ukrainian defense forces maximizing our supply of weapons and cash? It appears so. Are many Ukrainian and Russian citizens dying as a result of this war? Absolutely. Is there a clear winner in all of this? Yes. We are. Far and away.
Our military industrial complex is feasting and one of our primary perceived foes in the world is suffering loss of life, wealth and face. So through this lens, thumbs up for America.
But if preservation of life and finding peaceful resolutions to global conflict is your jam, then recall the words of George Kennan who instructed American foreign policy makers on the psychology of Russian leadership. More than anything else, Russian leaders look to save face. And if they lose standing and reputation in the eyes of their people and the world, they act out in horrific ways. It’s a delicate balance because we have a history of understanding the downside of appeasement. And I get it. On the flip side, I worry about what comes next as the rat retreats further into the corner.
But this much is certain, if you want to understand what makes America tick and see bipartisanship play out in real time, look no further than the funding of the war machine. Even if we have nothing to do with the war at hand.
Oh, and just for some context seeing as how we are apparently united in our defense of global conflicts in violation of international law, here are some highlights from a 2022 report by the Institute for Security Studies, a non profit that seeks to peacefully resolve conflicts in Africa.
The recent terror attack in Uganda reflects the threat that violent extremism will continue to pose to Central Africa, East Africa and the Horn.
Although instability preceded the war that began in November 2020, Ethiopia’s conflict has since gained impetus and intensity. Bringing the belligerents to the negotiation table is an absolute priority to stop the bloodshed and sustain any chance of a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
The Central African Republic (CAR) has been embroiled in a conflict for several years. Developments indicate that it remains trapped in an intractable cycle of violence.
South Sudan will be another country to watch as it enters the final year of implementing the 2018 Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan. Despite progress, much remains to be done to conclude the transition within the allotted time and end long years of suffering for the South Sudanese.
Over the last five years, the conflict in north and south-west Cameroon has not received the attention it deserves from regional and continental actors. What began as protests over poor governance and marginalization turned into a deadly insurgency. This has caused many deaths, upended the lives of thousands and created a humanitarian crisis, all of which could have been avoided.
In 2022, Africa will also continue to face the threat of violent extremism and terrorism in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin (LCB) regions, East Africa and the Horn, and Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado.
So, I get it. Russia bad. Ukraine good. War is messy and hard decisions must be made. And as much as I’m willing to meet people where they are, I’m no shrinking violet. So before you hop on your high horse and lecture me about my belief that we are obligated as the world’s preeminent superpower to leverage our position in the world by exhausting every avenue possible to avoid war, then you better fucking bone on up what’s happening in parts of the world where white people don’t live.
Rule Three: Protect the war machine. In case you want to start a war.
I’ll make this last one quick. Incorporating provisions from 54 other bills we have the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021, which passed with 85% approval in the House and 89% approval in the Senate. It included $31 billion of new spending over the next decade on top of the nearly $800 billion proposed. And the proposed bill for 2023 includes new requests from the Biden Harris team to bring next year’s authorization to $813 billion a year.
We’ve covered defense spending before in our Climate Industrial Complex, Violent States of America, and Priorities episodes. It’s hard to ignore considering the size of the budget. When you add in provisions for homeland security, veteran spending, nuclear security/maintenance and cybersecurity, the figure easily balloons to $1 trillion dollars annually. A trillion dollars every year pouring into the war machine for new weapons. To maintain the nearly 800 bases the military controls throughout the world. To guide arms deals with some of the worst and most nefarious regimes across the globe.
Every year the budget increases despite the fact that we are technically not at war with anyone, anywhere. Over the past several years, Congress has actually awarded more than requested by either the White House or the Pentagon. There are bases scattered strategically throughout the United States that support incumbent congresspeople. There are military contractors who make fortunes and oftentimes can’t spend the money fast enough.
This is who we are. This is what bipartisanship looks like in America. Under all of the bravado and talking head segments on broadcast media. Behind all of the punditry and outrage, the things we agree on tell us a great deal about who we are and what we stand for. Free market corporate greed and bloodlust.
The conflict surrounding identity politics? Pure theater. Subterfuge to get you to look away from what’s really going on. As we head toward the midterms and into an unknown future, I wanted to pause and put this out there to remind us all of what really matters.
Congress is filled with actors and charlatans feigning outrage in public while quietly dealing from the bottom of the deck in private to do the bidding of corporate puppeteers that determine who gets to retire with dignity, which global conflict we deem to be worthy of our money and might, and ultimately who lives and who dies.
Here endeth the quickie.
Ghost Army Legacy Project: The story of The Ghost Army in a nutshell
GovTrack: H.R. 1448: PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act
GovTrack: H.R. 8351: Formula Act
Committee On Ways And Means, House Of Representatives Report: Securing a Strong Retirement Act of 2021
Congress.gov: 1st Session S. 1770
ISS PSC Report: African conflicts to watch in 2022
U.S. Department of Defense: The Department of Defense Releases the President’s Fiscal Year 2023 Defense Budget
Politico Magazine: Where in the World Is the U.S. Military?
UNFTR Episode Resources
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