Why Trust Is in Short Supply on Capitol Hill
Suspicion and skepticism among lawmakers complicates deal-making.,
WASHINGTON — Congress is running a serious trust deficit.
While a bipartisan group of centrist senators was able to strike a rare accord on infrastructure, the continuing struggle to hash out and advance the legislation exposed a broader problem that has hindered lawmakers in recent years: a nagging suspicion that their colleagues were not acting in good faith.
Each side harbors deep doubts about the true motives of the other, making it increasingly difficult for lawmakers to take the leap and get behind big bills as they warily eye one another across the aisle.
On Friday, the infrastructure measure was briefly hung up again as Republicans suspected that Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, was trying to trick them into accepting a Democratic measure instead of the bipartisan deal. Mr. Schumer’s office said that he was making no such move, and that it would make no sense for him to backtrack on his promise to bring the compromise bill to the floor. The misunderstanding passed, but it was another indicator of the degree of mistrust on Capitol Hill.
Democrats are leery of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader who has bedeviled and thwarted them for years. Progressive Democrats are suspicious that their more moderate colleagues will give too much ground in their zeal to notch a bipartisan achievement. And conservative Republicans worry that their own centrists will do the same, a concern stoked by Donald J. Trump’s attacks on the infrastructure bill as a Democratic Trojan horse devised to dupe the G.O.P. into a politically fatal move.
Then there is the House, which does not trust the Senate, and vice versa. Everyone in Congress these days seems to believe everyone else is up to something. It is the legacy of the polarization and power plays that have robbed Congress of an essential ingredient to reaching big policy agreements.
“Trust is key, and there is almost none now,” said Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate leader from South Dakota who was able to work with his Republican counterpart, Trent Lott, despite their fundamental ideological differences. “Trust comes from personal relationships built over time.”
While members of the group of senators who developed the legislation with the White House say they have forged strong bonds that allow them to confidently deal with one another, suspicions about their agreement remain among their colleagues.
Many Democrats fear that Republicans, led by Mr. McConnell, are playing them, dragging out the infrastructure proceedings in hopes of watering down the package and complicating or killing Democratic efforts to pass a much larger $3.5 trillion budget measure stuffed with the party’s priorities. Their view is based on experiences from 2009 and 2010, when Republicans engaged in extended talks on health care, exacting concessions and taking up precious time, only to abandon the idea and leave Democrats on their own at a critical moment.
Republicans, on the other hand, worry that Mr. Schumer and most Democrats do not really want a bipartisan deal and would prefer to go it alone on their bigger, more progressive package. They believe Mr. Schumer is going through the motions to satisfy the bipartisan desires of President Biden and a handful of Democratic senators to keep them on board for the bigger bill, but would not be unhappy if the infrastructure compromise collapsed so he could move on and still be able to say that he tried and failed to work with Republicans.
They hold this view even though Mr. Schumer has declared repeatedly that he is truly committed to delivering the bipartisan bill to Mr. Biden’s desk in tandem with the much larger Democratic package.
The Republican unease was reflected in the position of several who refused to vote to open debate on the legislation until they could see the details in writing.
“When you are not relying on trust, you are relying on the printed word,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, one of those awaiting the fine print.
Members of both parties acknowledge senators are dealing with significant trust issues.
“There are Democrats who are saying Republicans are slow-walking the infrastructure deal, and there are Republicans who say Democrats are slow-walking this infrastructure deal,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, who noted that he had been privately reassuring Republicans that both Mr. Biden and Mr. Schumer wanted the legislation. “The lack of trust from one caucus to another has made it harder to get this deal resolved.”
Multiple senators said the issue — like many in Congress — had grown out of the lack of personal connection between members of the two parties as Republicans and Democrats seldom interact as they did in the past.
Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, also points to the breakdown of the committee system, in which the leader of a panel would typically work closely with the senior member of the other party to develop legislation. Today, significant measures often emerge not from committee rooms but from leadership suites or “gangs” of negotiating lawmakers, as is the case with the infrastructure bill.
“When we had a strong committee system, you had strong relationships based on trust between the chairman and ranking member,” said Ms. Collins, one of the bipartisan infrastructure negotiators. “Now, because the committee structure and the power of the committees has lessened and more and more legislation is written either by groups like ours or in the leader’s office, it is harder to build those bonds of trust that allow you to get things done.”
The trust gap has only widened after the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. Many Democrats believe Republicans were complicit, and some Republican lawmakers have subsequently sought to downplay the events of that day or blame the other party for them.
The recent deaths of three highly regarded former senators — Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, and John Warner, Republican of Virginia, and Mike Enzi, Republican of Wyoming — have touched off memories about a time when lawmakers of different political parties were not always at one another’s throats.
“Carl was a senator’s senator,” Kent Conrad, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota, said of Mr. Levin, a longtime friend and colleague of his who died on Thursday at 87. “He showed everyone, whether you agreed or disagreed with him, how you work across the aisle. You would just hope that kind of spirit would be reignited.”
Mr. Biden and the bipartisan group are promoting the infrastructure deal as proof that the Senate is still capable of such things. But it is also evidence of how hard reaching agreement can be, suggesting that making other deals will be very difficult.
The infrastructure bill is a sweeping public works and jobs bill with something for everyone, the type of pork barrel measure that used to be the bread and butter of Congress. Yet to get what should be very popular legislation to a debate on the Senate floor has taken the concerted backing of the White House, the cooperation of the Senate leadership and weeks and weeks of intense talks. The measure could still collapse at any moment — and that is before the House gets its hands on it.
Mr. Coons agreed that the trust level looked bad from the outside, but he said it was better than it seemed within the institution.
“There are relationships here that cross party lines, that are real and are positive and are meaningful and that are helping contribute to holding this place together,” he said. “There are more than you think, but not as many as there should be.”
Others are not sure whether to trust that assessment.
“Time was, serious discussions were carried out in good faith by legislators who believed trust was the coin of the realm” said Bob Stevenson, a former longtime Republican Senate leadership aide. “But given the political toxicity of the modern era, that coin’s not worth much anymore.”