- - Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Another New Deal, or no deal?

After months of negotiations between the centrist and liberal wings of congressional Democrats, the fate of President Biden’s social safety net, climate and infrastructure agendas remains in flux.

Despite new obstacles arising almost daily, it appears some kind of deal will make it through Congress — when is not clear —  but it will certainly not be the most expansive (or expensive) legislative package desired by liberals — and definitely not another New Deal in its depth and scope.

In this episode of History As It Happens, renowned scholar David M. Kennedy discusses why Mr. Biden’s agenda is in so much trouble. It partly has to do with the basic math on Capitol Hill: Democrats have the slimmest of majorities to enact legislation as Republicans are unanimously opposed to expanding the safety net.

The more important reason has historical overtones: There have been but a few moments in U.S. history when Congress could push through fundamental reforms or major social welfare bills.

“It is extremely difficult to keep that ungainly vehicle called the Democratic Party together. I’m reminded of a famous quip of Will Rogers way back in the 1920s. He said, I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat,” said Mr. Kennedy, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.”

“There’s another, deeper factor here that doesn’t get a lot of attention in today’s media, but it should. And that is, we’re living with the consequences of a constitutional order crafted more than two centuries ago in that fateful summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, the logic of which was to contain power, to make sure power was not exercised vigorously and capriciously from the center,” the Stanford historian said.

Thus, the framers of the Constitution built in any number of checks and vetoes capable of stopping rapid or radical change. As a result, only in times of major emergencies (i.e., the Great Depression) have presidents, working with large majorities in Congress, been able to usher in structural changes such as the most important New Deal programs that endure to this day.

“When we really need vigorous legislative action, it is really hard to get it — thanks to the system we have,” Mr. Kennedy said.

For more of Mr. Kennedy’s remarks about the differences between the political atmospheres of the New Deal era and today, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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