As the COVID-19 vaccine is soon to be rolled out, the country remains in economic decline and is politically divided.
In a webinar titled What to Expect from Congress: Transitions, Change, and Bipartisan Cooperation on December 1, former Congressmen Bob Etheridge and John Mica discussed the recent U.S. election race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, how U.S. Democrats and Republicans must cooperate in the coming year, and Congress’s role in foreign policy and trade.
The event was held under the auspices of the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Office of Global Perspectives and International Initiatives and was moderated by its Executive Director David Dumke.
“We are in a very contentious time in U.S. politics to have this discussion on what to expect from Congress transitions and change in bipartisan cooperation,” Dumke said as he introduced both guest speakers.
Etheridge is a Democrat who represented North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional district from 1997 to 2011 and served on the House Agriculture, Budget, Homeland Security, and Ways and Means Committees. Mica, meanwhile, is a member of the Republican party, having represented Florida’s 7th Congressional district, of which UCF is a part, from 1993 to 2017. He was also the chairman of the Transportations and Infrastructure Committee, and also served on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The U.S. Elections In Retrospect
While Mica believes that this is an exciting time to be discussing what is currently happening and what is going to happen in light of the Biden win, he also pointed out that U.S. presidential elections have always been highly contentious.
Having previously witnessed transitions between Democrats and Republicans, he sees that not much has changed in the intensity and stress surrounding ‘change’.
“The transitions, some are very tough, and this one is no different. President Trump has been trying every one of his options to overturn what appears to be a popular and electoral win by Biden but all that is decided ultimately on the House floor when you have the vote with the electoral college. Again, nothing much in my opinion has changed. It’s just different varieties of intensity and different scenarios that you can never predict,” he said.
Etheridge however, having also witnessed transitions in the White House, believes that the current divide is not something the country has previously experienced in recent decades.
“We have a candidate now doing everything to undermine democracy and the free enterprise of moving boats, trying to get people to change their minds. These are challenging times for us and we’re moving into what I think is one of the most challenging administrations that President-elect Biden will take over,” said Etheridge.
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, current times are, by default, a challenge. Nonetheless, Etheridge says that the vaccines being rolled out will change this, as people have been worried about things they “ought not to be worried about” for some time now.
Both Mica and Etheridge stress that, regardless of the party in charge, now is a time for everyone to come together. Etheridge explained that the current downturn in the U.S. economy needs to be resolved in a bipartisan manner so that people who are hurting are attended to; this includes those who are not only unemployed, but also out of food.
“If ever there’s been a time when members of both parties, the White House administration as well as house and Senate need to come together, it’s now. I trust that partisanship will be placed aside to some extent and we’ll come together for policies that benefit the American people,” said Etheridge.
But many believe that the overall atmosphere is highly partisan which brings Congress at a stalemate when trying to pass critical legislation for moving the country forward, Dumke pointed out.
The challenge is not only transitioning from one party to the other in office, but also transitioning people. For the most part, Mica emphasized that the current political tension is nothing particularly out of the ordinary.
“I saw the [George W.] Bush transitions [in 2000] and I don’t see it being that different; he was never declared until it went to the Supreme Court and it was weeks later. Of course, that was because of a narrow margin in one state. Trump has had narrow margins in about three or four states,” he said.
This kind of tension will eventually dissipate, Mica says. However, there are three other major issues facing the United States that need to be addressed immediately: the health crisis, the economy, and global challenges.
“The three issues are clearly the health issues. Some of that will be resolved before the swearing in as the vaccine will be distributed widely by December and January. The next thing is the economy and that’s a tougher one because there’s a difference between a liberal approach, which is to spend unlimited amounts of money, and a more conservative approach that Republicans have. Lastly, we have the global situation,” said Mica.
Globally, the US is behind in many aspects and “the world will get ready even if the U.S. isn’t [ready] to accommodate their own security and situation”. This encompasses challenges with North Korea in their development of nuclear capabilities, the issues pertaining to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and influence in the Middle East, and the resurgence of ISIS in recent years.
Global issues will have to be approached in a more bipartisan manner, Mica suggests.
Etheridge also mentioned several domestic problems that need to be addressed, including maintenance and repair of infrastructure, roads, bridges and airports. This, he said, goes back to the issue of needing something ‘now,’ emphasizing the pressing nature of these concerns.
“All we need to do is go to a food bank. I visited one yesterday and they’re telling me that their increase in need for people who have never shown up at their door here in a rural county is now up at almost 50 percent and, in some places, it is up by 200 percent,” said Etheridge.
… For the People …
He went on to say that the government needs to focus on people who are hurting, such as those who are hungry and children who aren’t in school because of the pandemic. “We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world, so there is no reason why people have to go hungry and have no access to healthcare. It’s inexcusable,” he said.
Etheridge reiterated his hope that the pandemic will bring people together, bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans. “Maybe this pandemic will bring both sides together to do something to benefit the American people rather than continue to dig trenches where we worry about who is more liberal and who is more conservative. This doesn’t benefit people,” he said.
While the elections revealed a divided state of the union, coming together post-elections is necessary to get the economy started, or rather re-started.
The role of the vaccine and its effective distribution can’t be understated because it should serve as a step forward in providing stability, for people to go back to work, and for a more normal life, Mica said.
“However, tens of thousands of businesses have closed and it will be hard to get them back,” he added. With the many challenges, there is a general understanding that because of the situation the U.S. is in, people are likely to come together regardless of political beliefs, “but of course there are groups on both sides that can cause issues and delays in moving necessary policies forward,” said Mica.
Etheridge is rather optimistic that congruent with crises bringing people together, President-elect Biden is selecting people in government who are “seasoned and responsible” enough to handle the current climate, but with a different tone.
There are several ways to move an agenda forward. “You can be inclusive and you bring people with the House and Senate and then you take the message out to the people, so you let the people know what you are trying to do for them. The president can move an agenda with the support of the American people,” said Etheridge.
This all goes back to the style of communication. Dumke noted Trump’s tendency to use social media, mostly Twitter, to communicate. While social media is a more modern means of communication, Mica said that different presidents will have different approaches to communication in general.
On the other hand, Etheridge views social media as a poor way to communicate because it forces one to explain policy in a few words, which is often inaccurate. “Social media has a way of engaging people but in some cases it doesn’t help to positively move an agenda forward and make effective policy,” he said.
Dania El Akkawi is associate editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.
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