We knew that the Thanksgiving to New Year’s period on Capitol Hill was going to be a train wreck.
It just wasn’t clear until a few days ago that the already bloated Congressional agenda for the holidays may involve actual rail cars.
All aboard the Congressional Express.
Heading into the holiday season, Congress needed to avoid a government shutdown. Pass a defense bill. Retool the law governing the certification of the Electoral College. Pass a bill to protect same-sex and interracial marriage. All the while, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is scrambling to conjure the votes to become Speaker next year.
But the first Congressional Christmastime crisis of 2022 came via rail. After much hand wringing, Congress interceded to block a nationwide rail strike at the holidays.
And you thought only Snow Miser and Heat Miser could screw things up at Christmas.
Lawmakers were loath to get involved at President Biden’s behest.
"This is an urgent issue and Congress needs to step up. We don't like to do this. We'd rather see the parties do it through labor negotiations. But at this point, there's no other alternative," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
"That dog’s not going to hunt with some Republicans," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.
"There are mixed views," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about the views of Senate Republicans. "Some may be inclined to vote against it and others are arguing that the economical price of doing nothing is too great."
"I don't know why we're having to do this, but we are apparently," said a reluctant Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "I want to make sure that we do no harm to the economy."
"A strike or any kind of shutdown would hurt us at a time when our economy is just starting to show positive signs of recovery," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
President Biden dispatched Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to Capitol Hill on Thursday. Their goal was to warn pro-labor senators about the consequences of inaction.
However, unlike other industries, Congress is empowered to step in an impose terms to avert railroad and airline strikes.
This is thanks to the Railway Labor Act. In the early 20th Century, Congress considered federalizing the railroads because they were so important. But they instead elected to establish special bargaining rules and a labor board to mediate disputes. Congress also granted itself the power to halt any strikes. Lawmakers later extended that power to cover the airlines.
Congress has only involved itself in a rail strike once before. The International Association of Machinists launched a three-day strike in 1992, shutting down the nation’s railroads. Congress quickly passed a bill to bar a strikes or lockout and the dispute was resolved.
This is why the railroad row received a skeptical eye from civil libertarians, small-government Republicans and pro-labor lawmakers. However, the consequences of a railroad strike just before the holidays – amid an economy already shredded by inflation – is a recipe for calamity.
Still, the liberal push for medical leave could have tanked the bill to avoid a rail strike.
"This amendment simply says ‘seven paid sick days for workers in the rail industry’ and I hope we can win it," argued Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on the Senate floor.
But paid medical leave for railroad workers couldn’t score 60 yeas to overcome a filibuster. Only 52 senators voted yea.
"If we had 60 votes in the Senate, it could possibly happen. But we don't have 60 votes in the Senate," lamented House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Some Republicans didn’t want Congress to impose its will on the unions. Instead, they hoped to intervene in another fashion. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, crafted a plan to require a two-month "cooling off" period for the unions and rail companies.
"It will give negotiators more time to get to an agreement. And it will not make Congress the entity of last resort in these kinds of negotiations," said Sullivan.
But Sullivan’s plan proved even more unpopular than Sanders’ amendment for seven days of paid sick leave. The Sullivan amendment garnered a scant 26 votes.
Railroad workers did score pay hikes in the deal. But progressives downplayed that win for the unions.
"The workers received a 24 percent increase in their wages. That sounds like a lot of money," said Sanders. "They have not received a pay increase in the last 3 years. And if you average it out, that pay increase is less than inflation today."
But the Senate finally approved the bill with 80 – mostly reluctant – yes votes to avert the strike. That measure aligned with the House’s action earlier in the week. President Biden signed the package Friday morning.
December crisis #1 averted.
Now on to the rest of the crises which will torment Congress through the holidays if not into January.
The biggest issue is funding the government.
"Hopefully an agreement will be reached soon," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Congress faces a December 16 deadline to avoid a government shutdown. But it’s increasingly likely that negotiators may need to prepare an interim spending bill knows as a "Continuing Resolution" or "CR," in Washington speak. Such a bill keeps the federal lights on. But it simply re-ups all government spending at the old levels.
Hoyer also said that the annual defense policy bill wasn’t ready yet. He hoped the House Armed Services Committee would have filed the text on Friday. But nothing doing.
There’s hope in some quarters to pass a bill to ban lawmakers from stock trades. Plus, they hope to approve a final fix to DACA, via the DREAM Act.
"It is time to deliver for our DREAMers," said Rep.-elect Delia Ramirez, D-Ill., at a Capitol Hill press conference.
This is the Christmas Congressional crunch.
It sounds like a wondrous, edible, holiday delight. Perhaps dipped in milk chocolate. A taste of toffee. Perhaps it pairs well with mulled wine or hot cocoa.
But the Christmas Congressional crunch is anything but.
It’s simply the least appetizing dish on Capitol Hill.
And it’s only served this time of the year.