The final two-plus years of the Trump administration, for example, began with a government shutdown and featured two presidential impeachments. But they also saw the passage of a major conservation bill, a new trade agreement, significant criminal-justice reform, and several pandemic-relief packages. Lawmakers banned surprise medical billing and raised the age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21. Sometimes Congress does get credit for its successes. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act, passed swiftly after the coronavirus shut down huge portions of the U.S. economy in March 2020, provided some form of relief to nearly every American, as did the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that Congress enacted a year later. (Not coincidentally, Gallup found that Congress’s approval rating peaked—at a still dismal 36 percent—around the time it was literally giving cash to most households.) More recently, the passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill last year was a top story in the news.
Last year, Simon Bazelon and Matthew Yglesias identified this dynamic as the “Secret Congress.” Perhaps a better term would be Shadow Congress, borrowing from the label recently affixed to certain “shadow docket” rulings of the Supreme Court. These new bills, after all, are public, but relatively few care to notice. One reason they draw little attention is because the president hasn’t been fighting for them, at least not publicly. Biden has spent no time campaigning for the passage of postal reform or the arbitration ban. He’s issued only a few statements on the Violence Against Women Act, despite the fact that helping write and pass the original landmark law was one of the president’s signature accomplishments as a senator, and something he regularly touted on the 2020 campaign trail.
Contrary to assumptions about the presidential “bully pulpit,” Biden’s silence might have helped these agreements come together. [Frances] Lee’s research has shown that presidential involvement in an issue tends to increase its partisanship, which in a divided Congress usually lowers its chance of passage.