Government is the way we organize our responsibilities to each other.
That’s the phrase I repeated over and over in my first campaign for Congress in 2006. It seemed then that while maybe overly-idealistic, that description of government’s role was at least appropriately aspirational. And it at least had the benefit of contrasting clearly with the Republican philosophy, which seemed to be not quite “survival of the fittest,” but at least “to the victors go the spoils.”
Over the first 14 years of my congressional life, I never stopped believing in the theory that government in America should be a source of societal justice, but in practice that ideal had become less and less realistic. As our society became more and more polarized, and public expectations of government became less and less ambitious, I began to suspect that my ambitions for the federal government, especially for Congress, were far greater than the public’s, and that the country’s expectations for government were historically low.
Those hopes were even lower last Nov. 4, coincidentally my birthday and the day after the 2020 elections. We Democrats had expected a big victory, since polls showed us sweeping the presidency and the Senate, and increasing our margin in the House. I was certainly happy about my reelection, but despondent that Donald Trump might be reelected and the Senate would remain in Mitch McConnell’s control.
As the days went by, it became pretty clear that Joe Biden had defeated Trump, although the incumbent would not concede and his campaign filed lawsuits challenging results all over the country. Still, the prospects weren’t good for us Democrats to have a chance to change the country’s direction. Then came Jan. 6, the shocking results in runoff Senate elections in Georgia, and a glimmer of hope appeared.
What a difference a few months make. Last week, the president signed into law H.R. 1319, the American Rescue Plan Act, the most sweeping, societal reorienting legislation since the Great Society agenda of the 1960s.
I have the great honor of having my name on that legislation as the lead sponsor. I didn’t write the bill; it was written by 12 different House committees, and it was amended in the Senate. But as chairman of the House Committee on the Budget, my role was to assemble all the pieces, then manage its path through the House Rules Committee, then on the House floor, and then once again manage the Senate-amended version through the House.
The House initially passed the American Rescue Plan Act on Feb. 25, at two in the morning. As I was driving away from the Capitol, I was overwhelmed by emotion, for the first time comprehending the difference the bill would make in the lives of so many Americans. I confess I had pretty much lost confidence in Congress’s ability to do anything consequential, but here we had taken the first step, passing a bill that would support more than 85% of Americans, and none of the top 1%.
The next day, while at lunch back in Louisville with my wife, Cathy, the phone rang, and while I didn’t recognize the number, I answered. “Do you have a minute to speak to the President?” a pleasant voice asked.
I held it together for the three minutes that President Biden and I spoke. He thanked me for my leadership, and we talked about a few other things, while I tried to hold it together. I did, barely. When we hung up, I totally lost it, and in that moment, I truly understood what government can be; what it should be.
Last Wednesday, we passed the revised bill again in the House, and we sent it to the president in a ceremony on the terrace of the U.S. Capitol, overlooking the mall. And last Friday we sat in the Rose Garden for a ceremony celebrating its enactment into law.
Four million of Kentucky’s 4.4 million citizens will receive $1,400 checks. More than 1 million children will receive refundable tax credits worth at least $3,000, pulling many out of poverty. Kentucky state government will receive $2.4 billion, which can be used for infrastructure projects, support for small businesses and individuals. There is also funding to help make Kentucky schools safe for reopening and to fund efforts to help students catch up for the last year.
There is much more to cheer about in the American Rescue Plan, and I hope Kentuckians will understand the magnitude of what we’ve done. But I can’t resist a partisan barb: The rest of the Kentucky federal delegation, all Republicans, voted against the bill. I hope they are asked why. •
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, founder of LEO, has represented Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District since 2007 and is now chairman of the House Budget Committee.