Before Trump, America normalized a broken Congress
By now, the moral cowardice of congressional Republicans in the face of Trumpism has been well established. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s pathetic attempt to dodge a straightforward question about the Trump administration’s lies (a “mindless sycophant,” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson called McCarthy) is just the latest example of the unwillingness of the GOP to operate the legislative branch as an independent body of government.
But easily overlooked in the head-spinning chaos that’s seen the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower become the tribe of Trump and Hannity is another fact of life that predates Trumpism: the abysmally low expectations for what counts as success in Congress. Before the American political machine learned to normalize Donald Trump, it learned to normalize congressional dysfunction. Electing Democratic majorities this November won’t just check the Trump administration — it might also check the relentless slide into irrelevancy of the United States Congress.
It’s easy to forget that the legislative process used to involve both legislating and procedure. In late 2015, alluding to the absence of both that had come to define the House of Representatives, Speaker Paul Ryan told NPR that “what this place [the House] always used to do is try to predetermine everything, down to like the amendment. And I don’t think the speaker’s office should have that kind of power.”
Yet today power remains even more concentrated within the speaker’s office, allowing one individual to control the agenda of an institution designed to reflect the will of the people. Bills with strong bipartisan and popular support, like permanent protections for Dreamers, don’t get a vote if they don’t align with the speaker’s political agenda. Meanwhile, if he feels like skipping the pesky process of debate or the burden of transparency, he simply deposits his bills straight on the floor. The House of Representatives has become a political charade.
The Senate isn’t far behind. As Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to push through the GOP’s massive tax cut late last year, for instance, some lobbyists got access to last-minute amendments before Democrats did. Meanwhile, Republican aides scribbled other tweaks to the bill in the margins of a printed copy in an attempt to rush the bill through with as little oversight as possible. As adherence to rules and precedent evaporates, so do the remaining pretenses of public service.
Both Ryan and McConnell assumed their powerful leadership roles with solemn vows to maintain “regular order.” That is, at least, until they found it more convenient to cast aside those rules and norms when they proved inconvenient. One imagines this isn’t what the Founding Fathers had in mind. But for a party that fundamentally doesn’t believe in government, what better way to demonstrate its worthlessness than to sabotage one of its core institutions? America’s constitutional order offers few backstops for such cynicism and shamelessness.
There are plenty of reasons why Gallup’s congressional approval ratings have hovered around 20 percent for nearly a decade: Failing to maintain existing programs with broad public support. Failing to follow any semblance of regular order. Failing to repair bills with obvious flaws. Failing to attempt to address new national challenges. Failing even to keep the government itself open for more than a few months at a time.
As it is with any number of norm-breaking Trumpist pronouncements, the steps that marked the devolution of Congress into a political traffic jam first struck us as unprecedented and potentially catastrophic failures that must never be repeated. Then they happened again to less fanfare. And again and again, eventually reaching the present reality, where government shutdowns are somewhat regular occurrences and few people even pretend the U.S. Congress is capable of doing its job. Rather than being shocked by its failures, we’re shocked by its successes. Some days, we’re even shocked by its avoidance of failures. And thus is the bar lowered further, and the brokenness of Congress normalized.
What makes these failures even worse — and even more likely to continue — is that most are measured not by their long-term impact on the democratic process but instead in immediate wins and losses. Both the media and the American people have been complicit in chasing the fleeting satisfaction of short-term scandal and outrage at the cost of obscuring deeper congressional dysfunction. Passing a week-long continuing resolution along party lines might make CNN’s shutdown countdown disappear, but hitting the snooze button on national responsibilities only postpones the inevitable reckoning.
Just because an institution is broken doesn’t mean it’s incapable of unexpected jolts of progress, even in the Trump era. In early 2017, by large bipartisan margins, the House and Senate passed strong sanctions against Russia, forcing Trump’s reluctant signature on a bill he’d loudly opposed. Just last month, the House approved a criminal justice reform effort that’s both thoroughly insufficient in fighting mass incarceration and thoroughly impressive for garnering such a large bipartisan majority.
The bipartisan partnership between Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia that led to the latter bill follows a long tradition of unlikely across-the-aisle friendships generating unlikely results. My former boss, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, works tirelessly to build relationships with his Republican colleagues not just because it preserves an element of decorum in a politics increasingly devoid of it, but also because personal relationships provide some much-needed grease for the gears of the legislative process.
There are plenty of examples of individual members of Congress dismayed by gridlock and a lack of productivity and determined to build relationships with the other party. It may be an unpopular opinion, but I’d argue most members, and certainly most of their staff, are hardworking and well-meaning people who came to Capitol Hill for what many Americans would consider the “right” reason: service to their constituents and country. But meaningful friendships and good intentions alone aren’t enough. One of the core vulnerabilities of our democratic system is that it only takes a few bad faith actors in powerful positions to poison an institution.
The past few years have given America plenty of reasons to take the speaker’s gavel from the GOP’s undeserving hands. No one knows quite what Democratic majorities would mean for the Trump administration or Congress itself. But if Republicans keep control of the House and Senate this fall, we know exactly what to expect: a nonexistent legislative process in which shameless rhetoric, disingenuous messaging, and capitulation to Trump drown out the very notion of Congress as a separate and coequal branch of government.
Electing Democratic majorities in the 2018 midterms is crucial to restraining an out-of-control White House. But a hidden benefit of putting in charge the party that believes in the concept of government is the potential to restore Congress as a functional institution capable of solving — or at least making a good faith effort to solve — national challenges. That sliver of hope for progress is just one more reason, as if we needed one, to work tenaciously for a Democratic wave in November.