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The baboons are ready to disrupt Congress

Weakened leadership structure and midterm uncertainty give collaborative-minded lawmakers an opportunity

The opportunity Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin III and other like-minded legislators have in changing the congressional power dynamics is something anthropologists could study for years to come, Koltun writes.
The opportunity Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin III and other like-minded legislators have in changing the congressional power dynamics is something anthropologists could study for years to come, Koltun writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“Is it any coincidence that a group of baboons is called a congress?” 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, recently posed this question alongside fellow baboon Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., as the two lamented the state of legislating. But Murkowski’s question was also a rallying cry for the baboons to bring new order to Congress.  

A group of baboons isn’t really called a “congress” but a “troop.” Yet baboon hierarchy is instructive. Each baboon troop is led by an alpha, who holds rank-and-filers in line through a patronage system — promising protection (from predators), nourishment (food), and growth (mating) in return for his leadership post.  

In Congress, there are four troops: House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats. The D.C. alpha males (and females) promise protection (from election challengers), nourishment (campaign dollars), and growth (more party members). Despite no party leader having an approval rating above 38 percent, political power remains concentrated, in an era in which local brands are often secondary to the “D” or “R” after a lawmaker’s name. 

This power seeps into the legislating process. Since Joe Biden first entered Congress in 1973, committee hearings have declined by 65 percent, bills enacted have declined by 32 percent, and the average number of pages per bill enacted have increased by 236 percent. Drafting legislation behind the closed doors of leadership offices creates “too-big-to-fail” omnibus bills with which rank-and-filers have little choice but to go along.

It’s a miserable existence for serious-minded legislators. “This place sucks,” Manchin said in 2018. “It’s harder to get things done,” said the retiring Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. 

In the wild, dissatisfied baboons can challenge troop leadership. These leadership changes have serious consequences for troop dynamics. In Congress, all four troops face the potential for change. 

Alpha baboons take food that’s gathered rather than provide it. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy disagrees. “If you’re gonna be in leadership, leaders eat last,” the California Republican said recently. He sacrificed the No. 3 House GOP leader to maintain fealty to the No. 1 man in the party who has the power to make or break him. This positioning is McCarthy’s most viable path to speaker, but it doesn’t make for an alpha leader when time comes to govern the majority. 

Baboon troops also exhibit more stability when there’s less leadership turnover. House Democrats have held essentially the same leadership since 2003 with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. But that stability may soon end. The octogenarian leadership troika may make this Congress a legacy marker rather than remaining post-midterms. A new leadership team could struggle to manage the shifting Democratic dynamics

In the other chamber, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is two years from becoming the longest-serving Senate leader. But his establishment allies are leaving, with five Republican senators already announcing their retirements. Meanwhile, McConnell hasn’t spoken with alpha Donald Trump since Dec. 15. Trump never called McConnell a baboon, but he’s called him a “dumb” animal nonetheless. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer represents the congressional troop with the biggest structural disadvantage. The Senate’s small-state bias and the current Republican advantage with rural voters leaves Schumer balancing the leftward shift of national Democrats with the need to keep moderate members within a Big Democratic Tent.

These dynamics of a weakened leadership structure and the potential for divided government after the midterms provide leverage for legislators intent on returning to some sense of regular order. 

The median Democrat and Republican may be further apart than at any point in history, but not every lawmaker is a political grandstander. There are conservatives and progressives open to collaboration. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is an example of a conservative lawmaker with one of the strongest bipartisan track records. So is Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., who led the National Republican Senatorial Committee last Congress but is a workhouse of bipartisan legislation, the latest being a China competitiveness bill.   

These rank-and-filers have the power to push the legislative process toward smaller bills going through the regular order process — hearings, markups, floor time and amendments — rather than wrapping must-pass legislation in omnibuses. 

Of course, baboons that scream the loudest have a power advantage. The House Freedom Caucus may return to its old hardball tactics with the GOP back in the majority, forcing leadership into quixotic adventures. With a dwindling cadre of moderates, progressives who’ve gone along to get along may see a post-Pelosi era as a chance to push Democrats further left. 

The opportunity Murkowski, Manchin and other like-minded legislators have in changing the congressional power dynamics is something anthropologists could study for years to come. But the analysis may be left to zoologists if the baboons of Congress continue their usual monkey business.

Ben Koltun is the director of research at Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, DC.

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