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Fear not cheer: That’s the holiday spirit at the Capitol

‘None of us like it,’ but many are resigned

A Capitol worker hauls a Christmas tree to the loading dock in the basement of the Hart Senate Office Building on Jan. 2, 2020.
A Capitol worker hauls a Christmas tree to the loading dock in the basement of the Hart Senate Office Building on Jan. 2, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Walk around the Capitol right about now and you’ll probably hear someone humming, “It’s the least wonderful time of the year.”

This happens every December, and it’s been this way for decades. Legislative items pile up, and the threat of a calamitous event like a partial government shutdown or default brings lawmakers to the negotiating table before the holiday break. No amount of tree-lighting ceremonies, boozy K Street receptions or “sprint to the finish” metaphors can disguise the foul mood that settles over Congress. It’s like a running joke, but nobody’s amused.

“None of us like it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “All of us have Christmas plans with our families, and things like that, and we don’t want to have those at risk.”

Congressional staffers relive memories of times their bosses pushed things right to the brink, like when the Senate spent Christmas Eve passing the Obama-era health care overhaul in 2009, or when the fiscal cliff of 2012 left people scrambling. 

“Hahahahahahaha,” responded one Senate staffer, when asked about the mood at work as another holiday season unfolds.

“Flexible plane tickets baby!” they said, asking not to be identified to freely discuss their travel plans.

The frustration among both staff and members is real, but so is the acceptance that pileups happen almost every year like clockwork.

“Our new driver is crestfallen about not being able to make plans,” said a House Democratic staffer. “Business as usual for me and the others.”

[Political Theater podcast: Coal in your legislative stockings]

Some of the worst is over, after Congress cleared a bill Thursday to avert a government shutdown and provide leaders until Feb. 18 to hammer out a fiscal 2022 appropriations deal. But Democrats still have an improbable to-do list, including finding a solution to address the debt limit by Dec. 15, passing a 2022 defense bill and handling their party’s $2.2 trillion reconciliation package. 

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer initially wanted to pass all that before Christmas, though both chambers were scheduled to recess next Friday until January. Hardly anyone on Capitol Hill believes that schedule will hold.

Lawmakers entered the final stretch of the year in full complaint mode, bemoaning the drama that has become routine. “Any old … handful of members who believe strongly in something can say, ‘I’m going to shut down the government unless I get what I want.’ If people do that, it’s chaos,” Schumer said Wednesday, when Republicans like Mike Lee of Utah were demanding a defunding of the Biden administration’s vaccine-or-test rule.

Despite the gripes, one thing is missing — anger that turns into action. As with most of the legislative body’s ailments, Congress could heal itself, if enough members could agree on how. Instead, the prevailing emotion at the Capitol, once you cut through all the grumbling, is resignation.

“We surely aren’t thrilled, haha, but aren’t surprised. We’ve fully been expecting to be in session the week of the 13th,” a Democratic Senate staffer said in a text message, asking for anonymity to speak candidly.

“Threatening to cancel the Christmas recess is a holiday tradition, but both sides tend to come together” in time, said a Republican Senate staffer. While this year feels like more of the same, he did make one change: “I did most of my Christmas shopping early because I didn’t want to risk having gifts be late due to supply chain issues.”

Little political will exists in Congress to end the last-minute culture that many decry, especially the tradition of blowing past the Oct. 1 deadline to fund the government and instead setting up a year-end showdown with a series of continuing resolutions. While some lawmakers have proposed legislative solutions, they’ve gone nowhere.

A few senators have put forth anti-shutdown bills in recent years, including one from Virginia Sen. Mark Warner titled the “Stop STUPIDITY Act.” (The acronym stands for “Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage In The Coming Years.”)

Another bill from Ohio Sen. Rob Portman drew 14 GOP co-sponsors, while a bipartisan push from Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford got 10 fellow Republicans and a handful of Democrats. Lankford’s bill would automatically enact a continuing resolution if appropriations bills aren’t done on time. It would also cut government funding for member travel, making it difficult for politicians to leave Washington until the chamber finishes its work. 

But some say that takes away the power of the purse from appropriators and the party that holds the majority. 

It also could become a crutch to fall back on to avoid the sometimes prickly work of appropriating, especially right now, Kaine said. Lawmakers had already twice extended the fiscal 2021 year appropriations package that was enacted by a GOP Senate majority and former President Donald Trump in the White House.  

“We want to do our own budget,” Kaine said. “We’ve got majorities in both houses, and so the automatic CR thing would produce a result that would not be a good result for us.”

Sen. Susan Collins has said she isn’t in favor of bills that weaken the power of the Appropriations Committee, adding that if the Senate’s time was better spent, pileups could be avoided in the first place.

“It certainly seems to me that an awful lot of time was wasted on low-level nominees when we could have been doing the NDAA, or bringing appropriations bills to the Senate floor,” the Maine Republican said.

Congressional observers trace the current incarnation of the December crunch to the 1990s, citing the era of Newt Gingrich. “The big picture of this has to do with the parties becoming more internally aligned and empowering leadership to control what’s on the table,” said Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress, a left-leaning advocacy group. 

“Leadership routinely used end-of-the-year deadlines to create pressure on members and Congress to act. It is a hard-nosed way to govern, exacerbated by the filibuster and partisan dysfunction in the Senate where a small minority can hold almost any measure hostage.” 

Most years, the only thing that’s certain is that the cycle will repeat again in future Decembers, like an annoying Christmas carol on repeat. The gripes will surely continue too.

“I think we manufacture crises when they’re unnecessary,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

King, who is a co-sponsor on Lankford’s bill, dismissed the critics who say automatic continuing resolutions would take away leadership’s power of the purse.

“If they do their job, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion,” he said. “All you got to do is pass a budget every year.”

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