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Congress at Christmas: A debacle of democracy

Where have the legislative work horses gone?

Holiday decorations line a hallway in the Longworth House Office Building on Dec. 4. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Holiday decorations line a hallway in the Longworth House Office Building on Dec. 4. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sixty years ago, fashionable liberal opinion was in despair over congressional dysfunction. 

In 1963, eminent political scientist and Democratic activist James MacGregor Burns published “The Deadlock of Democracy.” The book was a historically grounded lament over the way that conservative committee chairmen in Congress continually stymie the agendas of activist presidents like John F. Kennedy.

Burns viewed both the Democratic and Republican parties as divided between their forward-thinking presidential wings and their hidebound congressional wings.

Two years later, Democratic Rep. Richard Bolling of Missouri, a protege of legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas, entered the fray with the book “House Out of Order.” 

Bolling argued the House was a “shambles” because of troglodyte Southern committee chairmen empowered by seniority. 

The 1960s are now, of course, regarded as the glory days of an activist Congress. The same year (1965) that Bolling published his screed, Lyndon Johnson signed both the Medicare bill and the Voting Rights Act.

Many of the problems that both Burns and Bolling cited have been solved by the ideological cohesion of both parties in Congress. 

Congressional Democrats, despite foot-dragging from the likes of retiring Sen. Joe Manchin III, are in accord with the Biden administration on most issues. And, particularly in the House, Republicans are little more than vassals of Donald Trump.

But what is stunning is how, by almost every standard, Congress has declined as a serious legislative institution since the days when political scientists envisioned a permanent deadlock of democracy. 

In the folksy vernacular of that bygone era, members of Congress were either “work horses” or “show horses.” While the show horses preened before the cameras and reveled in their minor celebrity, they were scorned by the hardworking legislators who wrote the bills and assembled the winning coalitions behind the scenes.

Now we have a Congress of performance artists in both parties. 

Everyone else is voting with their feet. Already, nearly three dozen House members have announced they are not running for reelection next year, including defrocked Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and his respected temporary replacement, Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C.

Earl Blumenauer, a retiring House Democrat, spoke for many in both parties when he told CBS News, “I deeply respect some of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, but it’s harder and harder to work with them. The unending chaos in the House really takes up most of the oxygen.”

Cable television, with hours of airtime to fill every day, made it possible for congressional extremists in both parties to assemble hefty political bankrolls by mouthing off in irresponsible fashion. The sad decline of traditional news organizations and the rise of social media also have accentuated this flight from seriousness.

A prime example: House Republicans seem much more invested in censuring New York Democrat Jamaal Bowman for the globe-girdling crime of pulling a fire alarm than in debating the geopolitical consequences of their heedless refusal to fund Ukraine.

The House this week, with a likely lockstep vote by the Republican majority, is expected to formalize its impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden. Up to now, no one on the Republican side has been able to coherently articulate why Biden must be impeached since giving birth to a scapegrace son is not considered a high crime nor a misdemeanor in most jurisdictions. 

It may be emotionally satisfying for Republicans to scream, “Biden crime family.” But last I checked, Hunter Biden does not hold public office. The whole manufactured furor is reminiscent of the Queen of Hearts in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” shouting in the midst of a trial, “Sentence first — verdict afterward.” 

Perry Como may have popularized the song “Home for the Holidays” in the 1950s, and there was also a 1995 movie with the same name starring Holly Hunter. But Congress, in its zeal to get out of Washington, certainly loves the concept. 

So what if the government will begin running out of money in January? So what if a stalled Ukraine aid bill is on the operating table, with barely a pulse?

So what if there is continuing gridlock over border security? 

The important cause, overriding everything, is getting home for the holidays.

Even the Grinch would have been moved to hear Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy say this Monday at the National Defense University in Washington: “Every one of you here understands what it means for a soldier to wait for munition, waiting for weeks, months, without knowing if support will come at all.”

But, alas, most Republicans in Congress have harder hearts than the Grinch. 

The underlying problem is that unless a legislator is as flagrant as recently expelled New York Republican George Santos, there are no real consequences for irresponsibility. And Santos, almost pathologically devoid of shame, seems to be reveling in his disgrace, as he’s trying to dance faster than the federal prosecutors.

According to estimates by the Cook Political Report, only 75 House seats are even remotely in play in 2024. In the other 360 districts, the only way an incumbent could get into trouble is by compromising on an issue — and thereby inviting a high-decibel primary challenge. 

With ticket-splitting becoming as rare as landline telephones, congressional incumbents are chained to their party’s presidential tickets — whether they like it or not. And, in the case of most Republicans, they seem eager to embrace former President Donald Trump’s authoritarian ways. 

The result is that problems will fester, like regulating artificial intelligence before it regulates us. The government will lurch from one funding crisis to another. And allies from Europe to Taiwan will despair of America’s fecklessness as we dither while Ukraine burns. 

Sixty years later, it’s not the deadlock of democracy. It’s the debacle of democracy.

Merry Christmas and to all a good night.

Walter Shapiro is a staff writer for the New Republic and a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is a veteran of USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post.

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