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Why I still love the mess that is the US Congress

01 / 06 / 2023

I love Congress. I really do. I don’t mean this particular Congress. Well, there isn’t an actual Congress at the moment. It officially dissolved last Tuesday morning. And nobody can get sworn in until a new Speaker of the House is elected. 

I mean that I love the institution of Congress. Technically, this is composed of the House and the Senate. But the House is commonly referred to as “the Congress.” 

Some might find it a little ironic that I’m waxing poetic about Congress. After all, eight years ago I took 18 months to write a manifesto on how badly Congress sucked, why, and how to repair it. Then I spent another few years droning on about it in front of every microphone and camera I could find. 

But that’s just the thing: almost anything in life that we try to improve is something that we had to have cared about in the first place. 

On its face, the publicly televised fiasco of the GOP Majority trying to elect a Speaker for the last four days looks like another reason for Americans to disdain Congress. But not for me. Not in terms of the institution. In fact, it’s actually a reminder of why I still love it! Stay with me. 

Roy Rogers famously once said: 

“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

That was the Democrats’ rep for quite a few years. It’s what led to the following adage, usually attributed to Bill Clinton: 

“Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line.” 

Nancy Pelosi ended that. At least for the years she served as Speaker of the House. She knew how to use both the power of her position and the rules of the House to build ironclad majority coalitions on legislation. Whether one likes or hates the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) or likes or hates Pelosi, the former wouldn’t exist without the latter.  

Some might remember that in 2019, a group of Democrats nicknamed “The Squad” pushed back on Pelosi when she was up for reelection as Speaker. She had to pay attention and work with them. But because she had a larger Majority after the 2018 midterms, she had more margin to lose supporters when her caucus cast their votes. 

Watching Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy lose more than a dozen votes on the floor in his effort to become Speaker is either hilarious or tragic, depending on your viewpoint. Or both. But one of the reasons that his hardcore opponents can get away with humiliating him so publicly this week is because of the numbers; because of how slight the GOP Majority is: 222 seats (versus the Democrats’ 212). 

But all of this is why I love the institution of Congress! Every election matters. Every seat in every election matters. The rules matter — the ones in the Constitution and the ones that get modified at the beginning of each congressional term every two years. 

I love that the House and the Senate have survived countless dramas for 234 years and is still the beating heart of the world’s oldest representative democracy. 

I love when a member of Congress makes a truly poetic speech on the House floor. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I am genuinely inspired. 

I love to see the rhetorical respect that members are required to afford one another when the chambers are in session. And I love to see how the leaders manage it when the worst apples violate those rules. 

Speaking of the rules, one final thought before the next Speaker is elected. Leader McCarthy has reportedly been forced to “give away the store” to this small band of arch conservatives. In other words, make concessions on some of the House rules. This will weaken him, but that doesn’t mean that his colleagues are wrong. Well, not totally wrong. 

The far right reps want there to be at least 72 hours before any newly proposed legislation is voted on. Hard to argue with that. Obamacare was over 2,500 pages! 

They also want more seats on various committees. McCarthy doesn’t want to do that because he knows they’ll gum up the works on many things — and there’s already enough gum in the process. But it’s also hard to argue that once members have been elected to Congress, they shouldn’t have a voice in the party they represent. 

Other of their demands are not so sensible. And I’m not making any excuses for the Republicans; they’re at ugly odds with each other for real reasons. Reasons that they’ve created. 

But the larger irony to a super-nerd like me is that they’re focusing on the wrong rules. Gallup just reported that just seven percent of Americans have confidence in Congress. The last time it was that low was in 2014 — the year I wrote Unlock Congress! 

In those eight years, nothing has changed my mind about what the real drivers of dysfunction are in Congress: 

  • A “Money Flood” that compromises officeholders daily 
  • Rigged US House Districts that reduce fair representation
  • Party-run primaries that favor extreme candidates 
  • The Senate “filibuster” that violates majority rule 

It’s still a real mess. In fact, in that Gallup poll, out of 16 American institutions, Congress’s seven percent placed it at the very bottom. 

But I just can’t quit it. I still love the institution.