Town Called Malice / January 25, 2024

The New Do-Nothing Congress

Representatives failed to make progress on most matters of consequence for the past year, but they sure had a lot to say.

Chris Lehmann
House of Representatives floor
The empty chamber of the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Washington, February 28, 2022. (J. Scott Applewhite, File / AP Photo)

Call it the “Butt-Head Congress”—or the “Beavis” one, if you prefer more decorous phrasing. The 118th Congress—which closed out its first session in typical fashion, by giving itself an extended deadline to get something done and proceeding to blow right by it—has perfected the art of lethargic shit-talking memorialized in Mike Judge’s 1990s MTV franchise. The end of 2023 saw the House of Representatives passing a mere 27 pieces of legislation—the lowest such output in nearly a century. The main achievement of the GOP House conference was its historic vote to vacate the speakership of Kevin McCarthy for the grave offense of working with Democrats to forestall a looming government shutdown. Predictably, the government-hating Freedom Caucus wing of McCarthy’s fractious majority could not abide the idea of the House getting something done.

At the same time, the GOP-led House found time to approve a fistful of bootless yet bellicose-sounding resolutions and other measures relating to the Israel-Gaza War, first denouncing collegiate criticism of Israel’s conduct as unchecked antisemitism and, when that didn’t feel draconian enough, defining anti-Zionism as antisemitism, an open flourish of actual antisemitism. Following the same trajectory, the House voted to censure Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib for employing the phrase “from the river to the sea,” and Senate Republicans, evidently feeling like they hadn’t had enough opportunity to play the role of ethno-nationalist headmaster, introduced their own resolution condemning the slogan itself as a call for Jewish genocide and the destruction of Israel.

The Senate resolution didn’t come up for a vote prior to the end of the session, but there’s no reason to think that Congress won’t keep up its Captain Queeg–style drive to turn the nation’s legislature into a freestanding manufactory of hollow yet campaign-ready symbolic initiatives. After all, the House Republican majority, as its final week of lawmaking business drew to a close, with no progress to report on critical measures such as the funding of the government or the supplemental requests to fund the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, busied itself with formalizing articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden, for baseless charges somehow connected by vibes to the business dealings of his son Hunter.

Republicans “have no regard for the integrity of impeachment as a constitutional instrument reserved for high crimes and misdemeanors, which are great and dangerous offenses against the public interest, as they can’t even name the crime they think Biden has committed,” says Maryland Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin. “It’s not a ‘whodunit’; it’s a ‘whatisit.’” Indeed, as the House unveiled this crowning foray into procedural agitprop, GOP senators weren’t as keen to play along, with Chuck Grassley, Mitt Romney, and even MAGA windsock Lindsey Graham conceding that they’d seen no actual evidence to support the House motion.

“I’ve seen irresponsibility in the Congress any number of times in the past, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Norman Ornstein, a longtime Congress watcher and emeritus research fellow for the American Enterprise Institute. “The idea that you should get credit because you managed to avoid destroying the full faith and credit of the United States [in the debt-ceiling negotiations], and then managed to avoid a shutdown by punting twice—it’s beyond ridiculous.”

Even the Senate’s failed 11th-hour bid to salvage an agreement tying Ukraine aid to increased US border security as part of the debate over the budget supplemental was a pitiable case study in institutional dysfunction, Ornstein says. “It was baffling that Republican senators who had over and over again professed the urgent imperative of keeping Ukraine funded and armed then turned around and basically said, ‘It isn’t going to happen unless you accept draconian border restrictions’—which, if implemented and Trump again becomes president, would be beyond horrific. There was never any intention to negotiate on the Republican side. Instead, you had [GOP Texas Senator John] Cornyn saying at the outset, ‘We’re going to shoot the hostage unless you cave in to our demands.’”

Beyond such bad-faith legislative strategy, the GOP’s array of border crackdown measures would actually worsen, rather than relieve, conditions at the southern border. But that, too, is increasingly the deliberate aim of Republican congressional grandstanding—just as calls to ratchet up oil drilling would do nothing to alleviate lingering inflation, and the serial failures to resolve the budget crisis are supposed to serve as object lessons in how the American citizenry should be weaned off abject government dependence, the actual state of their livelihoods be damned. In the House, especially, the chief nihilist lawmakers plotting out performative MAGA stunts from senior committee perches hail from safely gerrymandered deep-red districts, where they face no penalty at the polls for their fundamental refusal to do the jobs they were elected to do.

Indeed, as GOP maximum leader and likely presidential nominee Donald Trump has demonstrated again and again, the model MAGA voter doesn’t want policy returns so much as lawmakers acting out their preferred form of grievance-driven identity politics. This is not only the prime directive behind the senseless Biden impeachment push, but also the only purpose to be descried in the fundraising-cum-clout-chasing antics of House MAGA mascots like Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert. The supplemental may still be stalled, and the government may not be operating, but you can count on all of them soaking up a great deal more airtime in this year’s session.

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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