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.”

Current Issue

Cover of July 2024 Issue

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.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the DC 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).

More from The Nation

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear speaks during an interview at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, on Monday, July 22, 2024.

Andy Beshear Is Shredding J.D. Vance in the Virtual VP Debate Andy Beshear Is Shredding J.D. Vance in the Virtual VP Debate

The Kentucky governor is doing exactly what a vice presidential pick is supposed to. Kamala Harris is surely watching.

John Nichols

Biden Steps Down, Kamala Harris Steps Up

Biden Steps Down, Kamala Harris Steps Up Biden Steps Down, Kamala Harris Steps Up

Democrats get energized!

OppArt / Colleen Quinn

Kamala Harris Steps Up

Kamala Harris Steps Up Kamala Harris Steps Up

The future of American democracy now rests on the vice president’s shoulders. That’s why it’s more important than ever to understand who she is.

Feature / Joan Walsh

A homeless man and woman quickly pick up their belongings as Urban Alchemy crews begin their daily cleaning of the streets in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco on January 26, 2022.

How an Investigation Into a Homelessness Nonprofit Turned Into a LA Power Struggle How an Investigation Into a Homelessness Nonprofit Turned Into a LA Power Struggle

By promising to clamp down on corruption, City Controller Kenneth Mejia received more votes than any citywide elected official in Los Angeles history. He’s already making enemies....

Paige Oamek and Rohan Montgomery

President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv.

Joe Biden Is Still a Danger to Gaza. He Must Resign Now. Joe Biden Is Still a Danger to Gaza. He Must Resign Now.

Palestine can’t afford six more months of this president. We have to demand that he goes immediately, and then pressure Kamala Harris to change course.

Dylan Saba

Voters Cast Ballots In Wisconsin Primary

In Milwaukee, Many Black Voters Aren’t On Board With Either Party In Milwaukee, Many Black Voters Aren’t On Board With Either Party

The city’s abstainers could determine who wins Wisconsin, a critical swing state, this November.

Malaika Jabali