In late-January, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), one of Congress’ less-conservative Republican members, could hardly contain his frustrations with the prevailing political winds on Capitol Hill.
“Week one, we had a Speaker election that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked,” Dent told reporters. “Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children, something that a lot of us didn’t want to have a discussion about. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors… I just can’t wait for week four.”
A few months later, however, Congress has managed to put one foot after another, and everyone involved is suddenly patting themselves on the back. The Washington Post noted this week:
There’s a lot of self-congratulating going around Capitol Hill these days – members of Congress are, in not-so-insignificant ways, doing their jobs.And while we realize that for most working Americans that wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, for the Congress we’ve come to know in the last several years, actual legislating is cause for great celebration.
Colby Itkowitz flagged a series of headlines from news outlets, impressed with congressional activity. “Glimmers of Hope on the Hill,” one read. “Bipartisanship breaks out on Capitol Hill – at least for now,” said another.
Assorted partisans are getting in on the new Beltway fun. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), boasted this week, “I’ve actually been somewhat surprised and more optimistic than I have been in a long time about how the Senate is beginning to work again.”
Karl Rove added yesterday, “Congress is finally back on track.”
There are a couple of reasons to explain this suddenly popular thesis – and several more reasons to be deeply skeptical of it.
Part of the issue here is the soft bigotry of low expectations. The 112th Congress, covering 2011 and 2012, was arguably the worst in American history, struggling to complete even routine tasks, and claiming the dubious honor of being the least productive of any Congress since clerks started keeping track nearly a century ago. The 113th Congress, covering 2013 and 2014, was nearly as atrocious.
With this recent history in mind, when the Beltway and political journalists witness lawmakers striking a bipartisan deal on the “doc fix,” for example, they’re not just pleasantly surprised – they’re genuinely thrilled to see something constructive happen for a change. The pent up demand for basic legislating is so great, the significance of routine work is easily exaggerated as a remarkable breakthrough for good governance.
What’s more, Republican partisans have a built-in incentive to overstate Congress’ record: they’re in charge of both chambers for the first time in nearly a decade. When a GOP insider says Congress “is finally back on track,” the message comes up with a not-so-subtle subtext: “Things stunk when there was a Senate Democratic majority, so Leave Republicans in charge indefinitely.”
But let’s take a breath. The work on the “doc fix” was arguably the first legitimate example of Congress passing an important bill smoothly and efficiently since 2010, but one law does not a Congress make.
Roughly 100 days into the new Congress, this is still an institution that prioritized an oil pipeline worth about 35 permanent jobs. It’s also eagerly pushing a massive tax break that will exclusively benefit multi-millionaires and billionaires.
This is a Congress that refuses to do its duty on authorizing the mission against ISIS; this is a Congress that’s actively tried to sabotage American foreign policy; and this is a Congress that remains preoccupied with discredited Benghazi conspiracy theories.
This Congress voted for the umpteenth time to repeal the Affordable Care Act for no reason; this Congress struggled for months to work on an anti-human-trafficking bill that had no opponents; this Congress subjected Loretta Lynch to delays that no one could explain or defend.
This Congress nearly tore itself apart over Homeland Security funding; this Congress has picked wildly unnecessary culture-war fights that are going nowhere; and this Congress passed a demonstrably ridiculous budget plan that sets the stage for ugly, partisan fights for the rest of the year.
Two months into the new Congress, two members had already resigned in disgrace.
Reflecting on Congress in February, Eugene Robinson said of the Republican majority, “If the party’s aim is to show Americans it is ready to govern, we are witnessing an epic fail.”
I hate to spoil everyone’s fun, but the “glimmers of hope” on Capitol Hill are probably a mirage.
Update: Philip Arsenault reminds me that the Senate’s failures on executive and judicial confirmations in general belongs on the list of congressional foibles. It’s a good point.