Many Americans decry our failed Congress, angry that the institution seems incapable of addressing their needs. Yet they have continued to vote for the same representatives election after election. It seems they believe other representatives are to blame. Not their own. And they hold both parties equally responsible.
But, as it turns out, Americans should rightfully blame only one party for the inaction of Congress – the GOP.
An episode of MSNBC’s American Swamp explained the problem in great detail. It seems the gridlock began in the early nineties when the newly-elected Rep. Newt Gingrich discovered that CSPAN would telecast speeches from the House floor regardless of the circumstances. Realizing that the network focused solely on the lectern and never showed the empty desks, he took the floor in late evenings to rail against Democrats; to challenge them to respond to his demands and to act. But, unbeknownst to the viewers, the Democrats couldn’t, because they were not there. For months, Newt continued his one-man show, calling Democrats a variety of names and asking his followers to hold them accountable for their inaction and lack of response. He published a list of one-word insults which he handed out to the GOP caucus, so they could all speak like Newt.
Not surprisingly, the farce worked. The audiences began calling their congressmen. They began harassing Democrats. And rightwing media took up the attacks. It only stopped when then-Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill asked CSPAN to have their cameras pan the chamber to expose the empty desks. But, by then, the damage had been done.
When the GOP won the House and Gingrich became Speaker, he took matters a step farther. An admirer and teacher of parliamentary-style politics in which party members vote as a unified block (something very contrary to the US system), Newt brought that mentality to the GOP. Under threat of being “primaried” with their opponents receiving millions in “dark” money, the members of the GOP caucus fell in line to vote as the Speaker wished, regardless of their own individual feelings or judgment.
Political tribalism was born. And succeeding GOP actions made it worse.
To ostensibly save money, the GOP majority in Congress cut the staffs of representatives. Without sufficient staff to research the effects of bills, congressional members were forced to rely on lobbyists, think tanks and Political Action Groups for information. And, if they failed to vote as these interest groups wished, the groups would spend millions to defeat them in the next election. As a result, the representatives learned that, if they valued their jobs, it was better to do nothing than to take a stand.
And, since the conservative-led Supreme Court ruled that money equals free speech and corporations have the rights of individuals, congressional representatives have been forced to spend as much as 40 percent of their time dialing for dollars in order to raise enough money to fend off competitors in their next election campaign.
In addition, former GOP Speaker John Boehner banned earmarks – the tradition of adding provisions to a discretionary spending bill without floor debate. Though sometimes abused, earmarks were a form of congressional horse-trading to provide funding for projects in an individual representative’s home district. In most cases, it was how new bridges were funded; how new roads and road expansionss were funded; how a city got funding for programs and grants. But since the end of earmarks, the process has become more politicized than ever with the decisions on spending often being directed by the executive branch to reward supporters.
Any bills that do make it out of the House must go to the Senate for votes and be signed by the president before they can become law. The current House has sent more than 100 bills to the Senate. But even the most popular bills supported by a vast majority of citizens have been blocked by the self-proclaimed “grim reaper” of legislation – Moscow Mitch. He refuses to bring them to a vote unless they meet his very narrow agenda.
It’s all a recipe for gridlock.
To make matters worse, over many decades, Congress has yielded much of its constitutional authority to the executive branch rendering itself somewhat powerless. So much so, that congressional delegations have been turned away from immigration detention centers despite their role of oversight. Executive branch agencies have refused to turn over documents or respond to subpoenas issued by congressional judicial and oversight committees. And Trump has redirected money from agencies to build his wall despite congressional authority over the budget.
Despite Trump’s very public calls to drain the swamp, he ignores the fact that it was largely created by the GOP. Indeed, he has only made it worse by ignoring the emoluments clause; by using his office to promote his properties and to make money each time he visits one; by placing industry lobbyists in charge of the agencies responsible for regulating the industries they represent.
The interests of the American people be damned.