The 116th Congress and What Lies Beyond

BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON  |  JAN 7, 2019

The convening of the 116th Congress at noon on January 3, was a portal into America’s past 230 years, a reminder that our Constitution is still the longest living charter of its kind in the world. This ingeniously devised Republic is still a system of governance that is, as it was two centuries ago, a beacon of hope for those millions upon millions still suffering from authoritarian, and in some cases barbaric, rule, despite the eternal internal drumbeat of disillusionment and lost faith that dominates our discourse, and to an extent, rightly so.

We were reminded of our resiliency and continuous evolution as a Republic when the first Republican woman ever to serve as Clerk of the House presided over the parliamentary procedures, and the proletarian pageantry that led up to the swearing in of the country’s first woman Speaker. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California, succeeds 53 male predecessors, and today presides over a body of more women than any time in history, one hundred years after women’s suffrage.

The Speaker and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, also of California, gave strong voice to hopes for a Congress of bipartisanship, comity, and commitment to meeting the needs of the American people.

And then, the House returned to normalcy, adopting legislation along partisan lines to end the government shutdown, and make changes in House rules.

So begins the second week of the Congress. The signs are not good for those Americans tired of the angry partisan antics and frightful for the future.

Yes, there was great celebration over the induction of a historically large energized and more diverse freshman class, with more women, more black, Latino, Hispanic, and Native American members, wider religious beliefs, and more varied backgrounds.

The new Congress looks more like America, but not in all respects.

There are more contentious ideologies represented, cutting a wide swath from anarchists to avid socialists, from staid conservatives to rebellious progressives. The new members are younger, less experienced in government, and maybe more naïve about the numbing realities of legislating, if indeed it is their intent to actually legislate.

A Note of Caution

Most of our impressions thus far have been molded by media who limit their focus almost exclusively on a select few celebrities, who may well not reflect the temperament, ideology, or pragmatism of their colleagues. Those in close proximity to members in Washington–on the floor and in committees–usually learn quickly that the newcomers are far from a cohesive caucus that will think alike and act alike.

On the other hand, the impressions, such as they are, could portend a new insurgency the likes of which we have not witnessed since the freshmen class of 1974, the “Watergate babies” or the class of 1994, the young Republican Turks whose election wrested control of the body from Democrats for the first time in 40 years, or the ‘tea party” insurrectionists of 2010 who terminated Speaker Pelosi’s historic occupancy of that office.

Five Other Factors

The unpredictability of the freshmen is just one of six factors that douse hopes for a productive Congress and a new era of civil politics.

  1. One, of course, is President Donald Trump, whose crude, defiant populism alienates those with whom he should be compromising and produces these constant reality TV grudge matches that, even if they do result in resolution, create concrete walls of divisiveness the likes of which we may never see on the southern border.
  2. The second factor is the progressive faction, now in control of the House majority, whose members seem intent on investigating every aspect of Trump, from his Presidency, to his presidential candidacy, to pre-presidential adulthood, puberty, and infancy. The singular intent is to get rid of him, either by impeachment or drumming him out of office some other way. There is no underestimating the powerful surge for impeachment or its place on the majority’s priority list.
  3. The third factor is the political and ideological polarization of the citizenry at large, people now trapped in paralyzing and prejudicial belief structures that make civil discourse, let alone, governance, near impossible. When it comes to politics, too many people find they can’t seem to get along or talk civilly to each other. They are pulled to the extremes every time they reach for the center.
  4. The fourth is the 2020 election cycle, already in full spin mode, already consuming most of the time and energy of members of Congress and the Administration, already dictating the legislative agenda, and already denying the American public positive outcomes on critical issues having direct impact on their livelihood and some cases survival. Campaigning is constant and all-consuming, leaving no time for governing. It’s repugnant.
  5. The fifth is the news media, many of which have made a historical and transformative journey to the darker side of the journalistic profession, where political and ideological agendas and handsome profits drive the judgments and to some extent, ethics. Not since the days of the muckrakers of the early 20th Century, or the partisan-aligned papers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, has American journalism been so divisive and derelict in its constitutional obligations to inform and educate objectively and factually. Many are unabashed in their allegiance to the “resistance” from the left. Others are unabashed in their allegiance to President Trump and his legions on the right. There is little else to distinguish them. What is so baffling is the inclination of some journalists to write and speak and behave just like the President they criticize. Worse yet are social media and the infotainment industry, now fully engaged in either saving or unseating the President or empowering those who try. They present the public with new and grave challenges to our politics and social stability.

Still, there is one glimmer of light in the partisan night.

A Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

Those new House Rules include a provision few if any noticed and the media ignored. Title II of the resolution created a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress that was supported by both parties, both Democratic and Republican leadership and passed the House in a separate vote by 418-12. It should not go unrecognized.

The Committee will “investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations on modernizing Congress,” including rules, procedures, staffing, administrative efficiencies, technology, congressional mail, and this: “policies to develop the next generation of leaders.”

Interesting.

The Committee extends the life of a critical movement toward congressional and political reform that is so vital to the future viability of the Legislative Branch and its relationship with the Executive, and ultimately their relationship with the American people.

I’ve been working with a mostly volunteer group of former members and staff since 2013, following discussions that date back to 2010, on recommendations for change in Congress. We have advocated for creation of a Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress as the means of getting to the ultimate objective, which is forcing the House and Senate to take up reforms that are critical to the functioning of Congress and the restoration of public trust in their government. Illinois Congressmen Dan Lipinski, a Democrat, and Darin LaHood, a Republican, introduced legislation to create a Joint Committee in 2016, and drew nearly 70 cosponsors, from both parties.

The Select Committee differs from a Joint Committee in the absence of Senate participation, among other considerations, but it will be bipartisan, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, six selected by the Speaker and six by the Minority Leader.

The Committee may recommend subpoenas and depositions. Hmmmm.

Every 90 days the Select Committee “shall provide an interim status report on its activities to the Committee on House Administration and the Committee on Rules” and submit a final report no later than the end of this year. The Select Committee goes out of business in February 2020.

While the Select Committee is a leap closer to the long-term objective, it falls short in a number of areas.

  • It does not include the Senate.
  • It is temporary and short-lived.
  • A year is not enough time.
  • It does not focus attention on the need for revitalizing the budget, appropriations and authorizations processes, none of which works.
  • It glosses over the need to improve relations among the House, the Senate, and the Administration, and restore an atmosphere in which civil discourse and common decency can prevail over partisan anger and divisiveness.

The work of the Select Committee won’t get the press attention it deserves, so there will be less of an incentive to accomplish much. Without attention it is more difficult to capture public interest and without public interest there will be less compelling motivation to bring about real change. But, hopefully that will not deter its members, at least not much.

If worse comes to worse, the members can choose one or two among their colleagues to start a fight, unleash a string of profanities and call each other names. That’ll get the klieg lights turned on.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.

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