As the impeachment trial of President Trump continues to use up all available political oxygen in Washington, some members of Congress have been registering their frustration with the process as an unnecessary distraction. In a recent statement, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) collected commentary from her fellow senators imploring Congress to, in Sen. Ernst’s words, “get back to the people’s business.” Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) concurred that Congress ought to “move on to finding real solutions for the American people.”
Unfortunately, members’ insistence that they wish to get back to the people’s business is not borne out by their actions. Congress’s track record of hitting the snooze button on the appropriations process and rendering itself a sidekick to the executive and judicial branches suggest the opposite is true. Indeed, Washington Post congressional correspondent Paul Kane likened this newly-professed desire for legislating as similar to “college students cramming for finals.”
It’s a longstanding cliché that legislators’ concerns about the next election are a driving force behind whether or how they act on an issue. As American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Yuval Levin attests, this often results in lawmakers using “their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies.” Less glamorous discussions of pressing issues are often minimized or abandoned altogether in favor of performative posturing against political opponents.
There is, sadly, no shortage of evidence that this is the new normal.
Despite the fact that healthcare continues to dominate the political landscape, a recent attempt by President Trump to restart debate on Obamacare was immediately shot down by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Sen. McConnell asserted that there “would be no GOP Senate vote on a substitute health plan for Obamacare as [he] seeks to win reelection and bolster the chances of a handful of incumbents whose races will determine the majority.”
In other words, legislators are free to complain about the broken healthcare system all they like. Acting to fix it, however, is too risky and presents too many uncomfortable obstacles for the next election.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) rebuttal to criticism from his former colleague Claire McCaskill (D-MO) offers no better example of how deep the prizing of political gamesmanship over legislative debate runs. In response to McCaskill’s barb that she could not think of any major accomplishments by Sen. Cruz, he replied that one such accomplishment was that he “won reelection in 2018” in a swipe at McCaskill’s loss of her reelection bid.
It may seem a trivial matter to focus on, but the implication is clear; with a paltry legislative record to run on and minimal interest in undertaking meaningful legislative reforms, past electoral victories and showmanship to the parties’ respective bases are all that remain. The Dispatch Editor-in-Chief Jonah Goldberg best captures what is going on under the surface as a result of our “[living] in a culture that finds political power in claims of powerlessness and cultural strength in victimhood.” The few debates that are taking place on serious subjects tend to get crowded out by this more performative brand of politics.
Reversing the trend requires the initiative of actively seeking out substantive debates, elevating lawmakers attempting real reform, and recognizing the difference between persuasion and performance. Despite talk of healthcare reform appearing to be a dead letter, environmental policy is one such arena that offers promise.
Young Americans are particularly energized by the issue, with 64 percent of respondents under 30 saying it should be a top priority according to a Pew Research poll. In a Washington Post interview, Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) called attention to his work finding additional senators looking for consensus on climate issues with Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE). Interviewer Jacqueline Alemany noted that Sen. Braun was not “especially interested in landing attacks against Democrats” over impeachment and instead “was focused on voicing the climate-related concerns of his four millennial children.” It’s an encouraging story that is all too rare in Washington.
Juxtapose the work of Sens. Braun and Coons with the rhetoric of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Where the bipartisan duo of senators endeavor to make real headway, Sen. Warren accused Republicans of “protecting big fossil fuel companies” and charged them as uninterested in “boldly addressing climate change.”
Sen. Warren’s preference for strawman appeals to those who already agree with her instead of using her role in the Senate to work toward her priorities on the environment make for excellent campaign ads. They do not, however, translate into securing reforms on the issue at hand. By distracting with flashy rhetorical cues and performative outrage, lawmakers get a pass for not doing the work of legislating that is expected of them.
Make no mistake — none of this should be taken as a cynical charge that lawmakers are singularly concerned with their partisan electoral interests, though it is tempting to view the problem as just that. The prevailing view takes growing and maintaining political power as the given and legislative graft as the luxury afforded to those who win elections. Rank-and-file members that are interested in grappling with major reforms are stymied by the majority-obsessed leadership and the mindset that posturing around an issue is more important than acting on it.
Working toward reforms on the myriad issues facing the country cannot be done if electoral lip-service remains the priority. Until the curtain comes down on lawmakers’ view of Congress as an audition stage for the next election, expect the backlog of issues requiring their attention to grow.