Given that it’s the third week of a government shutdown over a $4 billion difference for a campaign symbol from two years ago, it will not take much convincing to say that Washington DC is broken. While this episode is certainly a low-light, this is hardly the start of the dysfunction. Indeed, DC, and specifically Congress, has been devolving into a state of paralysis and lunacy for a while now. Prior to the mid-term election, ProPublica and the Washington Post ran an analysis of publicly available Congressional data and found that “some institutional decline began 25 years ago, but… the steepest institutional drop came in just the past 10 years.”
Here’s a few figures:
- Since 2007, 9 out of a possible 156 individual appropriations bills were passed on time. A vast majority of the $13.3 trillion dollars in discretionary spending over that time period were included in massive, hurried, leadership-written omnibus deals. Even this summer’s so-called successful $854 billion appropriations package received four days of debate in the Senate and only had 5 amendment votes (4 of which passed unanimously).
- The funding processes are so broken that Congress formed a committee to try to brainstorm how to solve their problems. It failed.
- The Senate only considered 401 amendments during the last Congress (2017-18), down from nearly 1350 that were considered in the 110th Congress (2005-2006).
- Since 2007, the national debt has grown from $9 trillion to $22 trillion. Sure, the Great Recession can be credited for some of the growth, but we are amidst a booming economy and yet will soon hit $1 trillion annual deficits.
- 22 of the 34 High Risk issues highlighted by the Government Accountability office have been on the list since before 2007
- In 2007, Congress has a 19% confidence rate. That rate has dropped to an average of 11% since then.
Yet, at the start of every Congress since January 2007, Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Nancy Pelosi have been elected by their colleagues to be the leaders of their respective caucus and chamber. As a result, these members have had an outsized influence on the process and outcome of every piece of legislation considered and passed in Washington DC. The same period marked by observers and data as “the steepest institutional [decline]” in Congress.
The halting of any semblance of a normal legislating process is a product of and benefit to the leaders in Congress. Instead of working bills through committee followed by rigorous debate and amendments on the floor, the only legislation that passes is written behind closed doors in leadership offices where rank and file members have no say or sway on the final product or outcome. In this era, leadership is the end-all-be-all of policy making.
Assuming the absence of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the make-up of leadership is almost as important as who holds the majorities in each chamber. While the American people control the majorities at the ballot box, only the members themselves control who gets to be in “the room where it happens.” Once again, your elected officials have chosen to stay the course. Do not expect different results.
As much as this article seems to be focused on or even blaming McConnell and Pelosi, the problem is much broader than that. After all, these leadership positions are not birth-rights. They have been repeatedly elected into these powerful positions by their colleagues. This shows that the institutional decline and national debt are not the metrics that matter to the rank-and-file members – it’s about putting the person in charge that will help gain political power.
McConnell is known for his deep network in the lobbying and DC influencers community and would gladly trade away policy priorities to protect an obscure campaign finance law that helps a fundraising operation. Likewise, Speaker Pelosi is known for being a dogged fundraiser who can churn out millions to help her party win elections. These factors have helped Republicans take the Senate, put up partisan wins (Kavanaugh and tax cuts), and expand their majority. These factors helped Democrats take back the House and secure the gavels that will ramp up the opposition to President Trump. And when it came time to pick their leaders last week, these were the grading criteria.
Since the 2006 election, the House has flipped three times, the Senate has flipped twice, and the White House has flipped twice. The American people are expressing their discontent by switching the party in charge. But the American people can only control so much in our system. And despite institutional decline, disapproval rates and a whole lot of anecdotal evidence that Congress is terrible, the American people cannot change the incentives and reward system that the increasingly powerful congressional leaders work under. Only the elected officials can do this.
The one hope I do have is the increasing membership of younger Americans in Congress that have witnessed a decade of Boomer dysfunction and decide that it’s time for a new direction. The sooner we get fresh faces and ideas that denounces dysfunction and changes the way our government works, the better. But for this Congress, expect more acrimony, more hyper-partisanship and more headaches.