The events of the past few weeks in the nation’s capital can only be described—even by the standards of Washington—as pure performance art. Between grandstanding and “Spartacus” moments during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh and all-too-familiar murmurs of a potential government shutdown, the casual observer could not be faulted for thinking Congress has abandoned even the pretense of being an energetic, serious, coequal branch of government.
Despite the theatrics of 2020 presidential hopefuls or the Senate’s cancellation of their August recess, the familiar malaise of a willfully inactive Congress has not gone away. Judging by the past week, our modern-day Congress of performers appears to be the new normal.
All of us, especially the individuals who need to answer for the effects of Congress’s inaction, should be worried about this new development. As long as issues ranging from government spending to health care to education and everything in between are pawned off on future generations, the problems of today grow larger and more difficult to reform.
In Federalist 1, Alexander Hamilton observed that “vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.” If Congress chooses not to exercise its Constitutionally-ascribed powers, the other two branches will step in to fill the void. Even more contemptible is the fact that Congress invites itself to be overshadowed by writing vague laws to be interpreted at the discretion of Executive Branch agencies and kicks contentious issues to the courts for resolution. The liberty of the voter is undermined when decision-making by the branch most accountable to them is lazily passed off to unelected institutions.
Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) alluded to Hamilton’s warning in a much-needed 15-minute crash course on what has caused Capitol Hill’s transformation from a revered deliberative forum into a reality television program. (I commend the speech in its entirety to readers, but for the purposes of this discussion, 9 minutes onward are the main focus).
In his speech, Senator Sasse identified that “if [a member of Congress’s] biggest long term thought is about [their] own incumbency, then giving away [Congress’s] power is a pretty good strategy.” He then decried today’s members of Congress for being “too lazy and too risk averse to do our actual jobs” and reminding his colleagues “if the voters are going to retain their power, they need a legislature that is responsive to politics, not a judiciary that is responsive to politics.”
It is true that legislating is often boring, grueling, and thankless work, and it comes as no surprise that the late Senator John McCain once remarked that demanding action in Congress is comparable to “trying to do the Lord’s work in the city of Satan.” That said, our government depends upon legislators being energetic and active. Congress’s repeated abdication of its powers to unaccountable institutions uniquely affects younger generations when the inadequate solutions resulting from this arrangement are placed on their shoulders.
Congress’s internal operations will change only if or when its members want it to change. With midterm elections quickly approaching, voters—younger generations in particular—should think about Congress’s incentive system of incumbency and whether their elected officials are more accountable to them or unelected bureaucrats and nominally apolitical judges. To paraphrase Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), legislators legislate; performance artists ought to be sent home. Anyone concerned with restoring diligent and responsible lawmaking should ask their representatives what they are doing to change the embarrassing new normal of Capitol Hill.
It is time that our generation stops seeing members of Congress as victims of circumstance and demand that they once again become an energetic and vigorous branch of government. Until then, empty theatrics will win out over productive action, and we will be stuck with the consequences.