“What Has Congress Done?”
This was the title of a provocative flyer advertising an event, taped to the front doors of Tarbutton Hall. I was struck by the timeliness of the event – planned months in advance by the Political Institutions and Methodology Working Group (PIM) – which was a colloquium led by Stephen Ansolabehere, a well-known researcher and Professor of Government at Harvard University. The colloquium took place on Tuesday, the first day of the government’s fiscal year. And as everyone on Facebook should know, this particular Tuesday marked Day One of the “government shutdown.” With current events on my mind, the question on the flyer read like an indictment of the institution. Little did I suspect that Ansolabehere had planned a very different kind of lecture.
Here is a brief recap of the drama, if you happened to look past those particular comments on your newsfeed. A lot of Republicans in Congress have been vocal in their opposition to Obamacare. This attitude was evident in Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) controversial faux filibuster on the floor of the Senate.
In a last-ditch, kamikaze effort to avoid the inevitable, the Republican-controlled House passed amendments to its yearly spending bill. These amendments rendered the passage of the federal budget conditional: The budget can pass once the health care law is stripped of its funding.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), after pointing out that the Democrat-controlled Senate would never pass the spending bill with the offending amendments, closed Congress over the weekend but reopened it only two hours before the midnight deadline in an attempt to pass the amended budget. In the meantime, the Senate produced a clean budget bill, without unrelated amendments. In short: neither bill was passed. The government shut down. Obamacare went into effect on the same day.
It would seem to many that the “power of the purse” is in the hands of a defunct legislature. Attaching the Obamacare provision to the yearly spending bill was a dubious political move and not one supported by all of the Republican congressmen. Cruz represented only one faction within the Republican Party when he recited Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” on the floor of the Senate. Many recognized the pointlessness of holding the spending bill hostage for the sake of yet another anti-Obamacare demonstration. Here was a case of Tea Party members grandstanding for the entertainment of their own political base. The split interests of his party certainly put the Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner in a difficult position: either bring the clean Senate bill to the floor of the House for an up-or-down vote in capitulation to Democratic demands, or succumb to the pull of the far right wing of his party. In short, the far right hijacked the Republican Party in the House, and a high-stakes political standoff ensued. Unfortunately for everyone, political feather fluffing took precedent over governance. The divided House did not stand.
Now might be a good time to return to the question, “What has Congress done?” According to Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, Congress is supposed to fund the government. Last Tuesday is not the first time that Congress has failed to do this. In light of this much-publicized development, how can the public expect Congress to pass any useful legislation at all? It’s tempting to decry the 113th Congress as “the worst Congress ever,” or to give up altogether and move to Canada.
But Congress has never been popular. Ansolabehere began Tuesday’s colloquium by reminding us that Congress has been “pilloried since 1789.” Mark Twain was appealing to the popular conception of politicians when he wrote “Cannibalism in the Cars,” a short story in which a train is derailed in the mountains during a snowstorm. When rescuers finally reach the train, they find only a Congressman – the sole survivor. He has survived by “electing” his fellow passengers to be eaten.
However, that wasn’t the subject of Ansolabehere’s lecture. Instead, he spent an hour and a half talking about what Congress has done. Although in the last few decades, Congress has passed progressively less legislation, it is still, even now, passing more legislation per session than it did for the first 200 years of its existence.
Not only that, but the bills that are passed nowadays are more complex than ever before.
For example, while the Pacific Coast Railway Act of 1862 was only a few paragraphs long, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is hundreds of pages long, divided over nearly 11,000 sections. Although you might not know it by skimming your Facebook newsfeed, legislation is happening.
It was comforting to hear from a leading government scholar that our legislative branch is not broken. At least, not yet. The “government shutdown” standoff was only over discretionary spending. In two weeks, the U.S. Treasury is scheduled to hit the debt ceiling. But that’s another story.
Rebecca Berge is a College senior from Woodinville, Wash. She is a Member at Large of the Young Democrats of Emory.