Congress Is a Confederacy of Dunces

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Congress Is a Confederacy of Dunces

Senator Mitch McConnell gives a thumbs-up as he finishes his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in 2012. (Photo: AP/Cliff Owen)

Already we’re deep into September and Congress has reconvened in Washington, prompting many commentators to compare its return after summer’s recess to that of fresh-faced students coming back to school, sharpening their pencils, ready to learn, be cooperative and prepared for something new.

For this particular Congress to cooperate and do something new would require a miracle on the order of loaves and fishes — perhaps Pope Francis can do something about that when he’s on the Hill next week. His Holiness may be the only hope.
This, of course, is where the analogy crumbles.

For this particular Congress to cooperate and do something new would require a miracle on the order of loaves and fishes — perhaps Pope Francis can do something about that when he’s on the Hill next week. His Holiness may be the only hope.

What’s happening is just the latest virulent iteration of the strategy with which the Republicans have infected Congress from the night Barack Obama became president. Make governing impossible (as the old P.J. O’Rourke saying goes, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”). Shut down democracy, if that’s what it takes. Keep from happening anything that helps and protects the 99 percent or threatens the plutocracy.

No wonder J. David Cox, union president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told the publication Government Executive, “I’d like for them to stay out of town for the rest of the year. That would make my life more complete.”

The House and Senate sprinted off to vacation a few weeks ago with much undone, and thus have returned to a series of difficult deadlines that need to be addressed before the end of the month. Once they’ve put the Iran nuclear deal to bed, kicking and screaming all the way, there are a dozen spending bills that require resolution. But because of right wing GOP threats insisting on tying the defunding of Planned Parenthood to these appropriations measures, there’s the real possibility – some say as high as 70 percent — of deadlock and yet another government shutdown. With that would come the delights of forced federal furloughs, delayed paychecks, closed national parks and monuments and all the other attendant joys with which we became too familiar just a couple of years ago.

The probable outcome of all this sturm und drang is passage of a yet another continuing resolution (CR) that would keep government running at its current funding levels until a solution is hammered out. Mike DeBonis and Kelsey Snell reported in The Washington Post, “Congressional Democrats … [have] already named a price for backing a short-term funding extension: no unrelated policy riders or attempts to undo Obama policy initiatives in the stopgap measure, with long-term negotiations over increases in domestic spending to follow.”

What a tangled web of malarkey and obfuscation members of this legislative body doth weave. Even the CR may run up against the anti-Planned Parenthood crowd, although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell patiently told Kentucky constituents a couple of weeks ago, “We just don’t have the votes to get the outcome that we’d like… The president’s made it very clear he’s not going to sign any bill that includes defunding of Planned Parenthood so that’s another issue that awaits a new president hopefully with a different point of view.”

Picking up the school analogy again, maybe they should hold parent-teacher conferences to get the unruly kids in line. Instead, McConnell, House Speaker Boehner and others in the leadership are offering “listening sessions” and calling on their colleagues to rely on stand-alone anti-abortion bills (symbolic, as they won’t get past a Senate filibuster or the president’s veto pen), as well as investigations of Planned Parenthood and hearings. But so far this hasn’t been enough to corral the more vociferous lawmakers, including the members of the so-called “House Freedom Caucus” and that cowboy quartet of senators with visions of the Oval Office square-dancing in their heads. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul grapple for any foothold in the fight to out-Trump Trump, even if it means dissembling and clambering roughshod over women’s reproductive rights. Not to mention that it’s a great way to roil the ire of the right and haul in more campaign cash.

Democrats would like to see this resolved sooner rather than later, although they not-so-secretly delight in the other side’s mess (also relishing the potential for Democratic leverage) and could raise some serious campaign coin on their own just by selling tickets to this whole sorry spectacle.

Down the road, with any luck, what this Congress should be up to is debating income inequality and tax reform, restarting the Export-Import Bank, reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Act, the Social Security disability trust, and a new long-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund – some cockeyed optimists even dream of funding it for as long as five or six years instead of what would be the 36th short-term extension. And then there’s raising the $18.1 trillion borrowing cap, a lifting of the debt ceiling that’s due soon. It may or may not be tied to a budget deal before Christmas.

Given recent experience, easing that last one through is what’s called wishful thinking, because the same confederacy of dunces, especially the candidates among them, will cry murder once again as year’s end approaches. “They will join the chorus,” as legislative expert Norm Ornstein wrote in The Atlantic last month, “raising bloody hell as the primaries and caucuses begin about the perfidy of their own establishment leaders, getting even more distance from a Washington where Congress is run by Republicans.”

A recent editorial in the Houston Chronicle said it well: “A truly impressive presidential candidate would actually get the gears of government turning and help usher through a new federal budget that reduces long-term debt while fully funding government services. But so far, nobody seems up to it.”

If it’s back to school, this Republican Congress should be made to go sit in the corner.

Michael Winship

Michael Winship

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America-East, was senior writer for Moyers & Company and Bill Moyers’ Journal and is senior writer of

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