If Republicans want a shot at winning the White House in 2016, Congress needs to shift into high gear — now, not next year. The start of the 114th Congress has been less than encouraging. After more than two months of control, the Republican-controlled Congress has sent President Obama just six bills, and the only measure supporting private sector job creation — the Keystone XL pipeline — failed to gather enough votes to overcome the president’s veto. That’s not a very promising start for what its leaders dubbed “the New American Congress,” especially when you consider the GOP has its largest House majority in more than 80 years.
The Congressional Spectator
When the founders established the U.S. Senate, they intended for it to be a check on the volatile, populist House of Representatives. This was supposed to be the “upper body,” where rational debate led to wise policy decisions for the good of the nation. For more than 200 years, the Senate mostly lived up to the founders’ intention. But in recent years, things have changed. Traditional Senate comity and bipartisanship have shifted to a freeze on action and attempts at total domination by whichever party has the majority.
Until recently, both Democratic and Republican senators worked through many of their disagreements politely, aided by the Senate’s rich tradition of civility, fostering personal relationships across political parties. Throughout our nation’s history, we had great Senate leaders who worked both sides of the aisle to move the country forward. Majority Leaders like Lyndon Johnson, Mike Mansfield, Robert Byrd, Howard Baker, George Mitchell, and Trent Lott worked across political lines for the nation first and the Senate second; their party was often an afterthought.
The floors of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are rich in tradition and tightly governed by strict rules of decorum. That’s important to both institutions, but occasionally it is a major obstruction to progress.
One shocking example is that lawmakers are prohibited from using laptops on the floors of either body. Oh, to be sure, quill pens, snuff boxes and spittoons are allowed, but modern technology is banned.
With the mind-numbing complexity of legislative packages that are debated in Congress, ready access to computers would be a valuable aid. But only the House has revised its rules to allow the use of iPads, tablets, and iPhones on the floor of its chamber.
The Congressional laptop ban has been challenged in the past. As early as 1997, then newly-elected Senator Mike Enzi (dubbed “Cyber Senator” because of his proud geek status) petitioned for permission to use his laptop computer on the Senate floor so that he could study the issues at hand or communicate with his staff during lengthy debates.
Only a troglodyte does not know that Congress is a train wreck. The image is that of boorishness, immense conceit, and fecklessness — to use polite nouns. Gallup poll results in early December confirm an average approval rating in 2013 of just 12 per cent — a shocking evaluation by a constituency. The rating is the lowest in Gallup’s history. It is worth pondering what might happen to those government folks if they had to survive in in the RW, also known as the real world.
In any private enterprise with that rating from shareholders, dismissals would be rampant. Human resources professionals would be sequestered and work on weekends to design severance pay and outplacement packages. Corporate communications staff would prepare euphemistic press releases about an impending mass exodus. Paranoia would be rampant in every corridor of the company, and no one would be safe — from the thousands of toiling Dilberts condemned to gray cubicles to the CEO himself. Eventually, a corporate raider or bottom fisher would try to acquire the floundering company, only to gut it — and then restructure it to add value.
It is an odd fight. Such a weird little battle over meaningless and known outcomes. Conservatives, aware because of press reports and congressional leaks, knew what would be in the Paul Ryan-drafted budget plan. The conservative groups released statements in opposition to the plan based on what they had been told. But there was never any doubt about the Ryan plan passing.
After the plan was publicly unveiled by the Republicans at 6 o'clock on a Tuesday night, conservative fears were realized. Those things they knew would be in the plan were, in fact, in the plan. The plan funded Obamacare. The plan raised taxes. The plan broke the sequestration spending limits that, only a month before, Republican leaders had said would never be broken.