Making Laws No Longer Part of Lawmaking Process

Reading through some headlines today, I came across one link that began, "House Votes To..." and I realized that no matter what the end of the headline was, you can almost always insert, "...Make Pointless Statement As Sop to Conservative Base" and you'll be on target. In this case it happened to be a vote to block energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs, but it could have been any of a thousand things. You could argue, as Jonathan Chait does, that Republican lawmakers have basically given up on lawmaking altogether, and you wouldn't be far off. But it's more than that. They've reimagined the lawmaking process as a kind of extended ideological performance art piece, one that no longer has anything to do with laws in the "I'm Just a Bill" sense. It's not as though they aren't legislating, it's just that laws have become beside the point.

Granted, the lawmaking process has always involved a lot of grandstanding and occasional votes taken more to make a statement than to alter the rules under which American society operates. Congress passes plenty of resolutions that do nothing more than express its sentiments, like saluting the patriotism of the East Burp High students who raised money to buy a new flag for their school, or declaring August to be Plantar Fasciitis Awareness Month. But those things always went alongside actual lawmaking.

We're now in a situation where the lawmaking process—you know, bills being written, introduced, voted on, that sort of thing—has, in the House at least, been given over almost entirely to this legislative kabuki, where the point of the exercise isn't passing laws but making statements and taking positions. The current Congress is on pace to be the least productive in history when you measure by actual laws passed.

And it is really all about the House. Whenever you see someone say that "Congress" or "Washington" is stuck in gridlock or can't get its act together, the underlying truth is almost always that it's the Republican House gumming things up. There are more than a few crazy Republicans in the Senate, but as a group they're willing to legislate, and sometimes even compromise with Democrats. Not so in the House. I think this reached its apogee when they took their 37th vote to repeal Obamacare a couple months back, in part because freshman Tea Party members hadn't had the chance to perform the ritual. "The guys who've been up here the last year, we can go home and say listen, we voted 36 different times to repeal or replace Obamacare," said South Carolina Representative Mick Mulvaney, with a touching compassion for his colleagues. "Tell me what the new guys are supposed to say." There was a time when members of Congress would want to go to their constituents and tell them about funding they'd obtained for projects in the district or reforms they'd fought for and passed. These days, Republicans in the House know that none of what they vote for with such enthusiasm will ever even be considered in the Senate, much less voted on, passed, and sent to the president for his signature. But they don't seem to care.

The kicker to this is that it's only going to get worse, because the GOP is poised to erect a giant wall around the House of Representatives as its last redoubt of national power. As we've been discussing, the party is split between those who worry about their prospects in future presidential elections and therefore want to reach out to growing minority populations and soften the GOP's hard-earned image as a bunch of nativists, and those who not only can't stand the immigration reform currently on offer but fear only threats from their right in primary campaigns, since they're in safe Republican districts. Most everyone in Washington now believes that immigration reform is all but dead, which is bad for the party's next presidential nominee, but perfectly fine with House Republicans.

Although I'm always wary of assuming that the way things are in politics is the way they'll remain for too long, we could well see an extended period in which a Democratic president is stymied by a Republican House dominated by legislators who couldn't care less about legislating. It's almost enough to make you cynical about politics.

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