As Congress flees, what have we learned about it and its denizens?


House members leave the U.S. Capitol last week as Congress begins its summer recess. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chris Cillizza
Reporter August 4, 2013

Congress is gone from Washington, fleeing historic levels of partisan gridlock and voter distaste. With the House and Senate not set to return until the second week of September — nice life! — it’s worth reviewing what we’ve learned about the institution and the men and women who occupy it in these first eight months of the 113th Congress.

John Boehner is a SINO (Speaker In Name Only): From nearly being pushed to a second ballot in the vote for speaker at the start of this Congress to the failure of the farm bill in June, there are signs everywhere that the Ohio Republican has been tasked with leading a Republican conference that has no interest in being led.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

Boehner has put on a brave face, insisting that bills failing on the floor of the House is part of his more transparent approach to leadership. But, for an institutionalist like Boehner, the rump group of House Republicans who simply won’t cooperate with, well, anything has to be immensely frustrating.

A grand bargain looks like a pipe dream: One thing both sides agree on is that almost zero progress has been made toward avoiding a government shutdown at the end of September and/or avoiding a debt-ceiling crisis the likes of which we saw in the summer of 2011. And, as the Republican response to President Obama’s latest grand-bargain offer — corporate tax reform in exchange for stimulus spending — showed, there is a trust deficit between the White House and the GOP.

Boehner and Obama, both clearly scarred by the collapse of the 2011 grand-bargain talks, seem to be circling each other like wary combatants. That’s not exactly the right posture for a deal.

And when you consider that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who cut the “fiscal cliff” deal with Joe Biden in late 2012, is facing a real primary challenge in 2014 and won’t be keen on working with a Democratic White House, you begin to wonder who might even sit at the negotiating table for a grand bargain.

House Republicans have a slow-it-down strategy: This Congress is on its way to being the least productive — in terms of bills passed that become law — in the six decades that stats have been kept on things like that. That’s a stat to be proud of, according to Boehner, who rejected the idea that passing legislation should be a measure of success for the GOP-led House. “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create,” Boehner told CBS’s Bob Schieffer in late July. “We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.” That sentiment explains the strategic philosophy behind the 40 votes the House has taken to defund parts of President Obama’s health-care law and why there’s little reason to think that the pace of legislative action will pick up anytime soon.

Gun control ain’t happening: Think back to the beginning of this year. The dominant political question was not whether some sort of gun-control legislation would pass in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings but rather how broad that legislation would be. Four months later the legislation had failed in the Senate, and even the most optimistic gun-control advocates believe the window for legislative change has slammed shut without much being accomplished.

The Senate isn’t a fun place to be: Seven senators — five Democrats, two Republicans — have already announced they won’t be running for reelection in November 2014. If not a single other senator retires between now and then — and we tend to think that is unlikely — that would make 29 senators who have called it quits in the last three elections. By contrast, the three elections prior — 2004, 2006 and 2008 — saw only 18 Senate retirements. Between 2000 and 2008, a period that spans five national elections, only 30 senators retired.

And it’s not just the raw number of retirements that is historically anomalous — it’s the years of seniority being lost.

In the 2014 cycle alone, Michigan’s Carl Levin (D) and Montana’s Max Baucus (D), who were first elected in 1978, as well as West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller (D), first elected in 1984, are retiring. That race for the doors is attributable to many factors, but one big one is that the Senate just isn’t what it used to be.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is a force to be reckoned with: The single most memorable moment of the first eight months of the 113th Congress was Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director in early March. Paul’s almost 13-hour talkathon, dedicated to his opposition to the use of drone strikes against American citizens, became a political and cultural touchstone. Hours after Paul started speaking on what is an off-the-beaten-path issue for his party (to say the least), the eminence grise of the party — McConnell, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.) and 2016 favorite Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) — were rushing to the floor to speak in support of Paul.

That was Paul’s biggest moment, but it wasn’t his only one. His recent spat with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) over libertarianism proved that inside or outside the Beltway, the Kentucky senator is a prime mover in GOP politics.

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