Opinion: Is this the worst Congress ever? Let’s count the ways

AP File Photo/Mark Schiefelbein / House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, speaks during an event on Capitol Hill on March 21, 2024, in Washington, D.C.
AP File Photo/Mark Schiefelbein / House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, speaks during an event on Capitol Hill on March 21, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

More than halfway through the current two-year Congress, the "lawmakers" there bring to mind the old schoolyard quip about slacker students: They're really good at recess.

This pre-Easter week is the first of two that the House and Senate are taking off, though it seems like only yesterday they recessed for two weeks to mark Presidents Day. Lucky for them, members of Congress get recesses regardless of how well they perform — just like kids in elementary school. And they haven't been performing well at all, which explains the quotation marks above: The "lawmakers" aren't doing much law-making.

This Congress is shaping up as the least productive since the Great Depression. Even the low number of laws enacted is a bit inflated given that the House and the Senate, unable for months to agree on funding the government, repeatedly passed stopgap spending bills to avert shutdowns.

The members finally finished the budget measures before dashing out the doors last weekend to start their spring break — nearly six months into the fiscal year, when they should already be at work on spending for fiscal 2025, which starts Oct. 1. Expect more brinkmanship then.

Don't wish a pox on both houses and both parties, however. The blame lies with the House and the MAGA Republican Party that took charge there just over a year ago.

House Republicans can't govern because so many of them are anti-government. They don't want Washington to work when they can make partisan hay out of any disorder. They can't pass needed laws because they won't compromise, an essential act at any time but especially when the other party controls the Senate and White House.

Recall the House Republicans' rejection last month of a bipartisan, conservative immigration bill of the sort they'd demanded. "I'm not willing to do too damn much right now to help a Democrat and to help Joe Biden's approval rating," Texas Rep. Troy Nehls said. And the House was only able to pass the government budget — its most important job — thanks to the votes of the Democrats. A majority of the Republican majority voted against it.

Legislation simply isn't the House Republicans' priority. That's been impeaching President Joe Biden, along with his Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, but they're bollixing those efforts as well. Republicans did impeach Mayorkas on their second attempt, not for actual high crimes or misdemeanors but for politics: He oversees border security, and blaming a Democrat for the migrant crush at the Southern border is a good issue for Republicans. But that's a terrible precedent, and more than a month later, they still haven't sent the paperwork to the Senate.

As for Biden's impeachment, the Republican Javerts have all but called it quits.

Forty years ago last month I started covering Congress, and in all that time I've never witnessed a more self-defeating, unconstructive and pathetic performance by a majority party. I nodded knowingly when the now-former Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado explained to CNN why he resigned last Friday: "It's the worst year in 40, 50 years to be in Congress."

Incredibly, Buck wasn't the first House Republican to simply walk away from the two-year job that the voters back home elected him to do, and he won't be the last. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California left at the end of 2023, three months after extremist House Republicans made him the first speaker in U.S. history to be deposed. Ohio Rep. Bill Johnson exited in January. And Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, once considered a Republican comer, is leaving next month.

When he departs, House Republicans will be left with only a one-vote margin. That demands party unity to successfully legislate.

Republicans' disunity is so great that McCarthy's hapless replacement as speaker, Mike Johnson, has taken to using what's called the suspension calendar to pass needed bills. That practice, long reserved mostly for noncontroversial legislation, expedites House action but requires support from two-thirds of the members rather than a majority vote. With ayes from Democrats together with some from Republicans, Johnson can reach that threshold, as he finally did on the budget.

This reliance on Democrats for must-pass bills is what spawned the rebellion against McCarthy and froze both chambers of Congress for most of October while House Republicans battled among themselves to replace him. And, indeed, the incomparably divisive Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Mar-a-Lago, er, Georgia, filed a motion after the budget vote to unseat Johnson, just as McCarthy was unseated, if he continues to work with Democrats. Which Johnson will, because Republicans like her leave him no choice.

The big test ahead is aid to Ukraine, which Greene and many of the far-right House Republicans oppose. Under pressure, he vowed on Friday that the House would take action to help the U.S. ally against its Russian invaders. With votes from Democrats. When members are back from recess.

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