An overwhelming majority of Americans say they disapprove of the job Congress is doing according to a recent GALLUP poll. This should not be surprising considering that in almost a year the current Congress has passed fewer than three dozen bills, the fewest in decades for one session, and whose accomplishments little resemble those of its immediate predecessor, which was one of the most productive in history.
It began with a multi-ballot election for Speaker of the House, which had not happened since 1923, followed by the historic, unprecedented vote nine months later to remove Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as Speaker days after he reached a 11th hour deal to avert a government shutdown with the help of House Democrats. Then a tumultuous House leadership crisis paralyzed Congress for three weeks before a fourth speaker nominee, a key congressional figure among those who opposed certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory, was elected the 56th Speaker. If that was not enough drama, in mid-November, Congress for the second time in 2023 averted a government shutdown at the last minute, and on the first day of December the House voted to expel just the sixth lawmaker from the chamber in history.
Even before the new members of the 118th Congress were sworn in, the Pew Research Center found that the American public was “broadly skeptical that either the president or Republican House leaders will get their programs passed into law.” Had those polled by Pew right after the 2022 midterm elections quickly forgot the significant accomplishments of the soon expiring 117th Congress or was the prospect of likely gridlock where one party controlled the Senate and the other the House, which prompted their low expectations?
A more plausible conclusion is that Congress has been held in low regard for so long that few people really noticed or appreciate the work of the 118th Congress. Despite this Congress often being overshadowed by the events concomitant to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, congressional observers have praised it for delivering “robust policy achievements,” “racking up a substantial list of bipartisan legislative accomplishment,” “strikingly functional,” being “highly productive.”
How was the 117th Congress able to accomplish so much in an era of intense partisanship? Because our national legislators often worked together to find common ground, to compromise. Their nonpartisan achievements bolstered federal and state efforts to shore up the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, reformed the postal service, tightened gun laws, ramped up domestic production of semiconductor chips, strengthened veterans’ health benefits, and provided tens of billions to Ukraine to thwart Russian aggression.
In addition, Republicans and Democrats worked together to approve legislation to combat hate crimes, commemorate the end of chattel slavery in the United States with a new holiday, strengthen protections for women from intimate partner violence, protected same-sex marriage, reform procedures for certifying the Electoral College vote, and confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson as the nation’s first Black woman Supreme Court justice.
Can Congress not function when the House and Senate are controlled by different parties or is this year’s dysfunction a reflection of a divided nation? Was the nation any less divided in 2021-2022 than it is in 2023?
Perhaps the real answer starts in the voting booth. Do we vote for candidates who are willing to find compromises that will lead to solutions, or are we more inclined to solely choose those who we know will hold fast to a position even when making a moderate concession would secure a reasonable, feasible alternative that would move the nation forward?
Is not the current chaos on Capitol Hill really a reflection of a dysfunctional electorate that often fails to select individuals who are civil, positive, optimistic and patriotic? Instead, like-minded contenders are elected who espouse their anger, outrage, and bitterness toward the other side.
In the voting booth we need to select those who have a proven ability to reach across the aisle and possess the capability to compromise as the Founding Father did. On Sept. 17, 1787, the final day of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin delivered a remarkable closing address to the proceedings. “Mr. President,” Franklin begins, “I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgement and pay more respect to the judgment of others….”
“I doubt too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an Assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does…. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice for the public good….”
We need to remember how the Framers went about creating our government and be willing to encourage the selection of, work to elect, and vote for candidates who are capable of actually placing the country first before self? Candidates who remember and embody the give and take that took place in Philadelphia in 1787.
Stephen W. Stathis for nearly four decades was a specialist in American history with the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress. He is the author of “Landmark Debates in Congress from the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq and Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties.”
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