Punishing their own but passing few laws, a Congress in chaos leaves much to do in 2024

Dec 21, 2023, 10:05 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — This Congress started with showy bluster, a bitter 15-round, multi-day spectacle to elect a House speaker, a Republican who vowed to “never quit,” and then did just that.

House lawmakers proceeded not only to oust the GOP speaker, they also punished their own colleagues with censures and expulsion, launched an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and were barely able to conduct the basics of governing by keeping federal offices from shuttering.

While this first year of the 118th Congress was a historic one, thanks to the dizzying turmoil coming from the Republicans on the House side of the Capitol, next year is headed toward more of the same. With just 27 bills and resolutions signed into law, not counting a few board appointments, it’s among the most do-nothing sessions of Congress in recent times.

“This fall has been a very actively stupid political environment,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, the bow-tie-wearing Republican from North Carolina, who emerged as a voice of reason as the interim House speaker leading the chamber during the upheaval.

While Americans typically give low marks to Congress, as the branch of government closest to the people, it’s still the main venue the U.S. relies on, at times more so than the presidency or the courts, to work out the nation’s problems and challenges.

The need for a functioning Congress — what one scholar calls “the place” where it all happens — is even more apparent heading into a tumultuous presidential election year and with hot wars raging in Ukraine and the Middle East.

“People’s expectations for this Congress were so low, and so just doing the bare minimum seems like a passing grade,” said Philip Wallach, author of “Why Congress” and a senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington.

He said he’s grading this Congress on a curve. “I see this as symptoms rather than causes — symptoms of a lot of sort of institutional and cultural breakdowns or decay that have led to a lot of really bad feelings and a lot of desire to lash out across the aisle,” he said.

Next year has its own challenges ahead with Biden facing a potential rematch against Donald Trump, the former president and Republican party front-runner. Trump’s loss in 2020 resulted in his supporters laying siege to the U.S. Capitol, and a charge of insurrection led to his second impeachment, for which he was acquitted by the Senate. It now threatens his removal from the Colorado ballot.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said “the dark cloud of Donald Trump looms” as the GOP tries to find its way.

“We’re going to persevere,” Schumer said in an interview with The Associated Press, listing bills to lower the price of insulin, ensure child safety online and others he is lining up for the new year.

While the House Republicans, in majority control, led the chaos, including the removal of indicted GOP Rep. George Santos of New York, the Senate, despite its proclivity toward moderation, was not immune to the dysfunction.

One single Republican, Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama, threw the Defense Department into crisis by blocking the promotions of hundreds of military officers, including some of the nation’s most essential four-star generals. He finally relented just before the holiday recess.

And as Ukraine fights for its political survival against the Russian invasion, senators tried, and failed, to broker a U.S.-Mexico border security deal demanded by Republicans in exchange for providing more American military aid to the Western ally — despite a personal visit from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleading to help.

“I’m not very happy with how productive the Senate has been this year, and hopefully it will get better,” acknowledged Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Trump’s influence is especially felt in the border security talks as the former president intensifies his long history of lashing out at immigrants to the U.S. in alarming language evocative of World War II. It’s putting pressure on his party as Republicans follow his lead.

The chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he’s “heartsick” Congress failed to approve Ukraine aid before year’s end. But he remains confident it will get done in the new year.

Heading into 2024, new House Speaker Mike Johnson will start the year under the same pressure to pass legislation to keep the government funded, starting Jan. 19, that led to then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster after he brokered a budget-cutting debt deal with Biden.

The Republican-era speakers are being forced to relinquish control, a bottom-up approach, as the hard-right Freedom Caucus and its allies, many aligned with Trump, refuse to go along with compromises emanating from the Speaker’s office.

The GOP’s right flank is fueling the revolt, deploying rarely used procedural tactics to advance their own ideas and halt those of Republican leadership.

Much like the “motion to vacate,” which was used to eject McCarthy, the right wing is relying on privileged resolutions to censure Democrats and try to impeach Biden and others, seizing control of the House floor.

And in a series of stunning rebukes to GOP leadership, enough Republican lawmakers opposed procedural rules to advance the few major bills that did become law this year — to keep the government running and authorize military programs — that the Republican speakers had no choice but to rush to Democrats for help.

“The speakers are just trying to cope,” Wallach said.

While House Republicans passed a strict border security bill that the Senate refused to consider, Johnson, in a sign of challenges ahead, urged Biden on Thursday to act on his own, without Congress, to stem record numbers of migrant arrivals.

“It must start with you,” Johnson wrote. “I urge you to immediately take executive actions.”

It’s a shift from Nancy Pelosi’s run as speaker, when the powerful gavel wielded political fear and discipline, but also legislative results. The last Congress, among the most productive in decades, passed more than 300 pieces of legislation over two years, including major infrastructure and climate change bills.

By year’s end, it wasn’t just the ousted McCarthy calling it quits, but dozens of lawmakers heading for the exits.

After his stint as interim speaker, McHenry, a powerful committee chairman with allies across Congress, promptly announced he, too, would be retiring at the end of his term, as his far-right colleagues claim increasing power.

“We need people to be realists, not just blind ideologues,” he said.


Associated Press writer Stephen Groves contributed to this report.

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Punishing their own but passing few laws, a Congress in chaos leaves much to do in 2024