Gridlock Deepens Under Trump. Is Our Democracy at Risk?
Posted January 27, 2018 1:17 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — As lawmakers recover from a dispiriting government shutdown and prepare for President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday, Capitol Hill is absorbed with concern that Trump’s presidency has pushed an already dysfunctional Congress into a near-permanent state of gridlock that threatens to diminish U.S. democracy itself.
The sense of gloom is bipartisan. A group of Republicans in the House and the Senate are warning of a secret plot in the FBI to overthrow the Trump government. Democrats speak of corruption and creeping authoritarianism, unchecked by a Congress that has turned into an adjunct of the executive.
And few lawmakers can muster a word of pride in their institution.
“The Senate has literally forgotten how to function,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent of Maine. “We’re like a high school football team that hasn’t won a game in five years. We’ve forgotten how to win.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., is no more sanguine. “Congress is weaker than it has been in decades, the Senate isn’t tackling our great national problems, and this has little to do with who sits in the Oval Office,” he said. “Both parties — Republicans and Democrats — are obsessed with political survival and incumbency.”
The dysfunction has played out in ugly and puzzling ways. The three-day shutdown this month over immigration came and went so fast that even many Democrats saw no point in it. Last year’s futile efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act soured many conservatives. Trump’s sweeping budget proposal to reorder government was simply ignored. And issues that both parties say they agree on — from raising military spending to banning “bump stocks,” which allow a semi-automatic weapon to fire like a machine gun — remain undone.
To some Democrats, midterm elections this November that were once seen as a test for lunch-pail issues that could woo back white working-class voters are now seen as about nothing short of the future of pluralism and constitutional democracy.
A Democratic victory would “erect a barricade against Trump, against a dangerous, reckless president and what else he might do,” said Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., who taught political science at Duke University before coming to Congress in 1987. Democracy, he said, depends on checks and balances. “This is an absolutely critical test of whether we can do that.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin, a constitutional law professor turned House member, echoed the sentiment.
“We have a chaos presidency and a chaos Congress, and to oppose it, we need a politics that restores people’s faith in public things, including Congress itself,” Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, said.
Republicans have their own high stakes in November. Losing control of Congress, they say, could mean a highly politicized impeachment of their president. Worse still, a rising tide for Democrats in 2018 and 2020 could put the party in control of the redrawing of House district lines after the next census.
Congress has long been polarized. Republicans complained bitterly of being frozen out of the big legislative pushes of the early Obama administration, not only the Affordable Care Act but also the Dodd-Frank financial services law and other measures. It was Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader at the time, who first used the so-called nuclear option to end filibusters for administration nominees and most judicial ones.
But Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, sees something new in the level of vitriol and hyperbole.
“It’s something that I think has only become more intense, more conspicuous, because of the outsize personality and idiosyncrasies of President Trump,” Baker said. “It has made Democrats feel that they are under a very heavy obligation to defend the norms and the institution. Republicans feel that Congress was elected with a mandate to bring about change, so what had been a kind of pre-existing edgy relationship has simply gone viral.”
For most of the Obama presidency, Republican leaders were vexed by a dwindling center and an expanding group of hard-right lawmakers who would accept no negotiations with the Democratic president. That impediment to compromise has now been joined by a similar dynamic in the Democratic Party, where a visceral hatred of Trump on the left has empowered Democratic lawmakers to refuse to deal with the Republican president. The divide has been deepened as a half-dozen Democratic senators consider a White House run in 2020.
If temperatures are to cool, the next few weeks could prove pivotal. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, has promised a “fair and open” debate on immigration, while a new bipartisan coalition has emerged in the Senate to try to break a logjam. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., saw something hopeful in that development, a new willingness to go around the parties’ feuding leaders.
“If anything positive happened out of this past week, it’s the fact that people are talking right now,” he said.
But if the effort fails, Congress might careen toward another fiscal showdown in February — and possibly another shutdown. Even if the Senate can agree to a bipartisan way to bolster border security and protect young unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children, the House would have to follow suit.
Then there is the matter of the investigations into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. What began as a bipartisan effort to get to the bottom of Russia’s brazen meddling in the 2016 presidential election has devolved in recent weeks into partisan warfare, particularly in the House. House Republicans on the Intelligence Committee have assembled a memo said to accuse officials from the FBI and the Justice Department of improperly spying on a Trump campaign adviser. Democrats are crying foul play, and even the Justice Department is warning that a Republican push to declassify the memo could dangerously compromise U.S. intelligence.
One of the year’s most crucial questions is shaping up to be whether Republican control of Congress can withstand all this dysfunction, or whether it will lead to a sweeping realignment of power in the midterm elections in November. The outcome will undoubtedly shape the second half of Trump’s term.
“What we find in every state in the country is that people want Congress to hold the Trump administration accountable,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who leads the committee charged with electing Democrats to the Senate. He added, “Congress has been totally AWOL.” For Democrats, the dysfunction has made the quest to regain power more urgent. They argue that outside of a few moments of independence — the passage last summer of a Russia sanctions bill opposed by Trump, for example, and statements by a few Republican senators like Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee — Republicans have shown themselves unwilling to challenge Trump and his administration.
“Among the gravest disappointments of this year was not finding out how awful a president Donald Trump has turned out to be, but rather how docile the Congress has been,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “The most important thing people can do right now who are concerned about the direction of the Congress is change the majority in Congress. That’s the single most important thing we can do right now for the health of the democracy.”
Republicans fiercely contest Democrats’ assessment. They take pride in having passed a tax overhaul written by lawmakers — as opposed to the White House — and say they have continued to investigate the election meddling despite Trump’s clear opposition. There is nothing wrong, they argue, with Republicans’ advancing an agenda they share with the White House and have long waited to enact.
“If we were really in the tank for Trump, we wouldn’t even be doing this investigation,” said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., who is helping to lead the Intelligence Committee’s Russia-related work. “It would have been much easier not to.”
For the moment, Congress simply needs to show it can perform its most basic function: controlling the government’s purse. The fiscal year began Oct. 1, but for four months, the government has been functioning on short-term stopgap spending bills that provide no reordering or new direction to government programs.
“There’s nothing more basic than the power of the purse, and there’s no more systemic failure than what we’ve had for years: not to exercise that power in an orderly and prescribed way,” Price, the North Carolina Democrat, said. The latest round of continuing resolutions, or CRs, as the stopgap spending laws are known on Capitol Hill, has infuriated Democrats and Republicans alike. The one adopted Monday — which will fund the government until Feb. 8 — was the fourth since September.
“We keep trying to claim victories on both sides and talk about who is going to be blamed,” Rooney said. “In the meantime, we are just living in CR hell. I don’t think people out there care that this side or another side was able to jam the other side. This is all just posturing for 2018. In the meantime, we don’t govern.”
Neither chamber of Congress works as it was intended. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Minnesota Democrat who was first elected to Congress in 1974, left for 30 years, and then won election again in 2012, noted that bills once went to the floor, were open for amendment, then passed after input from both parties. Now, leaders bring fully formed legislation to the floor with little or no opportunity to change it.
“The complaint I am registering is not just voiced by Democrats. Republicans feel the same way,” he said. “They did not get elected to Congress for photo ops. They have almost relegated members of Congress to become middle-level telemarketers dialing for dollars.”
In the Senate, business is so rushed that Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., complained that many of the newer senators are unaware of the chamber’s most basic rules.
“We don’t do enough legislation on the floor to give them experience with how to pass a bill,” Alexander said.
Tom Daschle, a former Democratic Senate majority leader, lamented that the dysfunction might be permanent.
“I worry about whether or not it’s reversible, the loss of norms and the loss of institutional process and the lack of institutional memory,” he said. “I doubt that there are more than a handful of senators today who have really experienced what regular order feels like.”
The shutdown last week produced a nascent effort at pushback: a bipartisan group calling itself the Common Sense Coalition has been meeting in the office of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, one of the last centrists in the Senate. While passing around a Masai talking stick to discourage talking over one another, the senators provided their leaders a blueprint for reopening the government. Now they are working to come up with a bipartisan immigration bill.
“That’s indicative of how bad it’s gotten — that you need rump groups in the Senate to do anything, and often they fail,” said Matt Bennett, a senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “It so happens they succeeded this time, but the bar was kind of low, which was to open the government.”