7 min read

Dysfunction is a choice

Lawmakers are about to be faced with a key opportunity to choose governance over obstruction.
Dysfunction is a choice
Photo by Andy Feliciotti / Unsplash

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Rep. Mark Green (R-TN), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, announced Wednesday that he will retire from Congress at the end of this year. The decision was surprising for three reasons.

One, his age: Green is 59 years old, practically a teenager in congressional terms. Then there’s the short amount of time he’s been in Congress: this is only his third term. And, finally, his committee gavel: once upon a time, a committee chairmanship was the pinnacle of a lawmaker’s service on Capitol Hill. Leaving right after you secured one would have been ridiculous.

But Green is calling it quits regardless. “This place is so broken,” he told Axios.

Green’s statement called to mind Tom Friedman’s recent response in the New York Times to President Biden saying that Israel’s conduct in Gaza “has been over the top.” Friedman wrote of Biden: “It struck me that he sounded more like a columnist than a president — an observer, not someone with the power to change things.”

In an era where members of Congress have thrice-weekly podcasts and viral TikTok accounts and guest host cable news shows, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that lawmakers, too, are beginning to sound more like pundits opining on political events than legislators with the power to shape them.

But lawmakers shouldn’t treat their own dysfunction as an irrevocable fact — or present it to their constituents that way. Dysfunction is not a fact; it is a choice.

Sometimes it is an active choice, like Green himself leading the push this week to remove Alejandro Mayorkas over his management of the border, ensuring that congressional floor time will have to be eaten up by impeachment proceedings — instead of by actual legislative solutions on border security.

Sometimes it is a passive choice, made when lawmakers blindly follow party leaders against their better instincts. Lately, it is a reality that has been hardened by a growing number of members doing exactly what Green is doing: giving up.

Another surprise retiree this week was Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who is even younger than Green (39 years old) and also a committee chair (of a select panel on competition with China). Gallagher, a Marine vet with degrees from Princeton and Georgetown, has frequently been cited as a “rising star” in the GOP; his China committee, meanwhile, has been lauded as an “oasis of bipartisanship.”

While Green spearheaded the Mayorkas impeachment, Gallagher was one of three House Republicans who voted against it, resisting attempts by GOP leaders to buttonhole him into changing his mind.

In a Fox News interview, he explained why he felt it was time to step aside. “I think that the fact that we have so many lifers and careerists in this institution is why it’s so dysfunctional,” he said, “and that the Framers, when they created the Constitution and this country, had in mind that you would embark on a season of service and then return to private life.”

Gallagher is surely right about the Framers, although it’s hard to say if his four terms qualifies him as a “careerist.” But come January, as many Capitol Hill “lifers” step down — including Reps. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) and Kay Granger (R-TX), two other committee chairs known for their relationships across the aisle — we will see if the first half of Gallagher’s assertion proves correct.

My guess is that Congress will only burrow deeper into dysfunction, deprived of members like Gallagher and Granger and McHenry who bring extensive institutional memory and legislative know-how to the table.

Such generational shifts took center stage in the Senate this week, as the upper chamber voted 70-29 to approve a Ukraine/Israel aid package, with 22 Republicans in support and 26 in opposition.

“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-MO), an opponent of the measure, wrote on X. “15 out of 17 elected since 2018 voted NO. Things are changing, just not fast enough.”

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), who voted for the package, responded to his colleague’s missive: “Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the West.”

Whether or not one supports the foreign aid package, clearly the composition of Congress — particularly on the Republican side — is changing, and bipartisan governance is declining as a result, contrary to Gallagher’s prediction. This happened first on the House side; as I wrote in September, and as we were reminded of this week, now these trends are slowly reaching the Senate as well.

In the coming weeks, members of the House will again be faced with the choice to either exacerbate dysfunction or help defuse it. Soldiers in Ukraine are watching closely, rationing their dwindling munitions as they do.

“In both the House and Senate,” congressional scholar Matt Glassman recently noted, “two things are required to force something to happen: the votes and the will.”

Although House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) is refusing to allow a vote on the Senate foreign aid package — which was passed through striking bipartisan cooperation between the two Senate leaders — there are ways to push a bill onto the floor without his say-so. One is the use of a discharge petition, a lengthy process that allows lawmakers to force a vote on a measure as long as a majority of House members sign on.

Conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) recently referred to discharge petitions as “violence against the speaker,” which they are, although he didn’t seem to mind such violence when he was leading a coup against John Boehner. Freedom Caucus members happily flout the speaker all the time, including just this week. (In fact, many of their proposals to decentralize House control are admirable initiatives that could, if carried out in a principled way, unjam the House by restoring power to committees and paving the way for more amendments.)

Centrists in the lower chamber have the votes to fund Ukraine, as even their opponents acknowledge. Soon, we will see if these Republican lawmakers have the will to put political capital on the line for the package, to flout the Republican speaker as their colleagues do — but to advance government function, not dysfunction. The choice is up to them.

This week in governance.

As always on Friday, I like to highlight not only what Congress isn’t doing — but also what it is. Here’s your weekly roundup of the pieces of legislation your elected representatives are voting on:

National Security Act: The $95 billion bipartisan foreign aid package. Includes $60 billion in military aid for Ukraine, $14 billion in military aid for Israel, $9 billion in humanitarian aid for Ukrainian and Palestinian civilians, and $4 billion to support Taiwan and other countries facing Chinese aggression. The bill would also provide funds to boost security at American places of worship and implement actions to combat the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. Bill text... Passed the Senate, 70-29

Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act: Reauthorizes several key programs to combat human trafficking through 2028. The $1.2 billion measure would also create new authorities, including a $175 million program to provide housing assistance grants to human trafficking victims. Bill text... Passed the House, 411-11

No Dollars To Uyghur Forced Labor: Prohibits the State Department from funding international projects that source materials from the Xinjiang region of China, where more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims are being forcibly detained by the Chinese government, many of them in forced labor camps. Bill text... Passed the House unanimously

Uyghur Policy Act: Creates a Special Coordinator for Uyghur Issues position at the State Department and directs the department to take other steps to raise awareness of the Uyghurs’ plight. Bill text... Passed the House, 414-6

IGO Anti-Boycott Act: Blocks U.S. companies from participating in a boycott against an allied country that has been imposed by an international governmental organization like the UN, targeting efforts to boycott Israel. (Companies are already barred under a 2018 law from participating in such boycotts if organized by foreign governments.) Bill text... Passed the House unanimously

H.Res.966: Condemns acts of rape and sexual violence committed by Hamas against Israelis on October 7th. Bill text... Passed the House, 418-0-1

Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023: Prohibits the U.S. from normalizing relations with Syria as long as it is led by Bashar al-Assad. Bill text... Passed the House, 389-32.

Unlocking our Domestic LNG Potential Act: Blocks the Biden administration from implementing its pause on exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Bill text... Passed the House, 224-200

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More news to know.

World: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny dies in prison (NBC)

Trump investigations: Trump hush money trial to start March 25, judge denies dismissal request (CNBC)

Biden investigations: Former FBI informant charged with lying about the Bidens’ role in Ukraine business, undercutting GOP impeachment inquiry (CNN)

Race to 218: A Redistricting Surprise in New York: A Map That Plays Few Favorites (NYT)

Race to 51: Rosendale drops Montana Senate bid — after less than a week (Politico)

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden will travel to East Palestine, Ohio, where he will receive a briefing on recovery efforts from last year’s toxic train derailment and deliver remarks on assistance being provided by his administration.

Vice President Harris is in Germany for the Munich Security Conference. She will deliver remarks on Ukraine and NATO and meet with President Isaac Herzog of Israel, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani of Iraq, Prime Minister Robert Golob of Slovenia, and members of Congress.

Congress: Both chambers of Congress are out for the week.

Courts: New York judge Arthur Engoron is expected to issue a verdict in Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial. Engoron has already ruled that Trump engaged in a years-long fraud scheme; today, he will set the punishment. New York attorney general Letitia James, who brought the case, is seeking a $370 million penalty and a ban on Trump doing business in the state.

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