BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON | DEC 20, 2022
The end of a Congress reminds me of those blinding winter blizzards of my youth on the Great Plains. There’s no visibility. Drivers can’t see the road signs and pedestrians stumble forward across snow drifts and invisible ice with their head down. When the snowstorm is over, there is left a path of destruction and a massive clean-up job in the offing.
The end of the 117th Congress is howling to its close. Members have been in a hurried and harried race to pass a massive piece of legislation to keep the government funded. It is more than 4,000 pages, a virtual blizzard of politics, partisanship, and legislative language that members have no time to plow through. They will vote—or have voted by now—with their heads down, and their eyes closed, not having read the bill. Okay, enough with the metaphors.
Congress will get passed what it can, the leaders will call the President to tell him the Congress is officially kaput, and members will declare victory of one kind or another and go home. Actually, as this is written many are rushing back to Washington to hear Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy address Congress.
The actual deadline for the funding legislation was three months ago. That was also the deadline for enacting 12 separate appropriation bills, which Congress has failed to do since 1997, if memory serves.
This end-game says it all about Congress and the way we are ungoverned. The moniker of lame duck is apropos. The faces and dates and details may be different, but the story is the same, Congress after Congress, election after election. There already is a lot of chatter about how this Congress has been more productive than past congresses.
Depending upon your point of view, that may hold some truth, but compared to what? One Congress after another for a decade or more, little has been done.
The sad part of all of this is the vast majority of Americans have grown numb to outcomes and repulsed by the state of a representative democracy that they believe no longer represents them. The evidence is overwhelming. Majorities don’t trust Congress or those who serve there. They don’t trust many of the institutions that have buttressed our politics for two centuries. Most Americans believe their representatives serve political parties, the media, so-called special interests, and their own personal ambitions before them. They are tired of it all: tired of being angry; tired of being disappointed; tired of being ignored; tired of gridlock, polarization, wasted money, and wasted time.
And a majority believe their political leaders just don’t realize the gravity of the current condition, and with justification. Critical and complex issues facing the nation are turned into oversimplified political sloganeering narratives. They don’t get resolved.
The landscape is littered with them: horrible immigration crises; declining education and idiocy on college campuses; murder in the streets, especially involving children and teenagers; epidemic drug addiction and drug overdose deaths; deficient health care; cyber-security vulnerability; climate risk; inequality of opportunity (as distinguished from equity); the rewriting of history to suit factional and ideological interests; social disorder and incivility; extremism in politics and political behavior that is too often violent.
Then there are the economic travails of inflation, taxes, potential recession, deterioration of retirement accounts, meaningless Federal budgets and budget processes that are mere empty shells of their legislative intent. Deficits run wild and the national debt is running in the trillions. Do you know how much a trillion dollars is? Neither do I.
Congress is dysfunctional, the Executive is too powerful and over-regulates our lives. Once respected agencies have become partisan weapons.
Our elective process leaves little to be decided after the parties have their say in primaries and caucuses. Choices are slim by election day. Good prospective candidates pass on running. It’s too expensive, there is too heavy a toll on families, and the avocation of public service just isn’t what it once was. Campaigns have become slugfests, with too much money coming from wealthy, anonymous donors. Campaigns are nonstop, year-round. They leave no time for policymaking between election cycles and they feed the media what the media feeds on.
There is little need to go on. There is so much more. This is not news.
Years of neglect have left our system of governance and now, much of society, in a state of paralysis, bedridden by exclusionary behavior, scornful and retributive politics, and the hollowing out of American values that once defined the American character.
We have lost our way.
It is no wonder citizens want a greater, stronger more resonant voice in their governance. They want to make government work for them and the country and they don’t want to live in fear that their way of life, their freedom, and the Republic are at risk. The dilemma is they don’t know how to get from here to there.
How do we find our way back to the center where the people are; back to civil public life; back to solving problems before they become crisis; back to working together for the common good parallel with our own good? How on earth do we move forward when we’ve fallen so far back?
The first challenge is to restore public trust.
(A first step is to re-educate the public. A friend and colleague and I have just finished the draft of a book focused on just one element of that education, re-introducing citizens to their Congress, how it is influenced and how to regain control over what it does and does not do. We offer solutions, too. That is for another column.)
Public trust, from my experience, has always been the cornerstone of our politics and governance. It is the load-bearing column that keeps our Republic erect and a safe haven from autocracy, aristocracy, and the oppressive regimes that have driven millions upon millions of people to our shores.
If we don’t restore trust, we don’t go forward.
Without enduring trust it is impossible to govern effectively under our uniquely conceived Republic. It really doesn’t matter whether you want a bigger government or you want to tear down what’s there or hope for something in between. None of those objectives can be accomplished unless you have faith in the system and are willing to engage with it, not against it.
I think we’ve learned that renewal is not going to happen if we leave it in the hands of either political party, or their political appendages, or the media or other institutions and go about our business.
The impetus for renewal must come from the American people first. The American people need to put their back into it and ensure that their political leaders do what needs to be done.
Thomas Edison said “most people overlook opportunity because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Renewal—spiritual, political, and social—will take incredible work, tolerance, perseverance, and a unity of purpose that the American people have shown before under more trying conditions.
It is a cliché to say the time has come or the time is now. But the time for renewal has come before, gone away, and now has come again. It may not last long.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.