There Is No “Congress”

It is true that the Constitution of the United States of America created a legislature. Its principal function is to make laws. It comprises the legislative branch of the federal government, the other two branches being the executive and the judicial.

The authors of the Constitution called this legislative branch “Congress”. They also divided this “Congress” into two parts.

Article I, Section 1:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

When a law or a change to a law is proposed, the Senate and the House of Representatives must both endorse the proposal in order for it to become official, i.e. “the law of the land”. (The Executive branch, embodied by a “President”, also gets to participate in the process. Sometimes the Judicial branch does too.)

So far, so good.

The Constitution nowhere mentions political parties, but it only took a few years for a “two-party system” to develop.

The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. . . .  Alexander Hamilton and James Madison . . . wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first president, George Washington, was not a member of any political party . . . Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation . . .

Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system merged from his immediate circle of advisers. Hamilton and Madison . . .  ended up being the core leaders in this emerging party system. It was the split camps of Federalists, given rise with Hamilton as a leader, and Democratic-Republicans, with Madison and Thomas Jefferson at the helm . . . that created the environment in which partisanship, once distasteful, came to being [Wikipedia].

How does the two-party system affect Congress? If the majority in both the Senate and the House belong to the same party, it doesn’t make that much difference. If, say, the Racoon Party has the majority in both houses, there is general agreement on which laws to adopt (since senators serve for six years and representatives only serve for two, the members of the two houses sometimes have different priorities even when they belong to the same party).

But what if the Racoons are the majority in the Senate and the Otters are the majority in the House? Or the other way around? It is more difficult for the two majorities to agree on what the country’s laws should be. Sometimes it’s almost impossible.

Since 1857, when the Republicans joined the Democrats as one of America’s two major parties, there have been eighty-two sessions of Congress. By my count, the same party has controlled both houses of Congress sixty-six times, leaving sixteen sessions in which Congress has been divided. We are living through one of those sixteen sessions now, since the Democrats control the House and the Republicans control the Senate.

As we would expect, with two different parties in charge, things are not going well.

For example, the Democrat-led House agreed on legislation in May, almost three months ago, in order to deal with the suffering and disruption caused by Covid-19. Among other things, House Bill 6800 (unfortunately called “The Heroes Act”) would extend the $600 weekly increase in unemployment insurance, make another round of direct payments (up to $6,000 for a family), provide $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service and increase aid to state and local governments.

The Republican-led Senate has not taken a vote on the House’s bill. Nor has the Senate proposed its own version of legislation to address the same issues (which would then be subject to negotiation with the House). The result is that the $600 increase in unemployment insurance agreed to earlier this year has lapsed. A moratorium on housing evictions is also ending.

So the country is in quite a pickle.

Now here’s what motivated me to express myself today. It’s a headline in The Washington Post.

Congress deeply unpopular again as gridlock on coronavirus relief has real-life consequences

Here’s one from USA Today.

Congress leaves town without a coronavirus stimulus deal, allowing $600 unemployment benefit to end

Here’s a classic example of the problem from an experienced New York Times reporter:

A conservative Republican House member profanely accosts a Democratic congresswoman as she strides up the Capitol steps to do her job during multiple national calamities.

With expanded jobless benefits supporting tens of millions of fearful Americans about to expire and a pandemic raging, Senate Republicans and the [Republican] White House cannot agree among themselves about how to respond, let alone begin to bargain with Democrats.

In a private party session, arch-conservative Republicans ambush their top female leader and demand her ouster over political and policy differences.

And that’s just the past few days.

By nearly any measure, Congress is a toxic mess . . .

Jonathan Chait is a columnist for New York Magazine. He referred to the problem twice in the past month:

If I could change one thing about political coverage, it would be the practice of attributing actions by one party to “Congress” [June 27].

The single worst practice in political journalism is attributing decisions by one party to “Congress” [July 26].

I’d make it “actions or inaction by one party”, but he made a very good point.

My suggestion is that when two different parties are in charge of Congress, people who write about politics for a living should make an effort to specify which party in which house is doing (or not doing) something. That would help readers understand where the dysfunction usually lies (hint: it’s not the Democratic side).

Since my suggesting this will have no effect, I’ll alternatively suggest that when we readers see references to Congress in times like this, we keep in mind that Congress has two parts and that one of those parts (same hint) is totally screwed up.

In fact, in times like this, “Congress” doesn’t really exist.

“Stop Asking Us To Wait”

Thirty progressive groups have sent an open letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: 

We write to express deep disappointment and concern over your refusal to use the full scope of your constitutional power to hold [the president] accountable. We urge you to reconsider your position on this issue and immediately open an impeachment inquiry.

Voters gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives because they wanted aggressive oversight of the … administration. Yet, your leadership is resulting in dangerous inaction that enables this racist and xenophobic president. Our families, friends, communities, country and planet deserve a party that chooses people over politics – and that starts with your willingness to take bold, moral leadership.

As Speaker of the House, you have the power to ensure Congress exercises its constitutional obligation to hold this president accountable, but instead of using your power, you are giving us political excuses for why you shouldn’t. Instead of leading, you and your colleagues have asked us to wait – wait for the Mueller report, wait for the unredacted Mueller report, wait for Mueller’s testimony about the Mueller report, wait for more investigations, wait for bipartisan consensus, wait for impeachment to poll better, wait for the 2020 election.

With 10 distinct episodes of obstruction of justice already clear from the Mueller report, violations of the emoluments clause happening on an almost daily basis, and [the] administration now defying subpoenas for both documents and testimony, waiting is a privilege. But it is not a privilege available to the families separated by his deportation force or his Muslim ban, the asylum seekers languishing in Mexico, the people threatened by his embrace of white supremacy, the LGBTQ people whose rights he is taking away, the women whose bodies he is trying to control or the communities threatened by his denial of the climate crisis.

The American people deserve a leader who is willing to bravely use power to rein in the Trump administration and defend our communities. You have stated that we are facing a constitutional crisis. But the remedy for such a constitutional crisis is not traditional congressional oversight – particularly when confronted with a president who has nothing but contempt for such oversight and obstinately refuses to comply with legitimate congressional demands and requests. The framers placed the impeachment power in the Constitution precisely for the purpose of confronting a lawless president like [him].

There’s still a chance to turn things around…. Your strong leadership can help move the public narrative, not only on impeachment, but on the dangers [his] presidency poses for all Americans. Your leadership can position the House of Representatives as the body that exposes the corruption and moral abhorrence of [this] White House, proves that no president is above the law, and persuades most Americans that this president must be removed from office. <Note: I’d say “should be”> You can help expose his defenders and enablers, including those in the Senate, as craven partisans willing to destroy our democracy and defend a criminal president in order to protect tax breaks for their billionaire benefactors and stack the federal courts to defend their white, male privilege.

In the very near future, the Trump era will be one that evokes the question – what did you do? We urge you to use your power to lead and to stop asking us to wait.

Inching Toward Impeachment

One week ago, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, indicated he wasn’t ready to impeach the president:

We have a constitutional responsibility to serve as a check and balance on a potentially out-of-control executive branch. But we will not overreach. We will not overinvestigate. We will not overpoliticize that responsibility. We will proceed as Speaker Pelosi has laid out, methodically yet aggressively to get to the truth.

He said that politics shouldn’t determine whether to impeach or not impeach.

Then Congress took a week off to allow everyone to travel back home and celebrate Memorial Day. After speaking with constituents in Brooklyn and Queens, it sounds like Rep. Jeffries is inching closer to impeachment:

The Judiciary Committee, on which I sit, should have hearings on three things: obstruction of justice, abuse of power and the culture of corruption that appears to exist at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. I’m of the view that those hearings should commence immediately. And we need to present the information to the American people. What you call those hearings — that is a decision that will ultimately be made by [Judiciary Committee] Chairman Nadler and Speaker Pelosi.

In that regard, the Judiciary Committee will commence hearings on the Mueller report next Monday, with “testimony from former U.S. attorneys and legal experts, including John Dean, a Trump critic and former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon”. But there is still no word on Robert Mueller testifying. 

In case the committee has trouble coming up with things to investigate, Washington Post columnist Max Boot offers “seven reasons [the president] should be impeached”, expressed as formal articles of impeachment:

Article 1. … in violation of his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, [he] has obstructed the administration of justice….

Article II. … failed to defend America from foreign election interference…. 

Article III. … attempted to investigate and prosecute his political opponents…. 

Article IV. [and] failed to produce papers and testimony as duly directed by Congress.

Article V. … in violation of federal campaign finance laws, [he] conspired with his attorney Michael Cohen in order to conceal alleged relationships with [Stormy Daniels and Karen MacDougal] before the 2016 election.

Article VI. … in violation of his oath to uphold Article 1, section 9 of the Constitution (“No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law”), [he] attempted to misuse his emergency powers to spend funds on a border wall that Congress did not appropriate.

Article VII. … in violation of his oath to uphold the emoluments clauses (which forbid the president from accepting benefits from foreign and state governments without the permission of Congress) [he] retains ownership of a global business empire which allows him to benefit from dealings with foreign and state governments.

No doubt there are other “high crimes and misdemeanors” Mr. Boot didn’t get to.

He concludes: 

[The president] has committed more criminal and unconstitutional conduct than any previous president in U.S. history. If they refuse to impeach him, members of Congress will violate their own oaths to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

In case you’d like to deliver a message to your representative, you can begin by entering your zip code at the House’s handy Find Your Representative page. Then you click on their name. (They’re waiting to hear from you.)

This Is Past Ridiculous, So We Need To Speak Up

The New York Times is trying to find out which Democrats in the House of Representatives support an impeachment inquiry. So far, 54 of them do; 56 of them gave wishy-washy answers (probably in deference to Nancy Pelosi); and 125 haven’t responded. My congressman, Tom Malinowski (NJ-7) does.

If yours doesn’t, you should consider getting in touch (they all have their own websites). You might even quote these two gentlemen.

Charles Blow of The Times asks:

What the hell is it going to take, Democrats?!

What evidence and impetus would compel you to do the job the Constitution, patriotism and morality dictate?

What is it going to take to make you initiate an impeachment inquiry?

Your slow walking of this issue and your specious arguments about political calculations are pushing you dangerously close to a tragic, historic dereliction of duty, one that could do irreparable damage to the country and the Congress….

Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept takes five minutes to explain why the arguments against impeaching the president are b.s. (I apologize for displaying the disturbing image.)

The situation is only going to get worse. If she feels enough pressure, Nancy Pelosi (CA-12) will eventually admit it’s time to act.

Investigations On Parade!

Heather Parton, also known as Digby, founder of the Hullabaloo blog, has compiled a list of planned Congressional investigations. They have a common thread. The list is organized by House committee.

Oversight:
Michael Cohen payments
Trump International Hotel lease
Census citizenship question
Prescription drug prices
Security clearances
Russian sanctions

Intelligence:
Russian collusion
Border wall
Russian sanctions

Judiciary:
Protecting Special Counsel Mueller
Family separation

Way and Means:
Trump tax returns

Natural Resources:
Puerto Rico reimbursements

Energy and Commerce:
Family separation
Environmental Protection Agency and climate change

Homeland Security:
Border security

Foreign Affairs:
Russian sanctions

Transportation:
Trump International Hotel lease
Russian sanctions

Voting matters.