Small wonder that public approval of Congress ranges between 13 and a scant 15 percent. The year started with chaos and the gelding of Speaker Kevin McCarthy after 15 marathon rounds of voting. It ends with the House commencing an evidence-free impeachment inquiry of Joe Biden, after spending three weeks defenestrating McCarthy, who may be best remembered for reneging on a bipartisan debt deal to fund the government.
With a stridently divided government , this session has been rated the least productive since the Great Depression. Obviously, nothing has been done either on major issues like comprehensive immigration reform or even smart adjustments to border security. But little has been done on narrower issues like reforming energy project permitting or creating a regulatory framework for Artificial Intelligence. Of the paltry 22 bills passed, some were on such august matters as naming veterans clinics, issuing a commemorative coin on the anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corps, and authorizing federal education funds to protect our hunting heritage.
House members, weary from their unproductive frenzy, have abandoned Washington for a three-week holiday, ignoring important defense needs in Ukraine, the Middle East, Asia, and our border. When they return, they will have only eight legislative days to avoid a government shutdown, certain to damage our barely recovered economy.
For most of the blame, you can thank the Republican Party, especially its loud-mouth, radical House Freedom Caucus, whose members would rather perform and preen than do the hard, out-of-the-limelight work of actually legislating. Even when Democrats grudgingly offer to compromise on important matters, Republicans can’t take yes for an answer. Without any positive agenda of their own, their default position is to reject everything.
The Senate has teed up for a vote next week on Israel, Ukraine, Taiwan and possibly border security. If they do, it’s doubtful that the House will return. This would never have happened in the last Congress, when Democrats made outstanding policy advances, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi with the significant help of Massachusetts’ own Congressman Jim McGovern, then the chair of the powerful Rules Committee.
At a Friday breakfast meeting with The New England Council, McGovern, now ranking (minority) member of the Rules Committee, lamented that this is a time when “trivial issues get debated passionately, and important issues get debated not at all.” McGovern praises Tom Cole (R-OK), now the chair of the Rules Committee, for his collegiality and attempts at thoughtful leadership. But both Cole and McGovern now face the fact that more than 40 percent of the Republicans on the Committee belong to the Freedom Caucus, who take full advantage of committee rules to gum up the works. Even when the committee supports a rule to get legislation to the floor, the radicals oppose it. They want nothing to pass. Period. Hard stop. The Caucus’s only interest is to pour gasoline on the fires of the culture wars, to follow Donald Trump’s agenda and orders, and to whack any remaining so-called moderate Republicans otherwise inclined to compromise.
Jim McGovern has been in public service his whole life. He began as an intern with George McGovern ( no relation) during a time when the South Dakota Senator would have regular and amicable lunch meetings with Sen. Barry Goldwater, his ideological opposite. Before his election to Congress in 1996, the Worcester Democrat was a longtime aide to legendary Rules Committee chairman Joe Moakley, where he learned the skills of persuasion, strategic compromise, building trusted relationships, and achieving what is possible.
Jim McGovern deserves credit for his role in many of Biden’s hard-fought legislative victories, but now being in the minority, fighting fact-challenged and uncivil zealots, has been an other-worldly experience. Still, McGovern labors on.
He tried to preserve legislative rules that foster civil discourse. He lost. He fought the fantastical Biden impeachment inquiry. He lost. He sought compromise, again unsuccessfully, on immigration and border security. He now faces an uphill battle to keep the government operating beyond January, while the Freedom Caucus is hellbent on closing it down. Unlike other frustrated congressmen choosing retirement over fighting the good fight, McGovern is committed to fulfilling his role.
A self-described “peacenik” and a passionate advocate for human rights globally, McGovern has embraced his role on the unsexy Agriculture Committee. There he has used his position to battle hunger and develop smart policies to improve nutrition programs that end up saving lives and taxpayer dollars. Those who have benefited from his efforts – children, the poor, the oppressed – don’t have powerful lobbyists, don’t contribute campaign dollars and don’t even vote, but he does it because it is the right thing to do.
I can’t believe I am quoting Henry Kissinger here, but he had it right when he said that “90 percent of politicians give the others a bad name.” Jim McGovern is one of the minority of good ones who most assuredly do not deserve the public’s scorn. We are lucky to have him, and we’ll be even luckier if the Democrats retake the House in 2024 and he resumes chairmanship of the Rules Committee.