April 13, 2017 came and went without much fanfare. The front page of the Washington Post that day discussed Trump’s scolding of Steve Bannon, Trump’s adoption of centrist fiscal policies he previously opposed, an exchange of strong words between Russia and the US, and issues in Turkey. Most notable was what was not discussed – and not just omitted from the Washington Post, but missing from every major or minor news outlet. April 13th marked the first 100 days of the 115th Congress of the United States of America. There was no countdown to the first hundred days of this Congress. Fox/CNN/PBS et al did not compare the first 100 days of the 115th Congress with the first 100 days of other Congresses in the modern era. There were no attempts to reconcile the campaign promises of newly elected Senators and Representatives with their actual progress on legislation during these hundred days.
All of this silence about how Congress is performing is juxtaposed with the din regarding the President’s first one hundred days. The media, the President’s staff, and the President himself have all been engrossed with the topic of his first hundred days. The discussion is everywhere and every nuance of Trump’s 100-day mark has been examined. The first 100 days of Congress? Nyet. The performance of the First Branch of government, the branch of government considered most important by the nation’s Founders, has gone unnoticed. Our democracy is worse off for it. Congress is the key to effective operation of our government.
In case you are curious about the 115th Congress, it has been an active year. As of this writing, there have been 29 bills or joint resolutions enacted, 137 resolutions or bills passed with a significant vote in one chamber suggesting that they will prevail in the other and become law, and another 3,575 bills and resolutions introduced by our Senators and Representatives. So, how are they doing? I haven’t a clue. And, I am guessing that you don’t either. The media does not cover the Congress the way it covers the Executive Branch. We lack easy-to-use tools to track congressional performance and compare it with our expectations as constituents. It is not for lack of resources. There are plenty of specialized websites, apps, and media outlets that can be used to follow Congress or individual politicians. But, you have to be really motivated to use these tools regularly. Until either the main stream media increases the depth and quantity of coverage of Congress, or a larger number of Americans start to use the many specialized media or civic tech tools to monitor the performance of Congress, then it is unlikely we are going to regain faith in government. Or, maybe we just need a better tool.
Gallup reported that Congress’ approval rate was 20% at about the 100-day mark of the 115th Congress. Twenty percent. Only one out of five of us think Congress is doing a good job. Compare that with Trump’s 40% approval rate -- which is considered to be the lowest 100-day presidential approval rating in the modern era and a source of consternation for the President and his party. Congress itself is far less popular.
So, is Trump’s larger-than-life persona and wild unpredictability to blame for our inattention to Congress? No. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon . . . all garnered more media and citizen attention than Congress. Congress is complex. It is disaggregated. About 12,000 pieces of legislation are introduced in each two-year congressional cycle. It is very difficult for an individual to actively follow and make sense of Congress. Also, in the modern era, Members of the House of Representatives are in election-mode continuously during the entire two-year congressional cycle. No longer is there a “legislative season” and an “election season”. Partisanship is king in elections. Our congressional candidates get elected based on their position or promises on a handful of issues. However, constituent input and support are far less important that party loyalty. Party loyalty has become the primary source of political success since Newt Gingrich fundamentally changed the House of Representatives. The Gingrich Rules cannot and will not change in Washington – or in state capitals – until the media and constituents closely monitor the performance of our representatives.
There are many excellent suggestions for how to improve Congress. I have read at least a dozen books and countless articles that thoughtfully identify the specific sources of problems inside the Senate, the House, our primary rules, and gerrymandering of congressional districts. Almost all of these suggestions seem to me to have one critical flaw. They have an expectation that our representatives will solve the problems that they have created. I think that is why solutions have been in short supply. It is not reasonable for us to expect politicians to fix what is wrong with politics. We have to fix it. You and me.
Please return to my blog over the next few months and read my next few articles. I intend to propose a specific strategy for how we can overcome problems caused by partisan gridlock. A strategy that relies upon us rather than our representatives to solve our political problems.
Copyright (c) 2017 by Jeffrey Scott Szorik
My name is Jeffrey Szorik. I am an average citizen with a lifelong interest in legislative politics. Like you, I would prefer our political representatives focus on the priorities & preferences of the majority of the electorate they are entrusted to represent. Restoring confidence in our political system depends on it. Join me, as together we explore how to restore 'government by the people and for the people.'