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No Procedure Can Fix This Tumbling House of Cards

When I was 4 years old, two kids ages 10 and 12 invited me to play castle. They instructed me to stand still in the middle of the living room, arms at my sides, while they erected four walls using large, cardboard building blocks. When the walls were well over my head, they asked whether I could get out. I lifted my arms straight out from my sides and began pivoting back and forth, bringing the walls tumbling down to my squeals of delight.

I remembered that little game shortly before Congress left town for its August recess. The House was in particular disarray that final week. The leadership pulled the transportation-HUD appropriations bill midstream because there weren’t enough votes on the majority side to pass it: Half thought it too harsh, and half thought it didn’t go far enough. No Goldilocks solution was in sight.

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., was spittin’ mad that Congress was still stewing in its own sequestration juices and called for its repeal. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, on the other hand, counter-vowed to let the sequester fester until the president came up with his own cuts (without tax increases).

House and Senate Republican caucuses were split over whether to shut down the government if the president didn’t cave on repealing his signature health care law (with the House GOP still divided today over how to do it).

Meantime, the House was treading water debating “message” bills that everyone knew would go nowhere in the Senate. It was part of Republicans’ “stop government abuse week” to highlight various executive branch scandals, shortcomings and overreaches. However, Republican backbiting and infighting made any government abuse look like an inside job.

Members seemed intent on bringing the walls of their own house of cards tumbling down. Only this wasn’t child’s play, and no one was squealing with delight.

Everyone knew that September’s song would be short — only nine legislative days (which may now be extended another five if next week’s House recess is canceled). Congress will at best fall back on government-by-continuing-resolution for the fourth consecutive year. Or, at worst, it will shut down the government. Between sequestration and CRs, Congress has put government on autopilot with no apparent aptitude to make smart course corrections.

Aristotle observed that nature abhors a vacuum, and that applies to human nature as well. Political man rushes in to fill a vacuum by seizing power and exercising it for the common good — though not always. There are circumstances in which people shrink from power and shirk leadership responsibilities.

This town is currently in the latter strait, with folks pointing blame fingers from opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for government dysfunction, and those at the upper end of the avenue blaming each other for unreasonableness, stubbornness and perpetrating paralytic hyperpartisanship. The closest thing in physics is negative energy: Washington is beginning to resemble a giant black hole into which any hint of positive energy or creativity is sucked.

This column is about procedural politics — the use of rules and processes to accomplish individual and group goals. Used properly and determinedly, procedures are the vehicle that transports lawmakers to worthwhile destinations. However, procedural devices aren’t always used to achieve loftier aims. Sometimes they’re employed to achieve short-term gains like defeating an opponent, blocking legislation, embarrassing the opposition, or even forcing a crisis having adverse consequences. When used for those purposes, procedural peregrinations can drive members to distraction, diverting them from more constructive pursuits.

What is happening in this town is not the product of evil forces doing bad things to destroy government or harm the nation, but rather the product of disparate forces working at cross-purposes to attain their nearsighted goals. Ultimately they produce gridlock, frustration and even palpable anger that ties them all in knots.

There is no procedural fix for this. Only public opinion, combined with true national leadership in both branches, can turn things around.


About the Author

Donald Wolfensberger

Donald Wolfensberger

Congressional Scholar;
Former Director, the Congress Project, Wilson Center; Former Staff Director, House Rules Committee
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