When people have asked me what it’s like to cover Congress, I used to recount a story from July 2006. Republicans were in the waning weeks of the last time they controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Congress was about to break for August recess ahead of the midterm elections, in which the GOP would lose both chambers. So, there was a rush to get through as much of George W. Bush’s legacy-building legislation as possible.
On the table were three massive pieces of legislation worth more than $1 trillion combined: a pension reform bill, corporate tax breaks, and the estate tax. Around 2 a.m. one night, the members negotiating the final deal were meeting in the Strom Thurmond Room of the Capitol. The powerful House Ways and Means chairman, Bill Thomas, of California, stood toe-to-toe with Montana Sen. Max Baucus, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.
“Be an adult!” Baucus scolded Thomas.
“You be an adult!” Thomas scoffed back.
“You be an adult!” Baucus retorted.
This continued for several seconds before Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum interjected: “Guys, we’re all adults here. Let’s move on.”
Congress, I believed for a long time after that, couldn’t sink lower than this display of old men arguing like 3-year-olds — and having to be separated by Santorum, of all people. Turns out, I was wrong. Things can and did get way, way worse.
There are two things you should never watch: sausage-making and law-making. Both will make you lose your appetite. Or so the old adage goes. But when I first started covering Capitol Hill in 2002, I disagreed with that. Yes, many of the machinations were Machiavellian, but there was a certain brilliance to some of the moves, as in a chess game masterfully played. Watching Ted Kennedy or Trent Lott shepherd through legislation was like watching an athlete at the top of his game: It could be beautiful, maddening, awe-inspiring, and, sometimes, terrifying.
Back then, most members were friends, or at least they were civil to one another. Kennedy once lured Republican Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch into supporting a bill by getting a music label to produce Hatch’s Mormon music. Kennedy and then House Education and Workforce Chairman John Boehner bonded over mutual support of Catholic charter schools, which led to them co-funding a D.C. school — as well as signing into law No Child Left Behind and the Pension Protection Act of 2006. Baucus and longtime Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, used to go running together, and they partnered to produce dozens of pieces of legislation.
But those days are ending. Members are hardly friends with others on the same side of the aisle, let alone reaching across it. All the old incentives to get things done, most importantly earmarks, are gone. The televised nature of modern Congress has turned Capitol Hill into a reality TV show. And members are now more worried about primary challenges than general election defeats, making bipartisan a dirty word. In short: The House is more divided than ever.
Watch a VICE special report on bipartisanship, “A House Divided,” Friday, Dec. 9, at 10 p.m.
Starting under Newt Gingrich’s speakership in the 1990s, members have been encouraged to spend more time in their home districts. Being “Inside the Beltway” became shorthand for being out of touch with the people, part of the Washington “elite.” Instead of moving their families to the D.C. area, members flew home three to four days a week. Friendships dried up and relationships across the aisle evaporated. This has had a huge impact on legislating: After all, if you don’t know people, how can you trust them to draft bills, an inherently tricky process full of loopholes?
Earmarks, for all the complaints about their evils, weren’t actually evil things. Sure, like any such system, they could be abused. But having members present much-needed problems to be fixed in their districts, from bridge repairs to water cleanups, is a fundamental part of governance. With the advent of the tea party movement, voters were electing people to Congress to cut rather than spend, while unrealistically expecting their entitlements and benefits wouldn’t be touched. Voters wondered why their kids were failing standardized testing after No Child Left Behind wasn’t properly funded, why their roads and bridges haven’t been fixed, and why polluted sites weren’t being cleaned up.
Instead of legislating, which has come to a virtual standstill, members have figured out how to game C-SPAN. Starting in 2009, people like Florida Democrat Alan Grayson and Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann would take to the floor during the House’s regular morning period when any member can speak about anything for one minute. They would rant and rail, usually to an empty chamber, about some fictional outrage, like Obamacare-funded death panels or GOP plots to impeach the president. Cable networks would latch onto these performances and the videos would go viral. The members would, of course, attach a fundraising plea to their YouTube channels, and $1 million later, they’d be laughing all the way to the bank. Turns out there’s a subsection of American culture, perhaps trained by shopping channels and honed by the cable nets, who will give $25 to just about any crazy thing.
But the real death knell to legislation has been the proliferation of gerrymandered districts and closed primaries since the 2010 census. Districts have come to look like mutated octopuses as they’re drawn to make districts safe — including and excluding certain populations. And in a closed primary the increasingly large silent majority of independent voters don’t get a say. Many districts can be won or lost on 2,000 die-hard party voters. This has led to some members of Congress more afraid of their bases than they are of a general election challenge, and it means they have a major disincentive to reach across the aisle and make deals.
Of course there are other factors that have led to the state of utter dysfunction in Washington, the disintegration of the press playing no small role. But as we round out the second consecutive least-productive legislative session in modern history, I can hardly count the number of moments in the last decade that have easily surpassed Thomas and Baucus’s childish game where Congress has reached a new low. There was the failed grand bargain, the default on our nation’s debt, the government shutdown, the weakening of the Senate filibuster, which led to the nuclear option, the destruction of the budgeting and appropriations processes, the toppling of House Speaker John Boehner by his own right flank — the list goes on and on. All the smart moves once used to produce legislation are now being employed to take down the system.
Where does this lead? Republicans for the first time since Baucus and Thomas stood toe-to-toe now control both the White House and Congress. But it remains to be seen if they can successfully govern given how much the system has changed since then. Just this week, there were headlines in Washington about GOP members worrying how they’ll pass a debt ceiling and infrastructure spending bills over the objections of the tea partiers. And how will they cut entitlement spending without cutting entitlement benefits, as President-elect Donald Trump has pledged?
The founding fathers built a system of checks and balances, and they viewed rapid change akin to tyranny. Yet, Republicans have now won both chambers of Congress and the White House is, indeed, promising rapid change. The system, meanwhile, has never been more broken, less capable of getting anything done. The Democrats under Bush started a strategy of denying the party in power any meaningful victories; Republicans perfected that game under Obama. And Democrats are giving every indication they will continue this awful new tradition under Trump. Will the next four years be a similar parade of ever depressingly lower moments? Or will some adults in Congress finally emerge? My bet is that sausage-making may start to look pretty good.
Jay Newton Small has covered Congress on and off for 15 years, first for Bloomberg News and then in the last decade for TIME. She is author of the best-selling book “Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works.”