This past week, in between stompdancing on the constitution, Members of Congress found time to rename seven post offices and three federal buildings. Yet the 109th Congress recessed Friday without enacting a budget resolution, without funding several important military matters, and without passing nine of the 11 annual laws that fund government agencies. It is the least-working Congress in decades.
Congress is broken. Calls midweek to extend the session into October were ignored and then submerged by "predatorgate" the cover-up of one of their own--Republican Mark Foley of Florida. It has come full circle: the guy in charge of protecting minors has been caught stalking them on the internet. Metaphorically and by the clock, this 109th Congress is finished.
Which is why the Democrats and reform-minded Republicans should go ahead and show up for work tomorrow. With acres of hearing rooms open for use and the obstructionist majority gone, Members could actually govern. They could use this week for a full slate of unofficial oversight and discussion panels. Who cares if they don't have subpoena power? Who cares if these gatherings can't be called "hearings" when they would be the first sign of democratic deliberation in several years? This rump Congress could call in the ranks of experts who have never been asked to testify in the regular session--where committee chairs often favor the testimony of the ideologically agreeable Stepford Wonks who populate the neighborhood think tanks. The regular media might cover it. Certainly the online media would. A couple examples of this sort of convening happened last week. Representative Lynn Woolsey (D CA) chaired a session on the cost of the Iraq war in the House. Senator Byron Dorgan (D ND) convened a hearing on mistakes made in Iraq. The panelists and retired military officers conveyed as much insight on the war in a couple of hours as a year of regular "official" hearings.
Today's vacuum in our legislature represents a progressive opportunity--and a chance for us to think like the creative organizers of decades past. Conservatives, after all, live by the principles that nature abhors a vacuum and that half of winning is just showing up.
So conservative leaders have proceeded to destroy public infrastructure and outsource its replacement to their friends and allies, who provide the staff for all sorts of helpful organizing. A great example of this occurred with the "reforms" implemented by the Contract with America in 1995--which dismantled much of the staff and infrastructure inside Congress. Venues that helped Members stay educated and built bipartisan alliances on public interests--disappeared. Maybe our nuclear dilemma with Iran wouldn't be so grave if the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus still existed. Perhaps our troops would have sufficient body armour if the military reform caucus were still around. Today's caucuses mostly exist in name only, with no staff, while the number of lobbyists has doubled since 2000.
Old timers on the Hill refer to 1995 as "the lobotomy of Congress". Gingrich had no need for these informal venues...he consolidated formal power of recognition to himself and outsourced policy to the Heritage Foundation, AEI, lobbyists and other conservative powerhouses. The left had no similar support 1995 and it has taken nearly a decade to recognize this deficit and begin to mobilize an alternative policy infrastructure.
Regardless of who wins in November, progressives need to become policy entrepreneurs--and regularly take advantage of every single scrap of space to meet, educate ourselves and test-drive ideas (Any takers out there to buy a couple townhouses to convert to meeting space next to the House of Representatives? DC is a buyers market!)
Gingrich and his co-horts were not the first legislators to abuse power. Yet they were willing to burn down the village in order to save it. Today's ash-heap on Capitol Hill is the result. Indeed, the future Congress awaits November 7th. But if we were on top of our game, we'd mobilize some of our new progressive ideas this week and democracy would blossom once again on Capitol Hill.