The 12 days of Congress’ clichés

Train enthusiasts, tree decorators, you are in luck

Visitors gather at the Capitol Christmas tree at sunset on Dec. 3.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Visitors gather at the Capitol Christmas tree at sunset on Dec. 3. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 9, 2020 at 6:30am

Lawmakers began to smell the heady scent of jet fumes as a flurry of activity lifted a stalemate threatening to derail the end-of-year train and/or Christmas tree and kick the can into next year.

But don’t get too excited: Aides said nothing is final.

By the time December rolls around, this is usually where things stand on the Hill. Cliché after cliché piles up, as Congress races to get out of town. With platitudes so thick on the ground, it’s hard not to trip.

When we asked House members this week to name their favorite or most hated year-end clichés, we mostly got blank stares. A few laughed. 

Since lawmakers couldn’t seem to list any, we went ahead and did it for them, with the help of some congressional observers.

“Clichés are clichés for a reason,” says James Wallner, a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and former staffer for Republican senators. “They become trite with overuse,” even if the things they’re describing — in this case, mainly fiscal catastrophe and brinkmanship — are supposed to be extraordinary.

A writing teacher would probably say that clichés are weak and best avoided. At the Capitol, however, they are signs of strength.

“They can be weaponized. They can be used to push lawmakers toward a preconceived outcome,” Wallner says, especially if House and Senate leaders get the timing right.

’Tis the season for legislative clichés, and here are a few that Congress can’t seem to live without. 

Kick the can down the road

During the Depression, kids used to play a game of hide-and-seek involving a tin can. Now the phrase itself has been kicked around so much that it’s hardly recognizable.

Several people told us “kick the can” is among the clichés they hear most on the Hill, including Congressional Management Foundation president and CEO Brad Fitch, who held a very impromptu “focus group” with his staff to come up with a short list.

The can could be any number of things, and kicking it could mean passing a continuing resolution, doing nothing or loudly blaming someone else.

That’s nothing like the kids’ game, as etymology enthusiast William Safire pointed out in 2003. Instead, it’s something you’d do “if you have no playmates, and nobody loves you.”  

“Just walkin’ along, kickin’ the can ahead, watchin’ it roll, kickin’ it again,” Safire wrote.

Last train

“I’d say one of my favorites is ‘the last train leaving the station,’” says Molly E. Reynolds, a Brookings Institution scholar.  

The image is already a powerful one for the lawmakers of the Acela Corridor, who dream of home and recess as they rush through Union Station. (Joe Biden isn’t the only one in Washington who likes to ride the train.) 

The metaphor is just as compelling. “There are one or two big legislative vehicles that are seen as must pass and, as a result, become targets,” Reynolds says. If you want to pack up and leave, you better not miss it.

While the cliché conveys urgency, there’s something melancholy about it too.

“It looks like it will be a ghost train,” wrote conservative tax activist Grover Norquist of one spending battle a decade ago. “We’ve heard quite a bit about what the package(s) might look like, but nobody has seen it.”

Christmas tree bill

Like tinsel and Jell-O salad, this one has a retro feel. “This bill gets more and more like a Christmas tree; there’s something on it for nearly everyone,” New Mexico Sen. Clinton P. Anderson said in 1956, quoted in Time magazine

Sure, the decorations may be gaudy, but who can say no to a fully decked-out tree?

“These ‘Christmas tree’ bills are often designed so that if you vote against it, no matter who you are, you will be voting against some key legislation that you would have supported had it been its own bill,” retiring Sen. Mike Enzi complained this month. 

Using his last speech on the Senate floor to rail against the “ugly nature of compromise” that churns out bigger and bigger packages, the outgoing Budget chairman called instead for finding smaller bits of “common ground.” 

Ugly or no, the larger the tree, the more it beckons, shimmering in the winter light. 

Poison pill

“Poison pill is probably my least favorite,” says R Street’s Wallner. “Instead of voting it down, you’re just told you can’t have that amendment.”

“It suggests that there’s a way to determine the legitimacy of amendments apart from voting on them,” he says.

When doubled up with other phrases, especially ones meant to convey a sense of urgency or impending doom, the clichés can be persuasive, overriding any eye rolls.

“How we talk about the process is designed to ensure certain outcomes prevail,” Wallner says.  

And a partridge in a pear tree

The clichés don’t end there. Here are a few of the honorable mentions: 

  • Everything and the kitchen sink (omnibus bill)
  • Omnibus, cromnibus, minibus, whatever-bus (the cuter the better)
  • Jet fumes (the scent is alluring)
  • Get an early Christmas present (when things are going your way)
  • Train wreck (for any legislative impasse)
  • Stalemate (should be used only when there’s no escape)
  • In flux (the perpetual state of things)
  • Winter is coming (as if we needed a reminder)

Ellyn Ferguson and Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.