In normal times, any of these small — yet symbolic — events on Capitol Hill over the past two weeks would make a traditionalist despair over the decline of democracy. But sadly, they represent business as usual as America grapples with the challenges of self-government.
It was bad enough that Arizona Republican Paul Gosar, in anything-for-a-laugh fashion, posted an anime on Twitter showing his avatar killing Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Joe Biden with a sword. Gosar’s censure by the House, with only two Republicans voting “aye,” was more than justified.
What was galling was that as the censure resolution was read to Gosar, he stood in the well of the House as is custom, but with a group of far-right zealots behind him looking as remorseful as teenagers sent to the principal’s office for throwing spitballs during algebra class.
How hard is it to take a short elevator ride in the Capitol and maintain a veneer of civility? For Colorado Republican firebrand Lauren Boebert, it appears to be a daunting challenge.
Boebert boasted in a speech that she had agreed to ride an elevator with Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim, only after saying, “She doesn’t have a backpack,” a clear reference to a suicide vest. During the one-floor elevator ride, Boebert supposedly added, “Look, the jihad squad decided to show up for work today.”
Maybe the elevator dialogue was completely invented by Boebert as a form of right-wing humor akin to Gosar’s anime. Omar was adamant that the entire incident never happened. I doubt anyone was convinced when Boebert offered a grudging apology “to anyone in the Muslim community I offended.”
To make things more complicated, Omar said that when the two talked on the phone Monday, Boebert doubled down on what Omar said were “her Islamophobic comments and fabricated lies.”
Granted, Gosar and Boebert are not exactly the second coming of Robert Taft, or even John Boehner. It is hard to imagine future legislators having offices in the Gosar Building or Capitol Hill hearing the hourly chimes of the Boebert Bell Tower. The Trumpian fanatics in the House (including Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene) are neither serious nor consequential, despite the craven willingness of House Republicans, from Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on down, to defend their antics.
In contrast, consider Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy, whose congressional biography is filled with boasts about his sterling educational credentials. Not only is Kennedy a Phi Beta Kappa from Vanderbilt and an honored graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, but he also earned first-class honors from Oxford (Magdalen College, to be precise).
That erudition was difficult to find during the senator’s grilling of Saule Omarova, Biden’s beleaguered nominee to be comptroller of the currency. Kennedy harangued Omarova, a Cornell law professor who grew up in the former Soviet Union, over her obligatory childhood membership in the Young Communists.
It’s hard to decide which was worse: Was it Kennedy sneering, “I don’t know whether to call you professor or comrade?” Or was it him demanding that Omarova locate her letter of resignation from the Young Communists, as if American children routinely provide documentation when they grow out of the Girl Scouts?
I haven’t even mentioned the silliest scandal of the month, which was irresistible in its cheap-shot frenzy. Fox News was enraged that Kamala Harris, who earns $235,100 as vice president, spent more than $500 on cookware during a visit to a renowned Parisian shop, E. Dehillerin. It left me wondering if the right-wing media might have found it permissible had Harris spent 5 euros on a tin cup.
All of these incidents might be fodder for a TV comedy on the order of “Ted Lasso Does Capitol Hill.” Except Congress has actual responsibilities beyond its fondness for vitriol, venom and vengeance.
I still cling to a remnant of optimism that Congress will find a way to navigate around a looming government shutdown and a cataclysmic repudiation of the national debt. But in my hopes about muddling through, I may be too influenced by my memories of long-ago high-school civics classes and my experience covering a responsible Congress in the early 1970s for Congressional Quarterly.
These days, alas, hope doesn’t float. In fact, it can barely tread water.
The government is slated to run out of money this Friday, and large parts of it could shut down in one of those adolescent games of chicken reminiscent of when Speaker Newt Gingrich was constantly threatening to bring on the apocalypse. What makes this exercise especially foolish is that there is no major policy debate, no real issue hanging fire, just Republican scorched-earth resistance to all things Biden.
At least, the nation has weathered government shutdowns before despite the inconvenience, the waste and the erosion of the morale of the federal workforce.
A symbolic repudiation of the national debt — which could happen as early as Dec. 15 if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling — would hit a new low in congressional dysfunction. And if it were to happen, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would be to blame for baiting the Democrats with a pointless filibuster.
Republican politics of pique in the Senate have also prompted Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to block the confirmation of more than 40 State Department officials, including most key ambassadors. This willful gridlock is just the latest reminder that the nation needs a serious Senate in order to pursue a serious foreign policy.
Even if the nation staggers through December with its credit unsullied and its diplomatic corps replenished, there is the sad-eyed Jan. 6 anniversary to worry about. Will large segments of the House Republican Conference want to make each Jan. 6, “Self-Guided Tours of the Capitol Day”?
It takes a cockeyed optimist to believe that Congress has finally hit rock bottom. My fear is that November will be remembered as “the good old days.”
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.