- - Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Usually, when the House of Representatives is in session, there’s no one in the stately chamber.

Sure, there might be a couple of stragglers, like the Hawaii representative who’s there to make a speech about endangered turtle eggs or the Iowa lawmaker who just delivered a stemwinder speech about corn off the cob (“God put in on a cob, eat it on the cob!” he’d thundered), but other than that, empty.

Sometimes, lawmakers show up to vote. But nowadays, they don’t even bother to do that: More than half of them (226) didn’t even deign to show up late last month to vote on a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill (and let’s be clear, not one of them read the 4,055-page bill, either).

One real piece of work, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has blasted President Biden every day since the whacked-out people of the 14th District of Georgia elected her, wasn’t even in the country. She voted by proxy while on vacation in Costa Rica (and I’d bet $1 million you footed some of that bill — a fact-finding mission, perhaps?).

So what do they do for their $174,000 annual salaries (plus a $1 million office budget — that’s nearly half a billion dollars for all 435 House members)? Bloviate. They talk and talk and talk, but none of them every learned the most important rule of discourse: listening.

Therein lies the problem with Congress, and it’s clear the 118th session will pick up right where the last one left off. It doesn’t matter who’s in control. Democrats and Republicans are both horribly dysfunctional and nearly incapable of doing the people’s business.

Take that omnibus bill. In days of yore, the House — from whence all spending legislation originates — would take up at least 12 individual spending bills (I’m so old I covered Congress in the 1980s, so maybe there are more nowadays). The chamber would wrestle and haggle for weeks over, say, the Defense Department or Housing and Urban Development budgets, and then vote.

Twelve times they’d do that. And you know what they’d do at the end of the day? Grab a beer together. Stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capital Grille and get some grub, debate some more, but in a way far less murderous than now. There was respect. You think this, I think that, so let’s talk.

Lawmakers back then didn’t hate one another; they were open to change, and sometimes you’d see 30 or 40 cross party lines to vote for something that benefited their constituents. I remember that votes on milk — lots of places produce milk — would find a broad consensus across the aisle.

Now, they just shove it all in one bill that no one reads (save for low-paid aides, who skim the bill with an eye toward what might perk up their work-averse bosses). And the omnibus bill (by the way, the No. 1 definition of omnibus is “a vehicle carrying many passengers”) nearly always passes just a few days before Christmas — literally the only time lawmakers actually work.

And oof, the party-line votes. Now, you get elected (thanks to millions from the party), you vote for the party. Forget your constituents; you’re bought and paid for. One analysis of the 117th Congress found 98% of the votes in the House went straight party line.

All that leads up to Tuesday, the first day of the 118th Congress. No party-line vote here (the Republicans always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory). They barely took control of the chamber in the midterm elections (222-213), but they’re the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

Before the session can even begin, lawmakers needed to pick a speaker. Three times they voted, three times they couldn’t pick someone. In fact, all three times, the Democratic nominee for the post, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, topped the GOP nominee, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California.

Mr. McCarthy is despised by the conservative wing of the party. Moderates, it should be noted, aren’t big fans, either, but on Tuesday they appeared to fall in line and vote the way the moneymen told them to vote.

It was more the hard-line conservatives, like freshman Rep. Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, who opposed Mr. McCarthy. Ms. Luna is a self-described “pro-life extremist.” (Note to Republicans: Abortion is a losing issue for you in 2024. A majority of Americans support access to abortion. Get with the times.)

In the end, the House adjourned before picking a speaker. And in a piece of funformation, the 118th session doesn’t even start until a speaker is elected.

So we paid 435 people to blab away and do … absolutely nothing.

Sadly, same as it ever was. And frankly, when Congress doesn’t accomplish anything, we’re all better off.

“Suppose you were an idiot,” Mark Twain wrote eons ago. “And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

And these people are running the country. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at josephcurl@gmail.com and on Twitter @josephcurl.

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