It’s become a trope in political circles that our politics are more partisan than ever. Districts are more homogenous, elections are nastier and legislative members increasingly only reflect their base — or so this story goes.
But of course, partisanship has existed since the founding of the republic. The election of 1800 was perhaps the first characterized by insults, and ones that would make many of today’s jabs seem tame by comparison.
Nastiness among elected officials is indeed nothing new, but one growing divide less discussed is among those who make many of the day-to-day decisions of governing.
It’s long been a grim reality in Washington that Congress is run by underpaid, young staffers. And often, those same staffers bear the burden of bridging the partisan gaps between their bosses, forging private working relationships as their bosses performatively attack one another in public.
In the wake of Jan. 6, however, that reality has changed.
The attack that day on the Capitol exposed many fault lines that were already lingering just beneath the surface. Examples abound of members turning away co-sponsors to their bills and otherwise refusing to associate with colleagues who viewed the 2020 election differently.
And professional staff have been caught up in this new dynamic.
Freshman congressman Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., said the silent part out loud in an email to his colleagues first obtained by TIME Magazine, “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.”
As our politics march to the lowest common denominator, the goals of crafting defensible legislation and achieving bipartisan consensus have largely been thrown to the wolves. The country has been through crises before, and relationships between lawmakers have overcome stalemates and pushed back against strictly political stances by leadership. This does not appear to be the case after Jan. 6.
Perhaps the starkest example is that congressional Democrats this session have staked out their support for H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” a bill that would fundamentally restructure the nation’s political system, including by imposing radical changes to the existing system of campaign finance — far beyond the framing of “ensuring voting rights” it often receives. It has zero bipartisan support in Congress, but few seem to care.
Six months into a new presidency and Congress, H.R. 1 and its Senate counterpart S. 1 are still consuming news cycles and oxygen throughout Capitol Hill.
In fact, when Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, revealed in a recent op-ed that he would oppose the legislation, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, tweeted statements criticizing Manchin. More shocking, though, is that Jenna Valle-Riestra, a staffer with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, the majority whip, also saw fit to tweet out (and then delete) an attack.
This trend is not unique to one party. Recently, the House Budget Committee held a hearing titled “Protecting our Democracy: Reasserting Congress’ Power of the Purse.” The hearing was meant to provoke discussion on the Congressional Power of the Purse Act, legislation that seeks to push back against executive branch overreach.
At a time when Democrats control the White House, one would think that Republicans would be interested in strengthening congressional oversight of the administration, especially when Title III of the bill under discussion addresses how Congress designates national emergencies and is almost identical to the Article ONE Act introduced by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a Republican.
Alas, this was not to be. The Democrats, being the majority party, invited three witnesses, while the Republicans were able to call one. And who did the Republican staff decide to call as their only witness, out of the entire pool of potential people who could have been asked to testify?
Mark Paoletta, the very Trump attorney responsible for withholding congressionally directed funds to Ukraine. Rather than capitalizing on an opportunity to flex oversight over the executive branch, Republican committee staff instead found it more fruitful to “own the libs” and make the hearing an exercise in partisan futility.
Decline in committee quality has been increasingly noted, and the Budget Committee experience is similar to a others hearings by the House Oversight Committee that saw committee Republicans come out in opposition to whistleblower protections and against “Rebuilding the Federal Offices of Inspectors General.” This was despite years of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, being the single biggest advocate in Congress of both whistleblower and IG reform.
That congressional and staff relationships alike increasingly are characterized by animus has real consequences. The harm from polarization — and more specifically, the ratcheting up in tension since Jan. 6 — isn’t limited to bitter elections or even verbal altercations between congressional staff and members of Congress. The harm is much more insidious, because it has tied the hands of our policymaking process all the way down from the members themselves to the newest on the totem pole.
If ever there were a case for why we need a Jan. 6 commission, this is it — not only to get to the bottom of the events of that horrific day, but also to clear the air and create real accountability once and for all. Without it, relationships among staff — on whom the burden of policymaking continues to fall — will continue to sour, and the complete lack of policymaking will fast become the new norm in Washington.
Image credit: W.Scott McGill