Midterm election season is in full swing. Around the nation, congressional incumbents are locked in competition with their challengers. With such a flurry of political activity, it would seem that America’s lawmakers are hard at work. In reality, they are less focused on their duties than ever.
Representatives cannot simultaneously woo voters and attend sessions of the House or Senate. Because of this reality, both legislative bodies are granted a recess for campaigning purposes. However, impending elections begin to debilitate lawmaking long before sessions of Congress adjourn for a month.
When midterm voting begins to loom in the distance, politicians understand that they have entered a volatile portion of their term. One wrong vote on a polarizing bill could be the difference between re-election and a concession speech.
One might assume, then, that the months leading up to elections are a time when representatives pore over current issues and decide where they stand. One might also assume that before November, each congressman and woman firmly plants his or her feet in the ground, declaring with votes and propositions who they each are and why their constituents should support them.
If one had any knowledge of the train wreck that is your 113th U.S. Congress, perhaps they would not make such an optimistic assumption.
As midterms approached, our adorably impotent legislative branch challenged itself to achieve the unthinkable: make even less meaningful decisions. Faced with the possibility of angering their constituents with a controversial vote, congressmen on both sides of the aisle were content to argue from the same tired script. Discussion of recent, pressing matters was postponed until after voting concludes.
Republicans and Democrats alike spent the months before election proposing legislation that they knew would never pass. The politicians’ benefit was two-fold. Debating the hopeless bills delayed votes on more current, polarizing issues, and the opposing party’s inevitable rejection of the measures provided campaign fodder for the faction that proposed them.
On Sept. 30, Jon Stewart satirized this process on the Daily Show in a segment titled, “How a Bill Becomes an Ad.” In five irreverent minutes, Stewart skewered both parties for their part in the pre-election stall-off.
First up was the Democrat’s “Fair Shot Agenda”, a series of bills that Stewart likened to, “a clay pigeon for Republicans to shoot down”. Led by New York senator Chuck Schumer, the agenda proposed reform on a number of issues that appeal to Democratic voters, including paycheck fairness for women, raising the minimum wage, and protecting Medicare benefits.
Schumer and company received the response they expected – Republican rejection of the bills across the board. The legislation then transformed into ammunition, allowing Democrats to run advertisements with somber eyed actors asking, “When will Republicans stop voting against income equality?” The answer is, “not any time soon,” and the liberals were counting on it.
The Republicans’ legislative posturing has most prominently involved the Affordable Care Act. You know, the bill that President Obama signed into law in March … of 2010. The law that weathered an ugly first enrollment period, but will open a second in November, with more healthcare insurers onboard. The one that will already be providing benefits to millions of Americans in 2016.
The GOP knows Obamacare is here to stay, but that hasn’t stopped conservative legislators from hosting constant votes to repeal it. With electoral ramifications in mind, House Republicans ate up countless hours on the floor, debating the specifics of a bill that is already a law. Each time, Democrats rejected attempts to repeal the ACA.
The hopeless repeals served as the Republican’s own ammunition, allowing candidates to run ads that list the number of times their Democratic opponent voted in favor of Obamacare. It’s hard to find a midterm debate, or even a question within those debates, that a Republican candidate does not turn into a conversation about the shortcomings of universal healthcare.
Congressmen are not the only ones stalling until Election Day. Not to be outdone by their Legislative counterpart, the Executive Branch is determinedly underachieving as well. As the Democrats struggle to keep control of the Senate, the President is paralyzed. Obama and his office know that campaigning Senators will be forced to comment on any move he makes. Republicans are desperate to tie their opponent to the unpopular president.
The result is presidential inaction. One key example is Obama’s failure to improve the broken immigration system. Three months after promising to bypass Congress and use executive orders to enact reform, the President changed his tune. In a heavily criticized move, Obama announced in September that reform would have to wait until after midterms. The decision angered Americans on both sides of the debate, who unanimously agree the system needs an overhaul. The delay has also left a recent surge of undocumented immigrants, many of whom are unoccupied children, in limbo.
But perhaps not all hope is lost. On Sept. 11, Al Jazeera reported that Senate Republicans were cooperating with their Democratic counterparts, helping push forward legislation on economic inequality and campaign finance. Are we finally seeing bipartisan cooperation on meaningful reform?
Not exactly. The report went on to state that, off the record, senators admitted they were pushing forward debate on these topics solely to delay other tough votes from coming to the floor. At least they are getting along.
Congressmen play these electoral games because they work. Uninformed voters are easily swayed by the messages of campaigns, and unaware of the complicated power politics that allow candidates to use them.
To hold politicians accountable for their stalling, voters will need to start paying attention to more than the month before elections. Tracking individual issues that a voter finds important, and then supporting the representatives brave enough to actually demand action on them, is one way to see through the lies of campaign season. Until inaction is punished in the voting booth, it will remain a viable pre-election strategy.
Matthew Meyer is sick of not getting any action.