As this is being written, we don’t know the results of Tuesday’s elections.
We don’t know whether Democrats will take control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Republicans, thus providing a counter-balance to President Donald Trump.
Either way, a large new class of lawmakers will walk through the doors of Congress next January.
They will be coming off months of campaigning in their home states pledging to do things differently, to act as independent legislators not beholden to their parties, but instead devoted to doing the bidding of the people who elected them.
They are apt to get a bit of a surprise. The way Congress works these days isn’t what we learned in civics class in school.
This has been true for years. But a new analysis by the Washington Post and ProPublica make it depressingly clear just how far Congress has strayed from the model that many of us first learned about, if not in school, then in the old Schoolhouse Rock video, “I’m Just a Bill.” (If you’re too young or not familiar, it’s on YouTube.)
The Post-ProPublica conclusion is that Congress has essentially become a junior partner to the White House, a body that does the executive's bidding with little room for the voices of rank and file lawmakers. And if it’s not carrying out the president's priorities, the analysis suggests, Congress is little more than a sanction for legislation negotiated behind closed doors by party leaders.
Among the findings: Less than 20 percent of roll call votes in the U.S. Senate are now on amendments, which is a prime avenue for less senior senators to have a voice. That's less than a third of what it was a decade ago.
Under Speaker Paul Ryan, meanwhile, the House prohibited amendments on bills that came to the floor four times more often than it did under Newt Gingrich.
In addition, House committees met just 254 times to consider legislation in 2015-16; only 69 times in the Senate. In 1989-90, it was 937 and 500 times, respectively.
This year, just five of the 12 spending bills were finished by the Sept. 30 deadline. And that was the most in 20 years.
The Post and ProPublica also reported that more than half of all roll call votes in the Senate now are on White House nominations; a decade ago, it was less than 10 percent.
For some in Congress, the dysfunction has become too much to deal with. They’ve just walked away. Others seem content to tread water in this environment. They churn out press releases over-selling modest accomplishments on local issues, dutifully casting votes if not providing input, all the while steering clear of the divisive national debates that could threaten their hold on office.
In the meantime, nothing gets done on the big questions of the day: Immigration, health care and our endless wars.
Perhaps the most shameful example of this abdication is the refusal of Congress to take up debate on new rules for authorizing the use of military force. The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which has been leaned upon for every military action since 9/11, is hopelessly outdated.
In a recent speech in Davenport, Jim Leach, the longtime Republican congressman for this area, proposed 10 common principles to reset our government. The third on the list was a recognition that “process is our most distinctive product. How politics is practiced is often as important as the policies that unfold."
Leach, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 2006, told of how it used to be relatively rare for parties to caucus. Now, these meetings have become regular sessions whose aim is to score victories over the other side. Such is the way of our polarized political culture.
As we put another bitter midterm election season behind us, we harbor no illusions about how a new class of lawmakers might change this institutional dysfunction. Not to mention the chances of lessening the temperature of our politics. After all, the beginning of the 2020 presidential election cycle, more or less, begins today.
Still, it seems to us that one place to start fixing things would be for new lawmakers – and even the ones returning to Congress – to pick up a copy of the Constitution, or even a civics book, and refresh their memory on how the legislative branch is supposed to be run.
They might even watch that old Schoolhouse Rock video. It is on YouTube.