Season 2: Historical Context

210: Political Gridlock or, “Do Something, Congress!”

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As I record this, the US Congress has just begun its 116th session and is, in theory, getting to work. Although, I don’t know who they got to swear in the new members because the government is shut down. I guess the guy reading the oaths is an “essential employee”…

How does one “shut down” the American government?

What does it mean when the government “shuts down?” Basically, civilian federal employees who are deemed “non-essential” are furloughed, many without the guarantee of being paid. Employees who are still expected to come in and work do so without pay – but they will get paid retroactively. So, TSA agents, for example – all those people who had to put up with crying babies, smelly feet, and asking us to take out our liquids 300 times a day – they still had to work through the holidays without pay. They’ll get back pay eventually, once the government gets up and running, but still.

Every year Congress passes the annual budget – an insanely boring process that mostly maintains funding for federal programs from year to year. When Congress can’t agree and pass a budget before the funding for the year ends, those parts of the government “shut down” until an agreement is reached. Of course, Congresspeople still get paid during a government shutdown, even when they’re not in session – like this one over the holidays. How nice for them.

This shutdown has now become one of the longest in American history. The two longest occurred under Obama – 17 days – and Clinton – 21 days. And it’s not a coincidence that some of the most notable shutdowns have all occurred within the last 25 years. Because shutting down the government – using the annual budget as a bargaining chip for something a politician wants – is actually a fairly new tactic. But we’ll get to that in second.

Today, I want to look back at those mythical times when Congress actually got stuff done. Imagine: people doing their jobs. And I also want to look at what has changed: why do we have so many “Do Nothing” Congresses nowadays that our most important governing body is a national punchline? How have we veered so far away from each other that “compromise” is a dirty word? And why does the government of the most powerful nation on Earth keep shutting itself down like an old orange Apple iMac gathering dust in a school library somewhere?

Today’s episode is called Political Gridlock, or “Do Something, Congress!” This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context…

Act 1: Let’s Make A Deal

The irony, of course, is that the entire framework of Congress was built on a compromise. Anti-Federalists were fearful of a new tyrannical monarch and so Congress was given many exclusive powers to check the president. And small states and large states fought over representation in Congress, to which the Founding Fathers responded with the Connecticut Compromise, or Great Compromise: representation in the House would be based on state population, making larger states happy; while each state would get two Senators, making small states less fearful of being overpowered or ignored. Good for you, Rhode Island!

But, let’s be honest, as soon as you put a bunch of powerful men into one room there is going to be conflict. We shouldn’t ever get too misty-eyed about the “good old days” when Congress all worked together for the greater good of the nation because: 1. That didn’t happen. One episode in 1857 comes to mind when South Carolina representative Preston Brooks beat abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner with a cane so brutally that he was sidelined from the Senate for years. So, you know. It wasn’t all Congress sitting around singing “Kumbaya.”; and 2: We should always be hesitant when reminiscing about the “good old days” because, if my podcast has taught you anything it should be that those days weren’t “good” for very many people.

But, it is true that we are living in a time of division more extreme than most other times in US history. Some statistics show that we are the most politically polarized we’ve been since the Civil War which… can’t be good? And in this age of division and gridlock, a few names keep popping up as examples of what has been lost: decency, respect, and willingness to compromise to get the job done. Today they’re like political unicorns.

The first name that I’ve been hearing a lot about is Bob Michel. He was a Republican member of the House of Representatives for 38 years and he was the Minority Leader throughout the 1980s and into the early 90s. Michel was famous for his decency, bordering on cartoonishness. He refused to swear – when he would get really angry he would say things like “Doggone it!” and “By Jiminy!” And he was friends with Democrats, playing golf with them, and even carpooling to DC with his fellow Illinois Representative, Democrat Dan Rostenkowski.

But don’t let this sweetness fool you. Michel was a World War Two vet who participated in the invasion of Normandy, earning two Bronze Stars, four battle stars, and the Purple Heart. This is important. Because in the last twenty five years or so, a shift has occurred in Congress. In the 1970s and 80s, Congress was dominated by men who had served in World War II or Korea. Regardless of party affiliation, they seemed to come to the job with a shared sense of purpose and a higher loyalty to the nation as a whole, as opposed to their political party. This is, possibly, one of the reasons why we saw more bipartisanship in this era. By the 1990s, Congress was filled with people who had grown up in the much more divisive Vietnam era and less of them had served in the military. But more on this in a minute…

Bob Michel died in 2017 and when he did, politicians everywhere mourned the loss of a great statesman. His successor Ray LaHood, who also worked for Michel, had this to say: “Bob always had respect for everyone and treated everyone respectfully. And as a mentor to many of us, what we learned was, respecting people’s point of view even when you don’t agree with it, really is an important lesson in life.” Preach.

The other famous example of bipartisanship that gets referenced more and more these days is the frenemy relationship between Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Now let’s be clear: by all accounts, these two were not close friends. But they were famously friendly even as they ruled their embattled parties and fought each other for their respective platforms.

The two often had drinks when the work day had finished, musing that they were, “friends after 6 [o’clock].” When President Reagan was shot, O’Neill visited him in the hospital, kissed him on the forehead, and prayed with him. But, with this respect for each other, came a respect for the debates they were having over the fate of the nation. Both men intensely disagreed with the other – Reagan believed the Democrats were over-regulating individuals, making it harder for them to succeed and creating citizens dependent on government handouts; while O’Neill believed Republicans were focusing too much on the needs of the wealthy while ignoring what he believed was the government’s obligation to help those less fortunate. O’Neill once called Reagan a “cheerleader for selfishness” while the president compared O’Neill to Pac-Man – “a round thing that gobbles up money.” They didn’t hold any punches, but they also focused their attacks on policies more than personalities. And they understood the other’s viewpoint and respected his right to fight for it.

For example, when President Reagan took office and began pushing for cuts to taxes and spending, O’Neill fiercely disagreed with this proposal. But he also believed in his opponent’s “time at bat,” as it were. He didn’t filibuster or shut down the government. They both wanted to win, but they wanted to win in a fair fight.

And both men were willing to compromise to get some of what they want. This is a lost art, it would seem. Politicians today are living in a world of extremes – they want everything or nothing. The idea of an in-between seems impossible. Reagan and O’Neill worked together to pass an agreement that essentially saved Social Security for another generation. And they agreed to increases on gas taxes to pay for infrastructure that both parties agreed was necessary. Neither side got everything they wanted but they all got something – and something got done along the way.

But does it all just come down to Congresspeople who are willing to be friendly? If we just make Ted Cruz and Nancy Pelosi carpool to work will they agree on healthcare? Definitely not, but I would totally watch that car ride every day like a reality show. I don’t know that it’s fair to compare today’s Congress to the Congress of the past because so much has changed. For one, Congress is way more visible today. Every Tweet provides fodder for the other side to pick apart and attack. And we are much more connected to and aware of the personal lives and personalities of our Congresspeople. It makes sense that as things get more personal, it’s harder to set politics aside at 6 o’clock.

Also, if I can be cynical for a second – which is the thing I love to be – I would argue that we saw more bipartisanship in the 1980s, for example, because the Republican party didn’t really have a choice. Democrats had controlled the House of Representatives, with very few exceptions, consistently since the New Deal in the 1930s. The last time Republicans controlled the House was in 1952. Throughout Bob Michel’s entire 38 year career, for example, his party was never in the majority. So there was a clear incentive to work with Democrats. I’m not saying Michel would have been a cursing, belligerent, party hardliner if Republicans had ever won control of the House when he was there – I’m just saying that we need to be clear on the context. These famous examples of Republicans and Democrats working together for the greater good occurred both because there were some good people in Congress who believed in compromise, but also because compromise was just about the only thing they could hope for.

But the most important reason why it’s difficult to look back on Congresses past for examples for the future is that political parties have changed. Democrats and Republicans in 2019 are vastly different than Democrats and Republicans were throughout most of the 20th century. They have the same names, but in many ways they are new entities for the 21st century. So, what happened?

Act 2: A House Divided

Political parties are a confusing thing. I have a chart in my classroom that shows the evolution of American political parties since the beginning of our nation and I swear it looks like an insane braided snake with the two main parties swinging left and right and back again. In the 19th century, Republicans were the party of big government and Lincoln while Democrats were the party of small farmers and states’ rights. For our purposes, it’s pretty much useless to talk about political parties before the 1930s… so let’s just not.

In the 1930s, political parties became – essentially – what they are today with one major exception. During the Great Depression, FDR’s New Deal policies – including things like Social Security, jobs programs, and infrastructure projects – created a massive collection of people supporting his Democratic party. This is known as the New Deal coalition and it provided a stable, massive base of support for the Democratic party throughout the rest of the 20th century. When I mentioned before that Republicans didn’t control the House of Representatives for around 50 years – it’s because of this New Deal coalition. Basically everyone but rich white dudes supported FDR’s Democratic party. Farmers got support from the government, workers were put back to work, women and minorities got opportunities they hadn’t had before, labor unions were legitimized. For the first half of the 20th century, most Americans chose their party affiliations based on what made the most financial sense – which is reasonable, considering the first half of the century was dominated by economic depression and wartime uncertainty.

So, you ended up with a weird collection of Democrats that included, often, both African Americans and white segregationists in the South. Or small rural farmers and liberal college students. Obviously there were huge cultural differences within the party but those took a backseat to fiscal policy – the thing that the government had been the most involved in for the last few generations. The Democratic Party was this behemoth that included so many conflicted ideologies but they were united by their desire for economic security and a safety net provided by the government.

What this means is that it was easier for Republicans to “reach across the aisle” and work with Democrats, or vice versa, because party alliances were a lot more fluid. There were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans who saw eye to eye on a lot of issues and it wasn’t such a huge leap to pair up to create legislation. For example, the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was, on paper, the poster child for “reaching across the aisle.” It was supported by 153 Democrats and 136 Republicans; and it was opposed by 91 Democrats and 35 Republicans. That’s a pretty even split down the middle of both parties. This is because in the early 1960s you had southern white Democrats who were happy with government supports for farmers, for example, but also believed in segregation. These “Dixiecrats” paired up with similarly-minded Republicans to oppose the bill, while liberal Republicans, who hated Democratic economic regulations, were happy to support an issue like civil rights. But, as with many things in our country, the 1960s changed everything. And, in a way, the Civil Rights Act itself could be seen, ironically, as the beginning of the end for bipartisan politics.

OK so I can’t emphasize this enough, but if all Americans only have enough room in their brain to learn 10 years of history, they should learn about the 1960s. Almost everything we’re dealing with today stems from that decade, both good and bad. For our story today, we’re going to focus on the beginning of what many call the “Culture Wars.” This is the moment when politics became personal and people began making decisions about their party allegiance based on other factors beyond fiscal policies and their day-to-day reality. People began voting based on their metaphorical vision for American society and their idea of what it meant to be “American.”

Basically, the extreme divisions that rose to the surface in the 1960s caused a massive resorting of the political parties. Civil rights, the feminist movement, the Vietnam War, race riots and a call for “law and order,” and eventually Watergate all propelled social and cultural issues to the forefront of politics. Whereas before, most of Congress’s time was spent on boring things like fiscal policy – seriously, just saying the word “fiscal” puts me halfway in a coma – beginning in the 1960s we started to see Congress talking about more interesting – and more divisive – topics.

The 1960s saw Congress take on civil rights and desegregation, shining a harsh light on the Southern “Jim Crow” era. The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. Protests turned to violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 over issues like Vietnam and race relations. White rural southerners and midwesterners left the Democratic Party in droves in favor of the Republican Party that began using barely-veiled language to stoke their fear of “urban culture” – meaning, young hippies, feminist women, and people of color. The parties began to sort themselves geographically, as well, with the conservative Republican Party taking control of the South and Midwest with their calls for “law and order” and a return to “traditional” American values; while the Democrats gained dominance in urban areas along the coasts.

What this means is that politics became about more than politics: your choice of a political party also represented your culture. This makes it a lot harder to “reach across the aisle” because you now see the other party as exactly that: an “other.” Someone who doesn’t just support different policies, but someone who has entirely different beliefs from your own. Conservative Christians look at Democrats and see a party that is trying to legislate away their religious freedom while LGBTQ people see Republicans as a party that wants to deny them their rights as citizens. Politics has become deeply personal and politicians have learned how to capitalize on this polarization.

The divisions that became apparent in the 1960s provided ample fodder for politicians to grab new voters, especially the beleaguered Republican Party that had been a minority party in Congress for a long time. Politicians, especially Republicans who were struggling to overcome the Democrat’s massive New Deal coalition and the new challenges put on the party after Watergate, began coordinating to take down the Democratic Party once brick at a time. The most coordinated attack on the Democratic coalition was what historians now call “the Southern Strategy.” This was a clear cut attempt to win white voters in the South away from the New Deal coalition by appealing to racism. Southern whites had been fine with big government when it was providing jobs and supporting farmers during the New Deal – but now big government had gone too far. By desegregating their communities, allowing women to have abortions, etc. – the federal government was legislating away their worldview and way of life.Politicians used the deepening racial tensions in the South that were exposed during the Civil Rights Movement to bring many southern whites – fearful of all of the changes occurring in the country and the decline of their “way of life” – to the Republican Party.

This strategy also had the effect of moving the Republican Party further to the right – so some liberal Republicans who felt out of step with candidates like Barry Goldwater moved to the Democrats. By the end of this realignment in the 1980s, you had a Republican Party that represented “traditional” American values, “law and order,” and small government. And you had a Democratic Party that represented a desire for change, mostly from those groups who had not historically benefited under the “traditional” American way of life. Cue: the Culture Wars.

The 1970s is also when we really started to see politicians escalating their rhetoric. Leaders began using labels to paint the other side as the enemy. Democrats were called “soft on communism” while Republicans were portrayed as cutting funds for the poor to throw massive parties for the rich. And polarization didn’t just hit Congress: According to a recent study, 56% of Americans say they prefer politicians who are willing to compromise. But, in that same study they found that people who identify as across-the-board conservatives or liberals say the end result of compromise should be that their side gets more of what it wants. Which… isn’t really how compromise works.

And no one has done more to demonize compromise and to create our current “Do Nothing Congress,” than a guy named Newt…

Act 3: “She turned me into a Newt!”

“…I got better”

Like I’ve mentioned, in the 1970s the Republican Party was struggling. They were a consistently minority party in the House; they had just been through Watergate; and in walks Newt Gingrich. He was elected to the House of Representatives from Georgia in 1979, just at the cusp of the Reagan era – a glory decade for conservatives – but he had his sights set on his party controlling more than the White House. His primary goal in life was to flip the House of Representatives and bring Republican control back to Congress. Spoiler: he did.

The re-rise of the Republican Party in Congress is now known as the “Republican Revolution” and it was engineered primarily by Newt, using strategies he gleaned from the animal kingdom. Seriously. One of his favorite books is Chimpanzee Politics, which goes into great detail about the complex rivalries and coalitions that govern the chimp world. Think about this for a second: the guy who did more to mold Congress in his vision idealized chimpanzee politics. Congress today makes so much more sense, doesn’t it?

Gingrich believes that politicians, especially Republicans, had become too nice, too conciliatory. As he told a group of College Republicans in the 1970s before his election: “One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” He looked to the competitive and brutal nature of the animal world and saw it as “part of our evolutionary heritage that we share with our close relatives.” When pressed on his sometimes vicious tactics in politics he declared, “It’s not viciousness… It’s natural.” He is a Social Darwinist in the most literal sense.

His basic strategy was this: exploit tensions and create confrontations at every chance you get. Because when Congress is prone to infighting and ineffectiveness, voters blame the party in power: which, again, had been Democrats for decades. It was kind of ingenious if you think about it. He knew that voters pay enough attention to Congress to get annoyed if they’re constantly fighting and not getting anything done (Check!) but he also predicted that voters weren’t paying enough attention to really understand who to blame. So, we just blame whoever’s in the majority, which makes sense – “ You have control of the House, do your job!”

Gingrich’s main idea was that the Republicans needed to stop campaigning individually to each separate district; they needed a national strategy, unified behind one message: his. Gingrich offered up what he called the “Contract with America,” a document outlining his vision for a Republican Congress, filled with typically conservative promises like shrinking the size of the government and cutting taxes. The platform wasn’t especially new – Bob Michel’s voting record looked very similar to Newt’s – , but the way the traditional platform was presented was revolutionary.

Newt set out to increase the visibility of Republican Congressmen and to nationalize Congressional elections using tactics that are now pretty standard fare in politics: name calling, controlling the story, and gridlock. Gingrich encouraged Republicans to label their enemies with catchy nicknames, typically involving alliteration: “Daffy Dukakis” and the “loony left.” He actually sent out cassette tapes to Republican candidates across the country teaching them how to “speak like Newt”. One of his memos was entitled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” and it included a list of recommended words to use when describing Democrats: “sick, pathetic, lie, anti-flag, traitors, radical, corrupt.”

The general idea was to reframe every boring day-to-day policy debate in Washington as an epic battle of worldviews. He capitalized on the rising Culture Wars and created a Congress that reflected those tensions on the national stage. By the early 1990s, when Democrats discussed immigration, Republicans became the protectors over the safety and security of our nation. When Democrats brought up healthcare, the Republican Party was the only thing standing in the way of a communist revolution. It was really effective – especially to the new voters that had just swung over to the Republican Party in the wake of the chaos of the 1960s: rural, white, devout and generally less educated. These messages all resonated with them loud and clear.

Another tool that Gingrich realized was far more useful than most other politicians in the 1980s was the media. C-SPAN started airing government proceedings in 1979, the year Newt took office. And CNN – the first 24-hour news channel – went on the air one year later in 1980. Gingrich took advantage on a level that no other politician did. As a young representative, he would deliver tirades about the state of the nation to an empty chamber, knowing that the C-SPAN cameras were picking up everything and transmitting his words across the country. As he once put it, “If you’re not in The Washington Post every day, you might as well not exist.” He recently told an interviewer proudly, “Noise became a proxy for status.” In his view: any press is good press, as long as you spell his name right.

He was helped along by a new Democratic Speaker of the House who was much less amiable than Tip O’Neill. Texas Congressman Jim Wright appeared gruff and power-hungry and he was much less interested in working with Republicans than previous Democratic leadership had been. Even Republican moderates were outraged by his dismissal of their minority party’s views. Mickey Edwards, a Republican representative from Oklahoma remembered it this way when his party started strategizing how to take on Wright: “People started asking, ‘Who’s the meanest, nastiest son of a bitch we can get to fight back? And of course, that was Newt Gingrich.’” High praise. It worked, of course. Newt launched a smear campaign against Wright, circulating rumors about a scandal with a teenage congressional page and trying to tie him to foreign lobbyists. Eventually, Newt got lucky and something stuck: Wright had used $60,000 in book royalties to get around limits placed on outside income. It wasn’t an eye-popping news story like Watergate had been, but it forced Wright to resign as Speaker of the House and was an early win for the rising Republican Revolution.

It should definitely be noted that there were a lot of Republican Congresspeople who were not a fan of Newt. Many moderate Republicans were very unhappy to see this new direction for their party – not necessarily the policies, but the way those policies were going to be achieved. And it was especially symbolic that in 1995, when Gingrich’s Republican Revolution won out, he took over as leader of the Republicans in the House from Bob Michel, retiring after 38 years compromising and carpooling with Democrats.

The last tactic that Gingrich revolutionized was gridlock. Remember his original strategy for winning control of the House? As a political scientist who knew Newt in the 70s put it, “His idea was to build toward a national election where people were so disgusted by Washington and the way it was operating that they would throw the ins out and bring the outs in.” And so, with this, in the year leading up to the 1994 election he used every piece of legislation in Congress as an opportunity to show voters just how ineffective their current representatives really were. According to Thomas Mann, a scholar of Congress: “Gradually, it went from legislating, to the weaponization of legislating, to the permanent campaign, to the permanent war. It’s like he took a wrecking ball to the most powerful and influential legislature in the world.”

This wrecking ball, of course, was meant to destroy what Gingrich saw as the Democratic stranglehold on Congress. Remember: Republicans hadn’t controlled the House since 1952. The idea was to break down what he saw as one-party rule and build up a new, more conservative replacement. The problem was that he had created a monster. The paralysis instigated gleefully by Newt’s practices didn’t stop once Republicans took control of the House; they became its signature.

During his time as speaker, Newt passed very little of the legislation he had outlined in his Contract for America but he did revolutionize campaigning. As Speaker, he reorganized the congressional schedule, for example, shortening the official work week to just three days, so that Congresspeople could spend more time raising money for their next campaign. During his four years as speaker, Republicans raised an unprecedented $1 billion.

Finally, Newt weaponized what had once been a fairly routine procedure each year in Congress: passing the annual budget. Sure, there had been shutdowns before, but mostly very short lasting only a day or two, with even less resulting in furloughed workers. And never before had the threat of a shutdown been used as such a targeted, political bargaining chip. The first massive government shutdown and still the longest in American history occurred within a year of Newt becoming Speaker of the House. From 1995-1996, the federal government under President Clinton was brought to a halt for 21 days. The move backfired in the midterms, with Republicans losing seats in the House. You would think Gingrich would have predicted this, right? His whole understanding of voters was that they hate paralysis and gridlock so much that they’ll vote out whoever’s in power.

The other mainstay of Newt’s time as Speaker was his crusade for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. This is a whole different topic that would take more time than we have to get into – honestly, you should just listen to Season 2 of the podcast Slow Burn; it’s amazing. But, for our story, we need to know two things: Newt’s last vote as a congressman was a vote to impeach the president for lying under oath about an affair. And as he cast this vote, he was at that moment carrying on a secret relationship with his own young congressional aide named Callista, cheating on his second wife. Oh and, by the way, Newt’s first wife was his high school geometry teacher – they got married when she was 26 and he was 19, just one year out of school. And apparently when Newt decided that he wanted to divorce her to marry his second wife (who – keep up – he would go on to cheat on with a congressional aide who would become his third wife), he decided to bring up the issue of divorce while his geometry teacher/first wife was in the hospital recovering from surgery to remove a tumor. So that’s Newt.

He eventually resigned from the House in 1999, claiming – and here’s a hilarious quote for you – “I’m willing to lead but I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.” Remember his earlier quote: “It’s not viciousness… it’s natural.” This guy is a piece of work.

Gingrich’s legacy in politics has been huge and it’s only becoming clear just how huge during the era of Trump. Gingrich understood that his voters were more likely to be energized by a common enemy than a pristine leader. “It doesn’t matter what I do,” he once said, “People need to hear what I have to say. As McKay Coppins put it in a recent article in The Atlantic, “If he had taught America one lesson, it was that any sin could be absolved, any trespass forgiven, as long as you picked the right targets and swung at them hard enough.”

Since leaving the House, Gingrich has built a career as a Republican strategist. He was there at the dinner with Republican leaders the night Obama was elected. Supposedly, this was the night they decided on their Newt-esque strategy to essentially just oppose everything Obama would try to do in the next four years. Apparently House Republicans came out of that dinner with a clear strategy: to make Obama a one-term president.

Later, when Senator Ted Cruz would pick up where Newt left off, leading a Tea Party crusade to shut down the government over Obamacare; Newt went on TV to argue that shutdowns “are a normal part of the constitutional process.” And, to be fair – because I know this episode has been an onslaught of not-so-great facts about the modern Republican Party – Democrats haven’t been shy about using shutdowns, either. Most recently, Democrats were willing to shut down the government over DACA and so-called “dreamer” immigrants. Democrats are slow learners, but they have also realized that “hope” and “change” only get you so far in chimpanzee politics.

And when Trump first started thinking about running for president, he went to Newt for advice. The Gingrich family, after all, was a member of Trump’s golf club in Virginia. Apparently over breakfast at a Marriott in Iowa, Trump asked Newt how much it would cost him to fund his campaign through the South Carolina primary – long enough to get him some attention before he, presumably, had to drop out. Gingrich estimated that it would cost $70-$80 million to which Trump replied, and this pains me to say out loud: “Seventy to 80 million – that would be a yacht. This would be a lot more fun than a yacht!” Is it still more fun than a yacht, Trump?

Oh yeah – last side note, I promise – Newt’s wife Callista (the third wife – the congressional aide from the affair that made Newt resign – is now the ambassador to the Holy See. Apparently she is really popular in Rome as the face of the US government; meanwhile, Newt is behind the scenes chatting with the Pope about God knows what. Something tells me Francis isn’t as big of a fan of chimpanzee politics.

So what does it all mean?

So, as the new Congress starts their first day at work, they inherit an approval rating of 21%. But hey, that’s the highest it’s been in years – so way to go, Congress! Voters have done what Newt said they would do – they voted out the party in power, frustrated with the political scene. But, in this case, of course, that means that Democrats are in control of the House for the first time since 2011.

But, just for a second, let’s look back at the most recent Congress. Were they really a “Do Nothing” Congress? Did they really accomplish nothing. Well, no, of course not. Republicans passed a massive overhaul of the tax system that they had been promising, kind of, since Newt’s “Contract for America” in the 90s. And they also enacted 388 new laws, most of them co-sponsored by representatives from both parties. The news, for its part, has fed into Newt’s strategy by reporting on explosive, divisive issues more than boring bipartisan policy making. A few examples of laws that were passed by the most recent Congress, with hopefully self-explanatory titles are: “The Improving Access to Maternity Care Act” sponsored by four Republicans and four Democrats and the “Patient Right to Know Drug Prices Act” sponsored by 14 Democrats, 10 Republicans, and 1 Independent.

But… a lot of those new laws were essentially symbolic. For example, Congress voted to confer its highest civilian honor on former Senator Bob Dole, ironically a principled conservative who pushed for compromise and civility, at the same time they were preparing to shut down the federal government.

And, I scrolled through a list of every single law passed by this last Congress on an awesome website called GovTrack.us. It’s amazing and every voter should have this page bookmarked, but we don’t because Buzzfeed is more interesting. But I looked at all 388 laws enacted by this last Congress – and 95 were laws to rename government buildings, most of them post offices.

Seriously, a full quarter of them were things like my personal favorite: “To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1730 18th Street in Bakersfield, California, as the ‘Merle Haggard Post Office Building.’” Good job, Congress.

Now, I know that’s a little unfair. I get it that this is how government works and, hey, someone’s gotta name all those post offices. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could also, I don’t know, keep the government running for more than one year?

Welcome to Congress newly elected officials – the bar officially couldn’t be set any lower! I sincerely hope you can get some stuff done. But, if nothing else, here’s one new law that everyone can get behind: that the Post Office around the corner from my house be designated “The Anti-Social Studies Post Office Building.”

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