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‘Totally dysfunctional’: Congress leaves town with chaos in its wake, but little actual legislation

WASHINGTON — Like family members feuding at the Thanksgiving dinner table, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were at each other’s throats this past week.

The ousted speaker, Kevin McCarthy, was accused of elbow-checking a political foe, Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., who called it a “clean shot to the kidneys.” Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., a MMA fighter, threatened a brawl with the president of the Teamsters union, Sean O’Brien, during a Senate hearing.

And Oversight Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., mocked Rep. Jared Moskowitz, who was sporting a blue suit, as a “smurf” after the diminutive Democrat from Florida raised questions during a hearing about Comer and his brother’s business dealings.

“I think they should bring back caning,” quipped Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., referring to the 1856 beating of Sen. Charles Sumner that left him bloodied on the Senate floor.

Apart from the halls of Congress seeming to devolve into “Fight Club,” Republicans also said they would, for a second time, try to expel one of their own, scandal-laden Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., after an Ethics report found, among other things, the freshman fabulist had used campaign funds for personal expenses, including shopping at designer stores, Botox treatments and OnlyFans payments.      

Congress’ approval rating among Americans is 13%, down from 20% in June, according to Gallup — but that dismal figure could dip even lower after Congress’ “hell week.”

“There are dumb days on Capitol Hill and there are dumber days on Capitol Hill, and this was one of the dumbest I’ve seen in quite a long time,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said on the day of the McCarthy, Mullen and Moskowitz incidents — only weeks after he presided over repeated failed attempts to elect a speaker last month. <<REMOVED SECOND ‘WEEKS’ IN SAME PHRASE.>>

A 10-week marathon session

The series of clashes capped a chaotic fall congressional session that included a spending showdown that almost shut down the government, the first ouster of a speaker in American history, and a three-week GOP civil war to replace McCarthy that raised up and tore down a host of ambitious leaders who wanted the top job. The man who won the speaker’s gavel, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, staved off another shutdown this week but needed scores of Democratic votes to do so.

Furious over Congress punting the funding fight into the New Year, conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus promptly blocked individual GOP spending bills, forcing Johnson to send the lawmakers home a day early for the Thanksgiving break without any Republican wins.   

“One thing! I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing — one! — that I can go campaign on and say we did,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, thundered on the House floor, a tirade from a conservative that went viral. “Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing, the Republican majority has done.”

Many chalked up the rampant frustration and physical altercations to the fact that the House had been in session for 10 straight weeks since the summer recess, marked by long nights away from loved ones and nothing legislatively to show for it. Some lawmakers warned that without the Thanksgiving recess, somebody might end up dead.

“I can understand why breaks are built into the system for people to go away,” Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., said as he descended the still bloodstained staircase where a reporter fatally shot Rep. William Taulbee in 1890. “Because I think if we were here another week, you might have one Republican member kill another Republican member.”

Lawmakers head for the exits

House members are leaving Congress in droves, ranging from veterans to newer lawmakers. More than a dozen have announced they are running for higher or other office and won’t be coming back. Others like Appropriations Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, are retiring after decades of service and reaching the pinnacle of power. 

But some lawmakers say the Republican infighting, unpredictable schedule and political paralysis have contributed to them calling it quits. Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., who secured influential posts on the Steering and Energy and Commerce committees during her five years in Congress, stunned colleagues when she announced her retirement plans in the middle of the three-week speaker squabble. 

She questioned whether the job is worth being away from her family right now. 

“I miss my family. Everybody says that, but I really mean that. I miss my husband. I miss my 94-year-old mother, my five grandkids, my kids. Usually, we’re here three weeks out of every month, and then the calendar changes. So then you’re like trying to schedule something with your family, and then you have to change it because you’re not there,” Lesko said.

“The other thing is, it’s totally dysfunctional. We can’t get anything done around here. It’s very frustrating,” she added.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., said he had no regrets about his decision not to run for re-election, citing frustrations with his own party over trying to impeach President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the censure of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and 2020 election denialism.

“Unconstitutional impeachments and censureships that don’t make any sense …” Buck said, rattling off his gripes. “The big driver was we can’t admit that Republicans lost an election in 2020, which is crazy! And we can’t work on significant legislation, because politically it hurts to say we need to reform Medicare, we need to reform Social Security, we need to get spending under control.”

Republican Rep. Dan Bishop, who is leaving the House to run for North Carolina attorney general, attributed the GOP discord to what he called “insufficient unity of purpose” and a party “in transition.” Bishop, who often clashed with the leadership during his four years in Congress, said he might be better suited for an executive role in Raleigh rather than being one of 435 House members. 

“French Hill of Arkansas said that I have an executive personality — I think that was a backhanded compliment,” Bishop said with a smile. “But it is true. I’m impatient to sit around doing the same things and I’m a change agent, I think it’s fair to say, and we need to get on with stuff.”

Ever the optimist, Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., isn’t running for re-election but isn’t as disenchanted with Capitol Hill, despite his weekly cross-country flights. He believes he made a difference during his decade in Congress, particularly as chairman of the House Modernization or “Fix Congress Committee,” which pushed to improve issues such as House technology and staff diversity and retention.

But Kilmer, 49, wrote in a lengthy and heartfelt statement that the job “has come with profound costs to my family. Every theatrical performance and musical recital I missed. Every family dinner that I wasn’t there for. The distance I felt from my family for months after the events of January 6th. I am conscious that I didn’t always deliver in the way I wanted, and I hope they will forgive me for that.”

Later, just off the chamber floor, he recounted to reporters an amusing exchange he had with the House chaplain, Margaret G. Kibben, during last month’s prolonged speaker battle.

“Pray harder,” Kilmer said he joked to her.

“Just imagine how things would be if I wasn’t praying so hard,” Kibben replied.

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