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Congress is off to a spectacularly slow start, and members fear it won’t get better

“There’s not a lot going on,” said No. 2 Republican Sen. John Thune.
The U.S. Capitol dome Nov. 9, 2022.
The U.S. Capitol dome at sunrise on Nov. 9, 2022.Samuel Corum / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The House, paralyzed for days, struggled to elect a speaker. The Senate is holding symbolic votes just to pass the time. America’s most powerful lawmakers have been twiddling their thumbs, unable to hold hearings because committees aren’t set up.

Welcome to the Seinfeld Congress. It’s a show about nothing.

One month in, the 118th Congress is off to a spectacularly sluggish start, frustrating some lawmakers and foreshadowing a messy two years of divided government in a presidential election cycle where very little is expected to get done.

Forget making historic laws. It’s not even clear the new Congress can agree to keep the government functional or prevent a self-imposed economic meltdown.

“I have very low expectations,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said in an interview. “I would predict — and I hope I’m wrong — this will prove to be one of the least productive congresses in modern history because of the dysfunctionality of an unstable majority.” 

House Republicans have a mere four-seat majority that empowers just a few rabble-rousers to wreak havoc in the chamber. They spent their first five days squabbling with each other over whether Kevin McCarthy should be speaker. After 15 ballots — the most since 1859 — he finally won the gavel, but not before a physical altercation broke out on the House floor.

Across the Capitol, things are moving even slower. The Democratic-controlled Senate voted only three times in the entire month of January. During the first month of 2017, the Senate voted 35 times; in 2015, it voted 46 times.

“This certainly is an incredibly slow start,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. “There’s not a lot going on.”

Last week, the Senate held a vote on a measure to designate January as “National Stalking Awareness Month” — which faced no opposition and could have been adopted instantly. But the chamber apparently had nothing to do that day and needed to fill the time.

On Tuesday, usually one of the busiest days of the legislative week, the Senate didn’t vote at all. And on Wednesday, the Senate voted on a resolution declaring January as “National Trafficking and Modern Slavery Prevention Month.” The vote was 97 to 0, indicating again that a recorded vote was unnecessary; the chamber could have approved it by unanimous consent.

“This week we came out firmly against stalkers. Today, thanks to my good friend Senator Schumer, we came out firmly against traffickers,” mocked Sen. John Kennedy, R-La. “I’ve heard a rumor — I don’t know if it’s true, but I think Chuck tomorrow is going to ask us to come out firmly against pedophiles. It’s been a busy week.”

“The mind-boggling pace of the Senate beginning of this year is certainly astonishing,” quipped Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slower beginning that started a new Congress in the Senate.”

On Wednesday, six days after Senate Democrats announced their committee assignments, Senate Republicans followed suit. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday the delay was because the GOP committee process was “a little more cumbersome than ours” and that he’s “very hopeful" that the committees can be officially put together on Thursday.

One of the holdups: Freshman Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., wanted a coveted seat on the Judiciary Committee. But there’s already a Missouri Republican on that panel and not enough seats. His colleagues declined to grant him a waiver or vacate a seat for him.

The House is often more unruly than the Senate. But the past few weeks have been particularly unfocused in the lower chamber.

Much of the distraction has come from one man, freshman Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., who has been sparring with the media on a daily basis over his numerous fabrications and embellishments about his resume and personal biography. 

Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., at the Capitol on Jan. 12, 2023.
Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., at the Capitol on Jan. 12, 2023.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

McCarthy gets questions about Santos at nearly every news conference, and his GOP colleagues are constantly peppered with questions about the seemingly serial liar in the hallways as well. On Wednesday, NBC News confirmed that the FBI is investigating Santos’ role in a fundraising scheme involving a disabled Navy veteran’s dying service dog.

This week, House Republicans had to delay a vote to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from the Foreign Affairs Committee because the panel wasn't set up yet.

“It sounds like a Seinfeld skit,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa.

Not everyone on the Hill agrees nothing is getting done. Asked about the snail’s pace of the Congress, Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., pulled out his notebook where he had scribbled down a list of measures passed by the House in recent weeks: creating a select committee on China competitiveness, banning sales to China from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, ending the public health emergency on Covid-19 and forcing federal workers to return to the office.

“Did the 117th really pass six substantial pieces of legislation, four of them bipartisan and a number of them with a legitimate chance to get enacted into law?" he asked.

Meanwhile, a routine organizational meeting of the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday devolved into a nearly hourlong debate over the Pledge of Allegiance. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., offered an amendment that would allow members to invite “inspirational constituents” to lead the pledge before each committee hearing. 

But Democrats objected, with Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., unsuccessfully trying to amend Gaetz’s amendment to make clear that “insurrectionists” who backed Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election could not lead the pledge.

Yelling between Republicans and Democrats ensued. Then, the House GOP’s official Twitter account tweeted out the outdated 1892 version of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was written by New York socialist Francis Bellamy.

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.”

The tweet was quickly deleted.