In 1964, Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher and mass media guru, made a big splash with his book, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,” in which he coined the term, “the medium is the message.” His thesis was that the medium through which a message is conveyed is often more important than the content of the message itself. 

In 1967, he published a second book, “The Medium is the Massage,” which may or may not have been a printing error but one which McLuhan embraced as “a teaser, a way of getting attention” on the importance of the medium as something that takes ahold of people, “rubs them off…massages them and bumps them around, chiropractically….”  So much for rationalizing a typo. 


McLuhan became such a media rock star that he made a cameo appearance in the 1977 film, “Annie Hall.”  A “man in movie line” is pontificating about Fellini and McLuhan.  The Woody Allen character, Alvy Singer, draws him aside and there is McLuhan who informs him, “You know nothing of my work.”  “If life were only like that,” sighs Allen.

All of this came to mind recently as members of both parties in Congress accuse each other of engaging in partisan political messaging in their legislative floor activities. Whether it is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell seeks to end feud with Trump Senate GOP signal they won't filibuster debate of hate crimes bill Colin Powell on Afghanistan: 'We've done all we can do' MORE (R-Ky.) calling up the Democrats’ “Green New Deal” for a floor vote, House Republicans using motions to recommit to offer politically discomfiting amendments, or House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi says she would have put up a fight against Capitol mob: 'I'm a street fighter' Biden to address Congress on April 28 NY House Democrats demand repeal of SALT cap MORE (D-Calif.) using non-binding resolutions to make a political point without risking Senate inaction or a presidential veto, messages are being sent through the medium of congressional television.

In a previous Congress Blog on the motion to recommit controversy, I offered this “Spoiler Alert: The House is a political body.” Politicians are known for playing political games to delight their backers in Washington and back home.  And one can make the case that “All work and no play makes Congress a dull place.” However, it is beginning to seem that in the run-up to the 2020 elections, both parties are avoiding making any major policy decisions that might provoke a veto showdown or retaliation at the polls. It is so much easier to force votes on non-binding wedge issue resolutions that have no real impact beyond the chambers’ walls.

The danger is that the public will surely see through these games and be turned-off by Congress’s lack of serious legislating. We are already seeing some members in both chambers complaining about frivolous game-playing and vowing to vote “present” instead of playing along. On the Green New Deal vote in the Senate, for instance, 43 Democratic senators voted “present” in protest on the motion to invoke cloture to take-up the bill – causing it to fall three votes short of the 60 votes needed. Some House Democrats are vowing to do the same on future motions to recommit that are too cute by half to be taken seriously.

Meantime, in the House, simple resolutions are being used increasingly to advertise the Democratic brand of beef absent the meat. So far, the House has gone on record bravely against all forms of bigotry and calling for the Mueller report to be made public, while Republicans have begged-off on voting for non-binding language on such things as condemning the president’s court challenge to ObamaCare and his move to ban transgender persons from the military. And House Democrats are reportedly considering forcing a vote opposing the president’s threat to seal the U.S.-Mexican border (though the president has since backed-off that threat for now).  A Roll Call study published last week reveals that one-fifth of the recorded votes in the House in this Congress have been on non-binding measures.

I have frequently criticized what I have called the “perpetual campaign” that is taking over the legislative agenda of Congress with what I call “bumper sticker” bills that send political messages instead of dealing with pressing policy problems. Whether they are designed primarily to massage a party’s political base, to body slam partisan opponents, or both, matters little. Either way they focus the medium’s lights and cameras on a Congress that doesn’t seem to get the public’s message that they want a Congress that works for the common good instead of one that plays to score partisan points.

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of, “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.”  The views expressed are solely his own.