Congress reverts to childish antics with no adult supervision in sight
© Greg Nash

I wish now I had paid closer attention in my college Psychology 101 course, especially to developmental psychology and how people’s behavior evolves in stages over time. At least I know from friends who have raised children about the difficult early years (as parents and as children). The reason I am now probing these depths is a disturbing trend I am witnessing in the U.S. Congress, and that is its seeming reversion to those pre-school years in which children are temperamentally volatile (remember “the terrible twos?”). 

When I first started school, it was in a small rural town that had no kindergarten (German for “garden of children”). So, I was deprived of that brilliant innovation from the 1800s that was designed to socialize children before they took on more rigorous educational responsibilities.  Fortunately, I do not recall whether that left me more of a “spoiled brat” in first grade or whether I had simply moved-on to my more mature stage of “the serious-sixes and -sevens.” At least my parents did not have any saved reports from my first-grade teacher that read, “Does not play well with others.” But between our teachers and parents we were nurtured and encouraged to get along with our classmates, both in class and during recess, so that our learning experiences were more fruitful and less contentious. 

What we are observing in Congress today is not necessarily a new phenomenon. Parties, since the beginning of our republic have had their periodic “hissy-fits” and angry exchanges -– the most notable during the lead-up to the Civil War. But today it seems such behavior is more the new normal without the adult supervision around as there was during our school days.  

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Party leaders are now out front, leading their pack against the opposing pack with often embarrassing results in the public eye. It’s as if they all have all been coached to parrot their favorite political TV pundits to grab and hold their partisan base’s attention.

This is not an exaggerated take on what’s happening. One of the political online dailies last week recounted the plight of one low-key, relatively moderate Republican, who already has three primary challengers running against him because he never appears on any of the Fox News shows. If you didn’t know better, you’d think it’s as if members are being coached to audition for post-retirement careers (to use Dwight Eisenhower’s turn-of-phrase at the 1964 GOP convention), as “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators.”

What brought-on my pop-psych drop about Congress is the ongoing struggle over whether and how to investigate the Jan. 6 violent public invasion of Congress by President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE’s supporters in an attempt to stop the certification of electoral ballots for president.  

Democrats originally proposed a bipartisan commission to conduct the inquiry of the insurrection. Although that passed the House on a near party-line vote, it was blocked in the Senate. House Democrats then proposed a partisan select committee with all 13 members appointed by the Speaker, with five on the recommendation of the Republican leader. After Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Democrats suffer blow on drug pricing as 3 moderates buck party MORE (D-Calif.) included Republican Rep. Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyThird Republican drops out of race to replace Cheney after Trump endorses challenger Overnight Energy & Environment — Effort to repeal Arctic refuge drilling advances McCarthy-allied fundraising group helps Republicans who voted to impeach Trump MORE (Wyo.), then the No. 3 GOP leader, as one of her eight picks, Republican Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyOvernight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Top Democrats tout California recall with an eye toward 2022 Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race MORE (Calif.) named his five choices. Pelosi rejected two of them on grounds they had voted against certifying the votes for Biden in two of the states. With that, McCarthy withdrew his remaining three nominees and vowed his party appointees might conduct their own investigation (without formal House authorization).  

Is there something about all this on both sides of the field that reminds you of the childish threat that, if you cannot make-up the rules of the game as you go along, you’re going to take your ball and go home?  

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What would a neutral arbiter — a labor dispute judge (or a kindergarten teacher) — recommend to break this impasse?  Speaker Pelosi denies there is an impasse and has indicated the select committee will move forward, lopsided majority and all, to conduct the inquiry. That approach only confirms the other side’s argument that this was intended from the start to be a partisan hit on former President Trump, his national supporters, and his defenders in Congress. Any findings of such a select committee, without full Republican participation, will be portrayed by the media, or at least perceived by the public, as a predictable partisan attack against Republicans in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections for Congress. Any Republican investigation, if launched, will have even less credibility without the imprimatur of an official House report.  

There is no question that more answers need to be provided, and only official congressional investigations can help provide those answers. But stop and think. There are already several standing committees that have some jurisdiction over these questions, and that was the idea of placing certain members of each on a select committee. Wouldn’t it make more sense at this juncture to proceed with the outdated (but still relevant) concept of the regular order?  Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonDemocrats must stop using Jan. 6 committee to advance its witch hunt  Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee Bipartisan House group introduces legislation to set term limit for key cyber leader MORE (D-Miss.) has been tapped by Pelosi as chair of the select committee. But he is already chair of the Homeland Security Committee. Why shouldn’t his committee proceed as the lead with the investigation, while other committees, like House Administration, Intelligence and Judiciary, proceed with theirs? Under House rules, any recommendations from their findings can be consolidated in legislation through the multiple-referral process into a single bill on the House floor, whereas the select committee has no authority to report its findings as legislation.  It’s time for the House to recognize and revitalize its standing committee system and make it work better for the whole institution and the good of the country. This is actually an opportunity to begin restoring the regular order of committee deliberation — a process that has been so diminished over the years by party leadership dominance and dictates.

Don Wolfensberger is a Congress scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the 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.