Congress Sinks to New Depths

The sad state of American democracy – from the presidential race to Congress – is easy to lament as something beyond correction, but change is possible if the electorate starts taking citizenship seriously, says Mike Lofgren.

By Mike Lofgren

We might have thought the Congress of the United States hit rock bottom in 2011, when it nearly drove the country into a sovereign debt default. It was averted in time, but Standard and Poor’s still downgraded America’s debt rating. Or was rock bottom the government shutdown of 2013? Or was the low point reached in the summer of 2016, when the Senate refused to perform its constitutional duty to consider a Supreme Court nominee, and left a court vacancy in the midst of several important judicial decisions?

No, Congress achieved its nadir of dysfunction at the end of September, with how it handled its first veto override of Barack Obama’s presidency. The bill in question is the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which narrows the scope of foreign sovereign immunity from the jurisdiction of U.S. courts: a state involved in the death of U.S persons becomes liable for court claims. The bill was intended as relief for the next of kin of those killed in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The U.S. Capitol. (Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol)

The U.S. Capitol. (Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol)

Because the likeliest target of a lawsuit over the 9/11 attacks was the government of Saudi Arabia, the administration had already issued a veto threat back in April: rescinding sovereign immunity would immensely complicate foreign relations, could subject the United States to similar suits, and might result in the Saudis pulling their estimated $750 billion of investments out of American financial markets.

Congress was not about to take this affront to its institutional majesty lying down, and accordingly overrode Obama’s veto by the overwhelming votes of 348 to 77 in the House and 97 to 1 in the Senate.

Instantly, buyer’s remorse set in, accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plaintive wails that it was all Obama’s fault for not telling them the implications of JASTA forcefully enough – despite the fact that the administration had already threatened a veto for precisely the reasons that now weighed so heavily upon the members, and despite the fact that the whole thing was Congress’s bright idea, not Obama’s.

And, incidentally, when have the Republicans, who control both chambers, ever refrained from doing something because Obama thought it was a bad idea? Typically, he is a reverse barometer for their course of action. One suspects Obama’s actions or lack of them were irrelevant to Congress’s instant regret.

After the override vote, did the House and Senate leadership offices receive calls from some well-placed entities on Wall Street reminding them that the Saudis’ pulling their investments out of New York might kill the golden goose, as well as dampen the financial services industry’s appetite to attend fundraisers? I’ll leave further speculation to the reader.

This is not the place to analyze the merits or demerits of JASTA. Perhaps the moral and jurisprudential arguments override the principle of sovereign immunity – but Congress obviously never weighed the balance of those interests in a deliberative fashion, as it was constitutionally intended to do. Instead, members wanted cheap credit for associating themselves with 9/11 victims, and all other considerations be damned.

Selling the Saudis Weapons

The cherry on the cake of this tragicomedy is the fact that only a few days before approving JASTA, the Senate agreed to a $1.15 billion sale of weapons to the very same government of Saudi Arabia that it now wants to subject to lawsuits on the grounds that it is presumptively involved in terrorism!

A Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12, 2009. (Photo credit: NYyankees51)

A Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12, 2009. (Photo credit: NYyankees51)

JASTA is only the tip of the legislative iceberg. Congress simply hasn’t done its job: it has not agreed to a budget resolution – the most basic blueprint for spending – since 2009, and the last time all appropriations bills were enacted by Oct. 1 (the beginning of the new fiscal year) was in 1996. Partly this is just laziness, and the growing preference of members to pontificate via press release and sound byte rather than doing the public business.

But it is hard to interpret some of it as anything other than malign intent. Congress, like any halfway awake newspaper reader, has known for the last six months that the Zika virus was an immanent menace. Yet funding for public health measures were held hostage until late September by the insistence that the measure could only pass when paired with cuts to Planned Parenthood: in other words, poorer women would not be allowed to obtain fetal screening for potential health problems, including Zika.

The Zika funding only passed when it became clear even to the most addled member of Congress that the majority of the public preferred action on public health to ideological grandstanding.

It is all too easy for the American people to throw up their hands and sigh, “Congress! There go the two parties again! Like kids in a schoolyard!” Notice how the criticism, like rain, falls on the just and the unjust alike, implying that the sad state of Congress is inevitable. There are three answers to this criticism.

First, the American people need to take greater responsibility for the people they elect. When they send a representative to Congress, it is a serious business bound up with maintenance of constitutional government. The notion of “sending a message” or “shaking things up” by inflicting a Louis Gohmert, or a Steve King, or an Alan Grayson on the country, is immature and unworthy of a serious body politic. Congress is a legislative body, not WrestleMania.

Second, there is plenty of blame to go around on a bipartisan basis – note that the veto override votes in both Houses were overwhelming. And, yes, politicians of both parties are beholden to corporate special interests. Nevertheless, the source of Congress’s extreme dysfunction lies predominantly in one party.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

For decades, the Republican Party has been damning government – established by the very Constitution that the party claims to revere. They promise to clean up the mess in Washington, and then proceed to throw sand in the gears of any possibility of orderly governance.

Brandishing guns has become a feature of many Tea Party rallies.

Brandishing guns has become a feature of many Tea Party rallies.

The resulting increased disarray then becomes their rationale to be reelected: a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is apparently a convincing argument for millions of low-information voters who want to shrink government to a size that it can be drowned in a bathtub, but also want their Social Security checks delivered on time, and with the customary cost-of-living increase.

Finally, democracies, like civilization itself, are inherently fragile. The self-brainwashing of millions of Americans by habitual exposure to the right-wing media-entertainment complex has replaced social trust with resentment, vitriol, and the perpetual hunt for scapegoats. This process has been faithfully reproduced in the actions of Congress.

At one time the inequitable political treatment of different parts of the country suffering from natural disasters would not have occurred to anyone. But with the seating of the Tea Party faction in Congress in 2011, that changed. Tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, were promptly addressed, but Red State Republicans dragged their feet in addressing 2012’s Superstorm Sandy. Why? It affected predominantly Democratic constituencies.

The same syndrome repeated itself this year: September’s inundations in Louisiana were speedily tackled, but Republicans only grudgingly included funding to solve the Flint, Michigan water crisis to avoid being blamed for another government shutdown, even though the contamination had been a nationally known issue for a year.

This kind of endemic bad faith within our national legislature provides abundant evidence that the problem in our governing institutions is not confined to nominating the occasional lunatic to be a presidential candidate. The rot extends to Congress, the focus of the very first article of the Constitution and, as James Madison believed, the premier instrument of popular self-government.

It is well past time to clean up Congress. The first step is for the electorate to understand that choices have consequences, and that voting is a serious responsibility – not just for president, but down the ballot as well.

Mike Lofgren is a former congressional staff member who served on both the House and Senate budget committees. His book about Congress, The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, was published in paperback in 2013. His most recent book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, was published in January 2016 and appeared in paperback in September 2016.

25 comments for “Congress Sinks to New Depths

  1. delia ruhe
    October 19, 2016 at 15:36

    Congressional candidates sell off their R2G (responsibility to govern) to the highest bidder — which gives them more time to dial for dollars for the next contest at which they’ll auction off their R2G for another term.

    Not only does it lower the qualifications for a Congressional seat, but freedom from governing responsibilities also gives those sitting in them more time to play silly-bugger when Congress is in session.

  2. Björn Lindgren
    October 19, 2016 at 06:14


    I appreciate Mike’s effort to speak out, but it is getting late. Very late…

    Sure, IF the electorate starts taking citizenship seriously, THEN change is possible. And IF popular radical demands and rising are met with more austerity for the poor and massive militarized violence, the US will contiunue to fall apart.

    The domestic violence mirrors the global violence that the US empire imposes on the rest of the world. America now has 100 million poor; the middle class are deep in dept. Military and finance dance on the table.

    In Europe, the NATO allies are now on their way departing from the US and its global full spectrum dominance, and are prepairing a peaceful coal and steel agreement with Russia. A peaceful conflict resolution by commercial means. The US have to fight their endless wars alone…

    Russia, Germany, France, and other European countries have experienced the consequences of war, and are trying to aviod a new round of total war. In the UK, the liar and warmonger Tony Blair is the most hated person in the country.

    The US is now engaged in still another war, in Yemen, and the likely next president, Queen of chaos, is fully capable to launch still another war on Iran, which might include “tactical” nuclear weapons.

    The end of all empires looks like this: the system contains so many contradictions that no matter what you do, nothing happens. Apathy makes the necessary and radical change impossible. The system runs amok. Obama and the Congress have given this a face.

    The American Dream wasn’t a dream. It was only propaganda. Robert Nosick, the theoretical legitimizer of neoliberalism, confessed 2002 on his deathbed, that “The market is incapable to take care of a society”.

    The US and the world are now challenged by climate change, future lack of energy, destruction of soil, and many other issues. Abolishing military as conflict resolution, would give resources to meet these challenges, and build welfare and equity for all.

    Peace is spelled equality.

    So what is the elite doing? Those on Wall Street, who who know the game is now over, now buy estates with a private airfields in New Zealand.

    Pain and worry could be used to wake up, to see what really is the cause, to think deeply and compassionalely and together with others, find common and local viable solutions, appropriate in a equal, just, and global world.

    Use the energy of your greed and transform it into generousity; hate into compassion; ignorance into insight!

    War – what is it good for? Absolutley nothing!

    Björn Lindgren

    • Zachary Smith
      October 19, 2016 at 12:10

      War – what is it good for? Absolutley nothing!

      Not exactly true. “Crime” is typically the work of individuals or relatively small groups of people engaged in taking property belonging to others. It’s generally discouraged, or at least well regulated in most societies. On the other hand, “War” has a huge aspect as the practice of an entire society taking property belonging to another society. The criminality of the venture is always disguised in some way, but if you want some Wholesale Theft, get a war going. Examples regarding the US:

      1) Indian Wars
      2) War of 1812 – failed attempt to steal Canada from Britain.
      3) Mexican War – successful attempt to steal Texas and California from Mexico.
      4) Spanish-American War – successful attempt to steal Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippine Islands. Cuba became essentially a US colony until the advent of Castro.

      Compared with these, the snatching up of Hawaii and similar stuff are footnotes.

      More recently, the US has followed the example of Germany and concentrated on Trade Treaties which expand the American Empire without a lot of violence. Israel has upset this to a great degree with its Wag The Dog insistence of using the US Military to smash Muslim nations, and this has in turn caused trouble with the stealth approach to Empire.

      If the warmonger is careful with its opponents, war can be extremely profitable and useful.

  3. Matt
    October 19, 2016 at 06:12

    In other words-

    Vote these jacka** Republicans OUT OF OFFICE and replace them with SANE DEMOCRATS.

  4. Silly Me
    October 19, 2016 at 04:15

    Sorry, it’s hard to take someone seriously if they believe in the Zika virus.

  5. October 19, 2016 at 01:04

    By golly, if we just all come together and elect the right sociopaths we could have nice things.

  6. Zachary Smith
    October 19, 2016 at 00:07

    Republicans have been breaking the US Government into pieces, but the Democrats have too often been extremely helpful. I say SO WHAT if JASTA encourages foreign victims of US outrages to retaliate. Putting on my tinfoil hat for a moment, JASTA may be a wag-the-dog maneuver hatched in Israel, for taking down the Saudis must be rather high on their to-do list now.

    Regarding the refusal to even vote on the Supreme Court nominee, I see that as a sign the Republicans are getting bolder. This is far more outrageous than anything else they’ve done – at least in my opinion. They have precisely zero respect for the US Constitution, and aren’t a bit afraid to let it show.

    I can see no circumstances whatever I’ll ever again vote for a Republican for the Senate. Not that I’m voting for Evan Bayh – he’s totally awful.

  7. J'hon Doe II
    October 18, 2016 at 16:31

    I’d like to offer the full transcript of the first Presidential Debate. Reading verbatim is listening at a slower pace.
    Transcript allows closer focus, an opportunity of focus and think through and measure against.

  8. F. G. Sanford
    October 18, 2016 at 15:38

    I can’t help wondering why the article lists JASTA as the most egregious dereliction of congressional forethought, insight or integrity. When we invaded Grenada and Panama, “sovereign immunity” wasn’t a very big consideration. Using NGOs such as NED to sponsor “regime change” programs doesn’t seem to create much heartburn either. We just did that in Honduras recently, which created a refugee crisis on our southern border. I recall reading a Phil Giraldi article in which he stated – I’m paraphrasing here – “Virtually everything done by CIA field operatives overseas is illegal.” That doesn’t seem to raise concerns regarding “sovereign immunity”. Military and diplomatic personnel are covered by SOFA (Status of Forces Agreements) and diplomatic protocols. When a U.S. Navy ship pulls into a foreign port, “diplomatic clearance” is part of the documentation which must be arranged in advance of each visit. The ONLY thing that offends “sovereign immunity” in the context here presented is “criminal activity”. So-called “diplomatic immunity” may keep misbehaving officials out of foreign jails, but it doesn’t routinely keep them from from being tossed out of host countries when they get caught. It happens all the time. As for people caught spying, some may remember that Tom Hanks movie – a complete propaganda misrepresentation – about the swap to get Gary Powers back from the Soviet Union. Or the “apology” games Colin Powell had to play to get a U.S. aircrew back from China. Sovereign immunity wasn’t an issue in those cases. When it was determined – unequivocally or not – that Gaddafi was responsible for killing U.S. military personnel in a German nightclub, Reagan didn’t waste any time sending a squadron of F-111’s to pay him back. Nobody worried about “sovereign immunity” then. So, the real question is, to whom and for what reason is this “sovereign immunity” important as anything but a canard? Or, does it actually serve to protect private financial interests to the detriment of matters of state? Why should the U.S. citizenry be held hostage to a monetary system which is vulnerable to the anachronistic whims of an abominable medieval monstrosity? Why should the U.S. citizenry be bankrupted by wars which result in massive personal enrichment of politicians such as those affiliated with Haliburton and The Carlisle Group, without those same politicians personally risking a declaration of war? To whom and for what reason is this “sovereign immunity” important as anything but a canard? I’m not a conscientious objector. I have no problem with dropping bombs for a really, really, really good reason. But I think those 28 pages suggest we’ve been dropping them on the wrong countries, and we’ve been doing it for fifteen years. Isn’t it about time we were honest with ourselves?

    • Realist
      October 18, 2016 at 17:00

      Brilliant response to that load of rubbish. Moreover, I would add, perhaps the United States DESERVES to be sued for the millions of wrongful deaths it has caused over the years for its barbaric military actions mostly in the service of money, banks, big business and the oppressive oligarchs who own them all. To take but one example, Amerika Inc had no compunctions about violating sovereign immunity to invade Panama and seize its president for infractions he had mostly committed in the service of the American state, and in the process of this invasion thousands of Panamanians were killed or injured in the course of standard American military operating procedures which take no account of human life or safety. Where is their justice? I’d say that real justice would demand that the United States government be made accountable for its lethal actions against innocent private citizens of Panama… and all the countries that its military invades. Instead, all we get is bullshit about Russia violating human rights in Aleppo. And, if the American taxpayers ultimately feel the pinch, perhaps it will motivate them to rein in the atrocities committed in their name by their government and its military. Perhaps we would think twice about raising indisputable warmongers, like Ms. Clinton, to our highest offices, and perhaps congress would be motivated to extract from office covert warmongers, like Mr. Obama, who slip into the presidency under the radar by misrepresenting who they really are during the campaign. They say money talks and bullshit walks. It’s all the powerful really understand. I’d say bringing money into this equation can only be an improvement over the bullshit the system has wallowed in over the past decades.

      • Bill Bodden
        October 18, 2016 at 17:57

        It’s the same-old, same-old – one set of rules for “them” and another set of rules for “us.” If the Nuremberg Principles, written mainly by the United States, were applied against the current generation there would be lots of nooses around lots of famous necks and a big increase in our incarceration rate.

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 19, 2016 at 00:55

      When the U.S. made the decision to invade sovereign nations such as, Libya, and Syria, just to name two of several of these invaded nations, no one was worried by a nations sovereignty then.

      My hope was that JASTA could be the beginning of more victim slanted legislation worldwide, which could stuff up the system, if before going to war with legal briefs over the last wars were flooding the courts all over the world, and making it impossible to just go ahead and attack another nation. Not sure what teeth any of this kind of legislation would have, but if legal means we’re to lessen the prospects for going to war, well then the world could at least enjoy a little more peace.

      To bad investigations of these terror attacks, and other war crimes, can’t provide any tangible results for the victims, and effected relatives. To bad that the bright people who control our MSM won’t reveal the dark side with lots of sunlight, and expose the traitors of the world’s civil society.

      I would like to see these current times we live in be calmed down, by any means possible, and I would further hope it could be done without violence.

  9. Joe Kapoe
    October 18, 2016 at 15:28

    Lofgren’s focus on JASTA as the nadir of Congressional irresponsibility is a little puzzling. Soverign immunity is held up as sacrosanct, but what about sovereignty being trampled on by aggressive US wars, violating international law. Where was Congress these times? Or what about ISDS, the Investor State Dispute Settlement provisions of trade agreements like the TPP and others which sideline sovereignty? There’s still a chance that a lame duck Congress will pass this.

    Another puzzling point he makes is that voting is a serious responsibility. Yes of course, we are struggling daily with the nightmarish election looming over us. Never mind the vast corruption and money influence in the two “official” political parties; never mind the mainstream media that resembles Pravda and Izvestia more and more; never mind rigged campaigns and voter suppression. Yes, we ostensibly still live in a democracy but a large faction of voters, if not THE largest faction of voters, has come to the conclusion that an oligarchy now rules and voting is a sham. It takes more than ‘civic responsibility’ to motivate the ever increasing segment of potential voters who feel that no matter who wins, we lose.

  10. evelync
    October 18, 2016 at 14:01

    I read your piece with interest, Mike Lofgren.
    more on that in a moment……
    what I found astounding, though, was your article introducing your book “the Deep State”:
    My library has one of your earlier books but I put in a request for the Deep State and am looking forward to reading it.
    After reading your article, it now seems clear why Hillary Clinton did not want her speeches to Wall Street released.
    In those speeches she was addressing members, as you describe them, of the ‘Deep State” and what she said to them – from what I’ve read so far from the leaked speeches – is astounding given the word-fodder she dumps on average Americans in her garbage speeches and why she has a vacant stare when she delivers those speeches. It’s all fallen into place based on your insights.

    Thanks to the whistle blowers – providing us the peak into the Deep State that has caused so much trouble – from endless wars, to mortgage finance rip offs.

    Regarding your piece on congress’ ineptitude and malicious intent.
    You correctly, I think, attack the Congress for their lack of responsibility, ignoring the warnings of Obama and Wall Street.
    You also point out the hypocrisy of awarding the huuuuuge military contracts to Saudi Arabia.

    But some of us, I think, who are vaguely aware of what you refer to as the Deep State and are disturbed by all these strings being pulled behind our backs, that produce policies that are hurtful to average people, threaten a sustainable future with Climate Disruption, endless wars, vast differences of wealth, bad foreign policy and domestic policy, cheered that vote – not because it fit within responsible governance but because it was a disruption to some very ugly goings over decades, now, that seem to emanate from what you and john Le Carre and Artistotle describe, based on the very observations that you made in your article on Deep State.

    Average people like the 10’s of thousands of young people who came out to support Bernie and were dissed by the Clinton campaign as groupies instead of shown respect for their intelligence and courage to challenge an unsustainable status quo including Citizens United are hopefully going to stay engaged.


  11. Bill Bodden
    October 18, 2016 at 13:26

    The United States Senate – the world’s greatest deliberative body. Who ever came up with that piece of unadulterated BS?

    • J. D.
      October 18, 2016 at 14:59

      Have you bothered yourself to read the bill or the 28 page final chapter of the 911 Joint Inquiry report?

      • Bill Bodden
        October 18, 2016 at 15:30

        No. But I have read reams of articles and several books by reliable sources exposing the pathetic performance of the senate for generations, but the senate’s unanimous support of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza and quick replenishment of expended materiel are a sufficient indictment for me. If the senate is owned by the Israel Lobby there isn’t likely to be much deliberation regarding Israel. I also came across a couple of articles indicating law suits against Saudi Arabia aren’t going anywhere because of other legal issues. Add to that the majority votes for the war on Iraq and other wars and polls putting Congress down close to a single digit for approval means then claiming the title of the world’s greatest deliberative body is utterly preposterous.

        • Bill Bodden
          October 18, 2016 at 17:46

          I tried to locate the articles from reliable sources about potential lawsuits resulting from JASTA, but I couldn’t locate them. However, I came across this one that makes a similar point.

          Bill Passes House Allowing Citizens to Sue Saudi Arabia for 9/11 — But It’s a Cruel Hoax – – – “For all the excitement about the House’s unanimous passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), following a similar unanimous vote in the U.S. Senate in late May, it turns out that the bill offers nothing more than an illusion of the prospect of justice and accountability. It is, indeed, a cruel hoax”.

          I don’t have time just now to check on this site, but if it is not reliable I’m sure someone will attach a flag.

          • Idiotland
            October 19, 2016 at 11:48

            Surprise! “Our” government screws us again.

    • Erik
      October 18, 2016 at 19:51

      Indeed Congress generally fails to debate beyond the superficial, largely because it is elected, and therefore controlled by money and mass media, and consists of posturing demagogic bullies. This is why I propose a fourth branch of federal government to compile the knowledge of the people, a College of Policy Analysis to textually debate all policy issues for every region and discipline, protecting all viewpoints, and producing summaries commented by all viewpoints and available to all. Although Congress can ignore the results or refuse to be rational anyway, the College can bring debaters to common terms, expose false premises and vague arguments, and resolve upon the factual base and most supportable conclusions, forming a rational foundation for policy debate in Congress and among the people.

      But of course We must eliminate the influence of economic concentrations upon Congress and the public debate, by restricting the funding of elections and mass media to limited individual contributions. This will require amendments to the Constitution because those influences were not foreseen. We will still have clowns at times in public debate and elections, but there will be little excuse to vote for them.

  12. J. D.
    October 18, 2016 at 12:58

    The author’s misrepresentation of JASTA, is not only an affront to the families of the victims, but to the American people. The “threat to sovereign immunity” was a lie promulgated by the White House and which was debunked over and over during the six years that bill was in the making, and finally rejected 97-1 by the Senate. The president’s veto was motivated to prevent the truth about the Saudi role in 911, and the complicity of the past two administrations in the coverup and launching of wars against nations having nothing to do with 911. The victories in forcing Obama to release the 28 pages, damning the Saudi Monarchy as the authors of the 9/11 attacks, and the passage by Congress of the JASTA bill, demonstrates the power of public pressure on a still functioning republic, Now the Saudis are trying to paper over the devastating defeat that they and Obama suffered in the JASTA fight, by spending $100 million in lobbying to try to undo the damage.However, with the global outrage over their exposure as war criminals in the bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, they are doomed to fail.

      October 18, 2016 at 16:04

      Agreed. The real threat to sovereignty lies in the ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) provisions of trade agreements such as NAFTA and TPP which give private corporations the legal right to sue governments if those governments’ laws may cause corporate profits to decline, despite worker and environmental protections in those laws. Such lawsuits from NAFTA’s ISDS have already cost the governments of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. tens, if not hundreds, of million of dollars to settle. The TPP’s ISDS will cost involved governments even more, while eroding workers’ rights and environmental protections.

      Where was Obama’s ‘concern’ when such ISDS threats to national sovereignty were being publicized?

  13. Zach
    October 18, 2016 at 12:22

    Seriously? You compared Alan Grayson to clowns like Steve King and Louie Gohmert? That’s offensive.

  14. October 18, 2016 at 10:56

    Just when you thought the Legislative branch of government couldn’t get any worse…guess again!

    • Damian Cano
      October 19, 2016 at 13:01

      Alan Grayson? You think he’s the equivalent of King or Gohmert? Just how did he achieve that distinction?

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