New Congress, old ways: D.C.’s angry politics aren’t going away

Olivier Knox

As the 113th Congress took the oath of office together this week, newly minted representatives and senators posed with their kids. Democrats celebrated unprecedented diversity at the Capitol (sometimes, ahem, less than completely honestly). Vice President Joe Biden was, well, in fine Biden form. Republican House Speaker John Boehner stirringly told veteran legislators “maybe it’s time we feel awestruck again” and warned newcomers against the siren songs of fame and partisanship.

“If you have come here to see your name in lights or to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place. The door is behind you,” Boehner said from the speaker's chair.

But Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who has been in Congress since 1993, took to Twitter to speak a little truth to, and about, power. “Today we're sworn in. Tomorrow we're sworn at. Both are great honors. God Bless America!”

Kingston’s dry observation reflected the simple fact that the turnover in Congress most likely won’t change the way Washington does business.

How weird and toxic are the country’s politics? The White House couldn’t even provide a named official to disclose that President Barack Obama had talked by telephone with Boehner and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. That information came from an anonymous “senior administration official.”

From “the more things change…” department, Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann tweeted that she had introduced a bill to repeal Obamacare. Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen re-introduced the DISCLOSE Act against anonymous political spending. Oh, and while former Republican Rep. Ron Paul is gone from Congress, his “Audit the Fed” proposal was introduced by Republican Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia.

And within a day, a prominent senator, Republican John Cornyn of Texas, was warning Obama that Republicans are prepared to shut down the government as a show of seriousness about cutting spending.

It’s not that absolutely nothing will change. New members on key committees could shake things up a bit: Republican Sen. Rand Paul is joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren will serve on the Senate Banking Committee. And Obama is overseeing a major Cabinet reshuffle at the start of his second term—new secretaries of State, Treasury and Defense, among others—while pursuing objectives like comprehensive immigration reform and a push for gun control in the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.

But confrontational politics are here to stay. They’re here to stay because they’re already scheduled. The “fiscal cliff” deal banished across-the-board income-tax increases. But it only postponed for two months the fight over indiscriminate spending cuts to domestic and defense programs—just in time to coincide with another battle over raising the debt ceiling.

Obama has vowed not to negotiate over the debt limit. Boehner has let it be known that he’s done negotiating behind closed doors, one-on-one with the president. And Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says the GOP will push for spending cuts whether the White House likes it or not.

And that’s far from the only fight already on Washington’s docket. The White House and Congress also face a late-March battle over a catchall measure funding the government for the rest of the year.

They’re here to stay because relatively high turnover in Congress doesn’t mean turnover in D.C. Americans re-elected Obama but didn’t do much to change the dynamic of divided government. The House is still Republican, though slightly less. The Senate is still Democratic, though slightly more. And the top leaders are the same as in the 112th Congress, so negotiations will see the same faces staring at each other across the table.

They’re here to stay because that minirevolt against Boehner was a revolt against compromise with Democrats. And it highlights how House members—many of them elected with vastly comfortable margins in districts dominated by their party—are more fearful of a primary challenge than a general election fight.

Finally, they’re here to stay because, to hear one veteran Washington operative tell it, maybe fighting over the big issues facing the country is part of the job description.

“The smiley faces and puppy dogs are nice, but it is the job of Congress to deliberate—and not merely pass things indiscriminately,” Brad Dayspring, a former top aide to Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, told Yahoo News.

“In divided government, especially, there are competing interests and ideologies. Not everyone is going to get along, and it’s going to look ugly under a microscope at times. That's the point," he added.

That said, if Obama and congressional leaders can “sit down and talk to each other instead of past each other,” they’ll get things done, Dayspring said.

Until then, Washington will frequently find itself locked in partisan battles, facing self-inflicted crises and acting only at the last minute.

And smug English magazines mocked by "The Simpsons" will digitally alter Boehner in lederhosen and Obama as a stereotypical Frenchman conceived by a 1950s Hollywood screenwriter to make a point about the state of public finances in America and Europe. Wait, what?