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Congress wasn't always this dysfunctional (except it kind of was)

Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy enters the Capitol on January 6.
Nathan Howard
Getty Images
Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy enters the Capitol on January 6.

Updated January 6, 2023 at 5:43 PM ET

What a week it's been in Congress.

You've likely heard lots about how unprecedented the repeated failed votes for Speaker have been, or at least that it hasn't happened in about a century. But is this a new level of dysfunction for Congress?

To answer that question, we've turned to author and historian John Farrell. He has covered Congress as a journalist and also written biographies of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Senator Ted Kennedy.

Farrell steps through what's happened this week, whether things did used to be better in Congress, and what this moment tells us about the future.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On his reaction watching hardline Republicans repeatedly block Kevin McCarthy's chance at the speakership this week

I think it's part of a continuing deterioration of order on Capitol Hill that really dates back to the Berlin Wall coming down and the end of the Cold War. Once we were freed of that common enemy, there was no reason anymore to stop fighting amongst ourselves. And so this golden era that we remember, from World War II on through the 1950s and '60s, is gone now. And we're back to where we were in the 1920s, or the 1880s, or the 1850s.

It's not coincidental that the huge Speaker battles occurred in the four or five years before the Civil War, when America was struggling with big economic and regional issue like slavery. It's been rare in the 20th century and so far in this century, but this could be a sign of things to come.

On whether things used to be better in Congress, and if they have reached a new low

It may be a new low, but things were never golden, really. You had Richard Nixon coming to power as a young congressman by joining the red hunters in the McCarthy era. You had Newt Gingrich in the 1990s convincing the Republicans that they needed to be nastier. Even one of our more staid, regular members now, Jim Jordan, started as a member of the Freedom Caucus as the bomb thrower.

So over time, these guys see that there's a path in the institution and they become institutionalists. But there's always room for somebody to make their name by being the louder, more explosive member of the group.

On the individualism that exists in modern politics

I don't think you should ever underestimate individual careerism. The different wrinkle this time around is that the social media and the cable news atmosphere seems to be providing almost a reward in itself. You go on the cable TV shows, you write on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, and all of a sudden you are, by yourself, popular. You are, by yourself, without having to rely on the Republican Party to get donations. And you're sort of free of the restraints that somebody even in a Gingrich era, for example, had to feel because the big party donors would call you and say, "Get in line."

Well if you're a bar owner in Rifle, Colorado, and you have a life of loneliness and obscurity, and all of a sudden now you're a national media person duking it out with Sean Hannity on Fox News and getting on your Twitter feed and seeing that you've got tens of thousands of people following what you say, it's a pretty heady experience. And you don't really care if there's an ideological payback down the line.

On what the repeated votes for Speaker tell us about the future of Congress

I don't think they tell us a lot. I think that they tell us that in the short term, you can expect more chaos. But we just came away from a presidency in which the president was impeached twice. So it's a spectacle, politics was always meant to be a spectacle. And politics in this country, thanks to the wisdom of the founders was always meant to be a mud wrestling game without anybody walking away with a clear preeminence of power. Yes, we fought a revolution against King George. But in the early days, the founding fathers were just as suspicious and worried about the parliament having too much power. It's all supposed to be a balance. And balance means that there's going to be lots of stalemates, and there's going to be times of chaos.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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