What goes on in Congress matters less these days than what goes on about Congress.
The five-day memorial for the late Senator John McCain drew attention to his lifelong dedication to duty, honor and principle, as well as a willingness to reach across the political aisle to compromise.
The mid-term elections have taken on amplified importance as a virtual referendum on President Donald Trump and as a contest for the heart of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Republican primaries are judged as battles between GOP moderates and Trump backers. Democratic primaries are viewed as tests of how far left the party may swing.
Trump’s hardline, nationalist approach to trade continues to ruffle feathers abroad and at home as farmers, manufacturers, workers and consumers fret over the end game. Congress ultimately will have to decide on any new trade deals, but for now is sitting on the sidelines. Congress is beginning to tackle the one-time subsidies Trump proposed to help farm producers cope with the impact of his tariffs.
The courts have played an outsized role in curbing Trump policies, including a ruling that forced reunification of families separated at the border, blocked blanket detention of asylum-seekers and elimination of DACA and delayed a rollback of fuel efficient standards.
The Robert Mueller investigation into Russian election meddling and potential Trump campaign collusion plugs along, with recent convictions, new grants of immunity and the pall of more indictments. Trump tells campaign rally audiences that a Democratic takeover of the House will lead to his impeachment. There are other investigations and lawsuits about Trump Organization business practices that also result in indictments, including of Trump family members.
Capitol Hill hasn’t gone completely quiet, however. This week will see the start of confirmation hearings on Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, amid Democratic complaints that documents have been suppressed that might shed light on Kavanaugh’s views about executive privilege and prosecution. While the hearings could be confrontational, it appears likely Kavanaugh will win confirmation.
As the end of the federal fiscal year approaches, which in recent times has been tense with the threat of a partial government shutdown, Congress has dutifully moved 12 appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2019. No shutdown will occur, even though Trump said it might be a good thing. Congress has even been upstaged by Trump on spending as the President unilaterally blocked scheduled federal worker pay increases.
Facebook and Twitter remain in the congressional line of sight. After being blamed for turning a blind eye to false-flag accounts, the social media platforms are being accused of putting the squeeze on conservative political voices. Trump has gone further and alleged Google has manipulated search results to play up critical news stories about him and downplay positive stories.
There is an eerie silence in the halls of Congress on efforts to denuclearize North Korea, advance a major infrastructure package, act on immigration reform or respond to the looming denouement of the Syrian conflict, which many observers believe will be a massive humanitarian crisis.
Trump tweets remain the dominant story in most daily news cycles, whether he chastises the FBI and his Attorney General, whines about his treatment by the press or insults US allies or his critics. Apart from the content of the tweets, what troubles Republicans on the Hill are their unpredictability and inconsistency, which makes pursuing a congressional agenda more difficult.
The long, smothering shadow of Trump’s tweets does give congressional Republicans more time to start their own digital firestorms. Ryan Gosling’s biopic of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon has drawn criticism from GOP Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio for failing to feature the astronaut planting the US flag.
Cruz, who is running for re-election this fall, and Rubio said Armstrong’s achievement was a distinctively American moment, paid for by US taxpayers. Gosling defended the omission by saying Armstrong’s achievement “transcended borders and countries.”
Of course, the back-and-forth sniping has nothing to do with Congress.