After rioters finished desecrating the Capitol on Jan. 6, millions watched as a cohort of Republicans continued their attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. With no evidence, they repeatedly rose to object to the count in closely decided states, stretching proceedings late into the night to perpetuate the big lie.
The objectors’ nonsense attempts to shake faith in democracy had no chance of succeeding in a single state, and they knew it. Threatened by the possibility of Trumpist primary challengers, 147 Republicans used Congress as a stage for an amateurish and underwritten political drama designed to placate right-wing rioters. The string of objections was not honest legal maneuvering, but rather a political performance.
This is not an isolated incident — performances like these have been decades in the making. During committee hearings and floor sessions alike, so-called “anti-establishment” politicians have been increasingly focused on performing for their bases on the floors of the House and Senate. From day-long filibusters to late-night rants, these performances are not bids to persuade members, but shameless auditions for evening news coverage.
It's time to cut the cameras and cancel 24/7 coverage of Congress — the bright lights of primetime television are making legislators less effective and dividing America.
Congress has entered an era of never-ending campaigns permeating every corner of the Capitol, thanks in part to the advent of C-SPAN. Once upon a time, lawmakers went unrecorded, working when in Washington and campaigning on recess. Now, they campaign daily, chasing sound bites and trolling the opposition instead of doing the hard work of bipartisan legislating.
Lawmaking is an intensely time-consuming job, and legislators need to be without distraction while doing it. Nowadays, staffers who have dedicated years to hone their bill-writing and legislative research skills are routinely ignored, as lawmakers take the advice of campaign chairs instead, putting reelection ahead of effective legislating. The consequences have been astounding: Congress only voted on 4 percent of the bills introduced during the last session, and while this is not a massive departure from typical, it still suggests that much work is being left on the table.
Beyond the ramifications of leaving work unfinished, performative lawmakers are also more susceptible to lobbying by special interests. Lobbyists thrive when members of Congress are impressionable and looking for issues to exploit for outrage. Even the narrowest of special interests can inspire impassioned floor speeches if members believe they will attract campaign donations.
And if lobbyists do not get to backbench legislators, caucus whips will. A whip is a member of either caucus whose job it is to get members in line for or against a bill. Legislators who are worried more about performing than legislating will simply default to their caucus’s position, ending any hope of broad bipartisan compromise and increasing polarization.
These are the passive consequences of legislators as performers: worse bills, more lobbying and less bipartisanship. However, there are more malignant results of performance politics.
One dark episode of American politics this decade starred Senator Ted Cruz, who is something of a political ham. In his first year in Congress, Cruz played a key role in an effort to shut down the federal government, arguing that no budget should go forward without the repeal of Obamacare. At the climax of his storyline, he filibustered for nearly a day, reading Dr. Seuss and comparing Obamacare to Nazism. Ultimately, the federal government did enter a shutdown.
This type of grandstanding is needlessly polarizing — it cheapens the work of Congress and escalates interpersonal drama. Healthy relationships are essential to lawmaking, and legislators who do not make friends do not make laws. Given how heightened the tensions seem to be on camera, voters may be surprised to find out that most legislators maintain collaborative friendships across the aisle. Senator Cruz is the exception to this, not the rule: Thanks to his aggressive posturing, he is one of the least-liked members in Washington, and in turn, one of the least effective.
Ever since his strong showing in 2013, Senator Cruz has struggled to maintain stardom, but now he is joined by new politicians who are escalating the theatrics to a whole new level. Take conspiracy theorist and somehow-Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican who has fallen out of favor even with members of her own party over her regular efforts to adjourn the House. Greene knows that her efforts will fail each time she undertakes them, but she wastes Congress’s and the country’s time anyway so she can capture sound bites to take home, where she will all but certainly face a stiff primary challenge.
These escalations give the American people the idea that politics is a full-contact sport where “gotcha” moments and roasts are worth more than serious policymaking. When the American people are taught that performative outrage is the primary goal of politics, demagoguery thrives. Extreme politicians are happy to support this — they are escalating an arms race to see who can incite the most outrage, and the American people are the victims.
Social media plays a role in this too. Building an online following has become indispensable to modern lawmakers, in part because platforms give politicians another outlet through which to stir tensions. No doubt, social media has benefits for politicians and the public, but it is not without its drawbacks. Like college students, members of Congress need to avoid Twitter when there is work to be done.
The only way to get Congress back to work is to keep cameras out of the Capitol and curtail social media use during work hours. Otherwise, progress will keep getting stalled in Washington while lawmakers waste their time and ours grabbing headlines instead of writing legislation. Videos of House and Senate proceedings should go unpublished and TV interviews should be held exclusively outside of the Capitol.
Some will argue that this would be an affront to transparency, but there are plenty of ways to hold lawmakers accountable without video — written records, vote tallies, the actual bills and plenty of other resources are available for people to hold incumbents accountable. This would not be the end of video either: The proceedings should be taped but kept under lock and key for the duration of an election cycle (two years in the House, six in the Senate.) That way, there will be an accurate record to reference in the future, but no incentive for members to waste public time on their reelection campaigns while legislating.
Issues that have broad bipartisan support, like raising the minimum wage and repairing our infrastructure, have gone unaddressed at the Capitol in part because lawmakers are wasting public time on getting reelected. For progress to be made, we need our lawmakers to focus all their energy on the work of the day, not performing for the cameras.
To get the gears of Washington turning again, we must stop turning congressional proceedings into a show. With less cameras, a more effective and bipartisan Congress would take center stage, ushering out an era of increasing performative vitriol.
Jackson McGough ’23 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.