Earlier this week, I reported on the toll last year’s deadly attack on the US Capitol — the worst since 1814 — is still taking on the thousands of nonpartisan civil servants who keep what is normally a city-within-a-city of 30,000 running each day.
I’ve worked as a reporter in Washington since 2008, and have spent countless days moving through the myriad corridors, tunnels, stairways, chambers and other spaces that make up the seat of the US legislature. Some of these, such as the House and Senate chambers familiar to C-Span viewers — or the Longworth House Office Building room where I sat for hours upon hours while providing The Independent with coverage of hearings leading to the first of former president Donald Trump’s two impeachments — are cavernous. Others, like some of the “hideaway” offices I’ve gotten pulled into for conversations with Senators in years past, can be small yet feel as if the walls are about to burst from all the history they’ve absorbed over the years.
What all those spaces have in common is the need for a massive, if often anonymous, support staff to truly bring them to life. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Capitol has remained closed to most visitors, these people have remained on the job because, simply put, the government would not function without them.
They were on the job one year ago today. Some, like the Capitol Police officers who’ve greeted me at the doors for years and kept me — and everyone else — safe from harm, saw friends and colleagues die on January 6, 2021, and in the days afterward.
One nonpartisan employee I spoke to told me that they and their colleagues are “still trying to process and understand what the hell that day was”. That sentiment was common enough among the myriad workers I conversed with during my reporting, many of whom insisted that our comments remain off the record because they simply do not want to incur the wrath of Congressional leadership by speaking out, even anonymously.
Yet these dedicated public servants, who show up to work each day and do their duty with the same zeal no matter which party controls Congress, nevertheless communicated something extremely important. Quite simply, they are sick and tired of a Congress populated by members — from both parties — who feel no obligation to follow the rules.
On both the House and Senate sides of the Capitol, for example, the floor staff and parliamentary employees who do the behind-the-scenes work to keep each chamber ready to be in session haven’t had time for a vacation since 2016. That’s because the dysfunction and distrust — between Republicans and Democrats, between the House and Senate, and between Congress and the president — has so degraded the US government’s ability to function that Congress can’t take a break for more than three days at a time. To be sure, members still go on weeks-long “district work periods” that frequently consist of more fundraisers than actual “district work,” but every 72 hours each chamber must convene for a “pro forma” session. A member or two will be in the chamber, the chaplain will say a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance will be read, and perhaps one of the clerks on the House or Senate dais will make an announcement of some import. But after a minute or two, the presiding officer will bang his or her gavel and put the chamber back into recess.
Until recently, the standard practice in Congress was for each “session” — the period beginning on January 3rd of each of the two years of a House term — to end sometime in October, November or December after that year’s work had been completed, with both chambers adjourning sine die, which literally means “without a day” to return. So, too, would Congress regularly take real, honest-to-God recess periods, during which they’d go back to their districts for a week or two, or, in the case of the annual August recess, a month or more.
But such recesses stopped as a regular practice after Democrats took control of the House and Senate in the 2006 midterm elections. They stopped in order to prevent then-President George W Bush from making recess appointments to Senate-confirmed positions.
The practice has continued to this day, regardless of which party has controlled the Senate or White House. Under provisions of the Constitution, neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other, which means the House and Senate have been forced into holding those pro forma sessions for years on end. As one House staffer put it to me, “it’s f**king exhausting and there’s no goddamned point to any of it”.
You see, when Congress does not adjourn, bills can be introduced on any given day, and the normal support processes that would take a break when Congress recesses or adjourns must continue. Even those two-minute House or Senate sessions require a whole coterie of support staff, from the sergeants-at-arms and doorkeepers who hold doors open or carry the House’s ceremonial mace, to the parliamentarians who process bills, the reading clerks who read messages on the House or Senate floor, or the Capitol police who must labour to keep the entire operation secure. “Even though, on the surface, the session may last three minutes, it could still create more than eight hours of work for certain people,” one staffer told me.
The inter-cameral distrust and dysfunction has even gotten in the way of what should be a solemn occasion — the speeches President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will deliver at a ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of an insurrection meant to keep them from taking office.
Such an occasion of state would normally take place in the Capitol rotunda, where presidents, Senators, Supreme Court justices and other notable Americans have lain in state since 1865, and where the two chambers have come together to commemorate occasions for decades. But Biden and Harris are set to appear in National Statuary Hall instead, the large room which was once the House of Representatives’ workspace. Though representatives from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office declined to offer a reason for Statuary Hall serving as the venue for today’s events, the setting itself explains why.
Setting aside the rotunda for use to mark the one-year anniversary of the January 6th insurrection requires a concurrent resolution authorizing it to pass both the House and Senate. Such a resolution would be subject to a Republican filibuster. And because most Senate Republicans are now firmly against commemorating anything relating to January 6th, it would have been a non-starter.
Distrust and dysfunction may be at an all-time high, but it’s not new. And there’s no sign of anything — even a national tragedy — that could fix it in the foreseeable future.