The 114th Congress: Playing Soft Ball, Hard Ball, Or Odd Ball?

These are trying times for concerned politicians and citizens alike. They are times in which the odd has become the ordinary. These are times in which the extreme has become the usual. These are times in which the virtual has become the real.
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On June 15, women members of the House and Senate played women from the Washington press corps in the 8th annual congressional softball game. On June 23, the Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate squared off against each other in a baseball game that has been contested with some regularity since it was inaugurated in 1909.

While the congressional women played softball on a bipartisan team and the congressional men played hardball on partisan teams, the game on Capitol Hill during this 114th Congress regardless of gender remains hard ball or odd ball.

There is no greater evidence of that than the Democratic sit in on the House floor to try to force a vote on gun control which ended hours after speaker Paul Ryan adjourned the House until July 5. Any way one looks at it at this point in time, partisanship remains a driving force and congressional compromise tends to be an oxymoron.

Nonetheless, things appear to be considerably better, in terms of legislative achievements, in the 114th Congress than in the 112th and 113th which were rated as the "worst ever" by some observers.

According to the Pew Research Center, during the first year of its term the 114th Congress passed a total of 113 public laws (26 ceremonial and 87 substantive) compared to 72 public laws (11 ceremonial and 61 substantive) in the 113th and 81 public laws (18 ceremonial and 63 substantive) in the 112th.

Important legislation passed during 2015 included: a major tax and spending bill that funds the federal government through 2016 and extends a number of tax breaks; the Every Student Succeeds Act which replaced No Child Left Behind as education law; and, a five year funding bill for roads, mass transit and other transportation programs. It might be said that these laws were passed against all odds.

That's the case because for much of 2015, the Freedom Caucus in the House was throwing odd ball after odd ball (think curves, sliders and change-ups) to try to slow down or block any meaningful legislation and to assert their own demands for a much more conservative agenda. These demands were expressed as matters of principle (e.g., reduce the deficit, cut taxes and government spending for social programs).

In truth, the ultimate goal of the Caucus was and still is not to stop or pass a piece of legislation but to grab the reins of power within their own party and to use them to subjugate those who disagree and to alter the course of the country. The enormous influence of the Freedom Caucus can be seen in the "far right" positions espoused by the majority of candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president in this election cycle.

Ryan Lizza provides an excellent analysis of how the Freedom Caucus pushed its leadership and Congress to the right in a New Yorker article written in December of 2015. David Brooks concludes an opinion piece for The New York Times written in October of 2015 titled, "The Republican's Incompetence Caucus" by stating, "It took a thousand small betrayals of conservatism to get to the dysfunction we see all around."

The question becomes how did the 114th Congress manage to produce the results that it did given this dysfunction? On the one hand, some credit should be given to outgoing Speaker, John Boehner who managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat to get a budget passed with a bipartisan majority comprised of 187 Democrats and 79 Republicans as his final act as the leader of the House. On the other hand, most credit must be given to incoming Speaker Paul Ryan who used his new leadership clout to advance policy making as opposed to position taking.

Indeed, in February 2016, Speaker Ryan went before Heritage Action, a tea party allied group, and said it was time for conservatives to quit fighting among themselves and to win by engaging in an "ideas contest" as opposed to a "personality contest." Ryan explained this could be accomplished by putting forward a "bold, pro-growth agenda that will get America back on track - and then take our agenda to the people."

Near the end of his address to Heritage Action, Ryan asserted:

So, we need to be inspirational. We need to be inclusive. We need to show our principles and policies are universal and how they apply to everybody. We know that the economy is weak. We know that the world is on fire. We know that the future is uncertain. There's a lot of frustration and anger out there. And, is it justified? It sure is.

But we should not follow the Democrats and play identity politics. Let's talk to people in ways that unite us and that are unique to America's founding. That's what I think people are hungry for.

That was then. This is now. There have been four months of ugliness in the Republican presidential primaries and Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president.

His campaign and all that he represents is the exact antithesis to Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House for the 114th Congress. Yet, for the time being, he and Ryan have become the oddest of odd couples.

Ryan was hungry to play hard ball and to engage in politics and policy-making for a purpose. He continues to advance components of a conservative agenda in significant areas such as poverty and health care.

For the moment, however, he and the members of Congress are trapped and will be forced to play odd ball -- at least until the November 8 Election Day -- with little purpose other than to try to win.

These are trying times for concerned politicians and citizens alike. They are times in which the odd has become the ordinary. These are times in which the extreme has become the usual. These are times in which the virtual has become the real.

In 2003, Warren Zevon wrote a song titled Disorder in the House which contains the following lyrics:

It's the home of the brave and the land of the free
Where the less you know the better off you'll be

In 2016, the upcoming elections will determine whether "knowing less" is the sentence to be provided to the remainder of the 114th Congress and whether Disorder in the House is to become a permanent condition and the game to be played in the halls of Congress going forward will be odd ball.

If it is, God save this democratic republic.

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