Does the U.S. Congress Need a Timeout?
Or, how members of Congress are like academics who are like... everyone else.
Today’s newsletter begins with a simple, undisputable premise: members of the United States Congress love, love to make fun of folks they think are not working hard enough.
Consider my primary place of employment: the ivory tower. For member of Congress, academia is just a place where college students are pampered to death. Representative Greg Murphy (R, North Carolina) recently stated, “There is a theme in some circles of higher education to pamper students rather than prepare them for the real world. Some colleges and universities have turned into coddle farms with safe spaces and trigger alerts.” Similarly, a few years ago Representative Dan Crenshaw (R, Texas) asserted, “The University is a place for students to grapple with new ideas and opinions, not be coddled.” Members of Congress do not feel any warmer about college professors and administrators.1 They believe anyone associated with an institution of higher education is a snowflake.
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To be fair, however, it would appear that some members of Congress have that snowflake feeling about, well, everyone:
The above video was not the only incident on Tuesday involving members of Congress behaving badly. One CNN anchor asked out loud, “What the hell is going on?! What is this?” Furthermore, several of the members of Congress behaving badly doubled down on their behavior in follow-up interviews.
In was in this context that I read with great interest Tuesday’s NBC News story about this less-than-sterling congressional behavior — and one senior Senator’s diagnosis of the problem:
Tensions erupted on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after a fistfight nearly broke out in a Senate hearing and a Republican congressman accused former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of assaulting him….
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seemed to react to both incidents on X. "Today is another example of why Congress shouldn’t be in session for 5 weeks straight. Weird things happen."
McConnell told reporters he hadn't heard about the incidents but said it is "very difficult to control the behavior of everybody who’s in the building. I don’t view that as my responsibility. That’s something that the Capitol Police have to deal with.” (emphases added)
Oh, wow. the members of Congress have been at work in the Capitol for five whole weeks?! My God, five straight weeks of work seems to be getting to them. Imagine having to study or teach for ten straight weeks — or even, God forbid, fourteen straight weeks!!
Now when I snarked about this on BlueSky, some folks pointed out, correctly, that members of Congress actually work pretty hard. They have to constantly dial for dollars in order to raise campaign contributions. They have to deal on a regular basis with colleagues who believe themselves to be either the world’s greatest debater or the future President of the United States. Plus, anyone familiar with Richard Fenno’s Home Style knows that members of Congress should be doing a lot of constituency work when they are in their home districts.
This is all true! Of course, this also describes the activities of any university administrator or professor. Constantly needing to raise money? Check. Taking care of stakeholders outside the classroom? Also check. Having obnoxious colleagues who believe themselves to be the smartest people in the room? Check, double-check, checkmate.
As much as I’d like to snark some more about congressional hypocrisy — and I do, I really, really do — what I actually think is going on in both Congress and the academy runs a bit deeper. Those institutions, like the rest of the country, remains traumatized.
My podcasting partner-in-crime Ana Marie Cox penned a New Republic cover story a few months ago about how the myriad shocks that have buffeted the United States over the past decade has left the entire country — including universities, including Congress — in a state of collective trauma. See if her description sounds familiar:
You do not have to expand the definition of a traumatic event into the grayer areas of everyday slights and microaggressions to find millions and millions of Americans who have met with increasing levels of trauma since the Trump era began and the pandemic twisted our culture even more tightly into dysfunction….
Collective trauma, [Kai Erikson] wrote, means “a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality.” Collective trauma happens in slow motion, “A form of shock all the same…. ‘I’ continue to exist, though damaged and maybe even permanently changed. ‘You’ continue to exist, though distant and hard to relate to. But ‘we’ no longer exist as a connected pair or as linked cells in a larger communal body.”
In other words, the defining characteristic of collective trauma—and what makes it almost impossible to self-diagnose—is that people who have been through it no longer believe in the integrity of their community. How does anyone see themselves as a traumatized collective if no one feels that they belong?
Congress, more than most institutions, bears significant responsibility for its dysfunction and disintegration. That does not mean that their dysfunction and disintegration are not real.
As Cox warned in TNR, “Our biggest problem is the people who need help and refuse to admit it.” Which means that in a weird way, Mitch McConnell is correct. Congress is a traumatized institution that is doing little to heal itself. Spending time back at home would probably be best for everyone concerned.
I just wish that they realized that they too are snowflakes. They are behaving badly and in partial denial about the cause of it. And every criticism they have levied against higher education applies with even greater force to their own institution.