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  • In this on-the-record briefing, George Washington University Assistant Professor Casey Burgat helps demystify how the U.S. Congress operates today.  Prof. Burgat, who teaches in the university’s Graduate School of Political Management, is a former Congressional Research Service scholar, and is publishing a book in June 2022 on Congress.  


MODERATOR:  Good afternoon and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center for this virtual briefing on the U.S. Congress.  My name is Bill Martin, and I will be the moderator.  This is part of the Foreign Press Center’s “Understanding America” series.  Our distinguished briefer today is Dr. Casey Burgat, assistant professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.   

After we hear from Dr. Burgat, I will open the floor up for questions.  If you have a question, please go to the participant field in Zoom and click the raise hand icon.  You can also submit your question in the chat box.  If I call on you, please unmute yourself and pose your question.  We will be recording this briefing and will post the transcript and the video on our website at  Now please take a moment to check your Zoom profile to ensure you have your full name and the outlet you represent. 

And now it’s my pleasure to turn this program over to Dr. Burgat.  Casey. 

DR BURGAT:  Bill, thank you so much for having me today, and thank you all for taking time out of your Tuesday when a lot is going on in the world to join us today.  It’s my pleasure to talk with you today about our big, beautiful, dysfunctional Congress.  So Bill asked me to come talk to you about this, and when we were having our back and forth about what the actual topic should be rather than just Congress, the specifics, he said maybe common misperceptions or what you wish people knew about the United States Congress, and particularly for reporters covering this each and every day, how you might think about Congress, its members, its incentive structures, its processes, all of the things that go into whether legislation works or doesn’t, whether it gets a vote or doesn’t, or whether Congress, judged by the American people, is doing its job at all.  So hopefully we can start to demystify Congress and give you some sense of how the place works to better understand your role, because it is such a critical role as reporters of the American experiment. 

So with the topic of maybe misperceptions or misconceptions, I’m basing these opening remarks on what I wish every American, every citizen of the world knew about the United States Congress.  And I think that we should start here.  And it starts a little bit historical, because we get so often caught up in the day to day of Congress, covering it, and never thinking about is this how it’s supposed to work or is this how it was intended to work.  And so what I want to talk about are kind of four things that I hope you take away from this to better formulize how you question our lawmakers and their role within the United States Government. 

So maybe we should start with saying what is different about today’s era from previous eras.  I know it’s important to think about why members of Congress are doing it this way, why parties behave this way, but all of this is not on accident.  As frustrating as Congress is, as frustrating as members of Congress can be, what they do is in large part, in fact, almost exclusively in response to their incentive structure.  Where they stand depends on where they sit.  So what is different about this era from previous eras?  And there’s four things that I wish every American, every citizen of the world would understand about our Congress, and if they did, they would be so much – in such a better place at understanding how our politics works in Washington, or more accurately, how it doesn’t work in Washington, D.C. 

The first thing is that right now in – compared to previous eras – we have sorted voters.  What do I mean by sorted?  They’re sorted almost on every ideological, demographic, geographic line you can think of: education status, income status, race, ethnicity, gender, where they live.  All of these things in comparison to previous eras are sorted.  I can list five characteristics of a common voter, whether where they live, how much they make, what their education status is, and you could be able to tell me with a pretty certain degree of accuracy who they’re most likely to vote for.  Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but we can get very, very close to predicting people’s behavior politically and ideological stances based on a few commonalities or a few characteristics of who they are. 

Those sorted voters, because they vote and choose politicians across a two-party system, have led to aligned parties, right – so we have sorted voters at the voter level then making decisions to go to the party level when they choose who they want to cast their votes for.  And aligned parties means that a Republican in Maine and a Republican in California basically believe the same thing.  I can’t tell you how different that is compared to history, where a Democrat from Georgia had almost diametrically opposed beliefs as a Democrat from New York.  Right now it doesn’t really matter where their geography stems from.  If they have an R attached to their name, in general they believe about the same thing across a party platform, especially on the major issues – where they stand on climate change, or gun control, or the Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court nominations.  A Republican across the country means a Republican across the country. 

Not so long ago when Eisenhower was president, he said the quiet part out loud in saying that there aren’t – there isn’t one Republican Party of which he was the leader, there were 48 different Republican parties, because at that time there were only 48 states.  Now there’s just one party and – or one party for – two parties, and each voter is a member in general of those very, very stable parties.   

Sorted voters and aligned parties, which leads to a very, very big change and what is different – what you guys are all a contributor to – a nationalization of American politics.  This is the exacerbator of how we think about politics and how it affects the members that we choose to represent us in the halls of power.  The nationalization of politics means this, that when we think about politics, we don’t think about the local level.  We don’t think about our state representative.  We don’t even think about our governors, the executives that have, in honesty, the most impact on our day-to-day lives.   

Who do we think about?  Go look at the chyrons across all of our television screens.  You’re going to be thinking about the President.  You’re going to be thinking about the United States Senate.  We’re going to be maybe thinking about the United States House of Representatives, but it is that top tier, that upper echelon of politicians, that makes us think what politics is or makes us feel – or gives us our best indication of what we support or what we – we look to the very top rather than to the local.  And in a media environment when it is a constant 24-hour news cycle, that nationalization is really the fuel to the flame of how people feel about their politics.  Because we have sorted voters where all of these characteristics of voters line up with one party or another, it leads to aligned parties where it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what state you are, you basically believe similarly as co-partisans, other members of your party.  And then when you go to the nationalization of the American political system, all you really care about is what’s happening in Washington, D.C. without ever thinking about all of the decisions that impact your daily lives happening at the local level. 

And then the final thing, the actual fuel to the fire that is completely different than in previous eras – and I urge you to look back at the history of this because it is really different – is that we have insecure majorities in the United States Congress.  And by that, I mean is that in two years, we don’t know, we don’t have a large degree of certainty of who is going to hold majority status in the House of Representatives or in the United States Senate.  Each and every election, whether midterm or every four years with the President on the ballot, we are uncertain about who is going to take over majority status.  And as you all know covering Washington, D.C. and Congress in particular, majority status reigns supreme.  Without majority status, there’s very little you can do as the minority party, and with majority status, it is at least possible through agenda control, chairing committees, fundraising – it is at least possible to have a – to enact some modicum of your agenda. 

But the insecure majorities of this, the fact that we can’t predict who is going to hold majority status in the next election, let alone 10 years from now, really warps our incentive structure, and particularly members of Congress, into thinking about the next election.  That if we could just hold out, if we can refrain from letting the majority pass its agenda, therefore creating a level of achievement that they can run on – if we can stop that from happening or obstruct that from happening or delay that from happening, what that does is that you can create a message to your voters saying that majority doesn’t deserve majority status.  That if you just elect us, if you send enough of us to Washington and take over majority status, then we can enact our agenda.   

So it’s not your incentive structure in the minority party, and this is why we see so much purposeful, even rational obstruction by minority parties both Democrat and Republican, because they want to make the other side look incompetent.  They want to have a clear and distinct message for their voters that they are not getting the job done.  And we see this explicitly by members of Congress through their fundraising appeals, through their campaigns, and through messaging all over that the other side’s just not getting the job done.  Everything they promised you is not going to be enacted, and that’s why we don’t see Republicans in this instance lift a finger in any way to get Democratic agenda items done.   

That’s not to say that a lot doesn’t get done in Congress, because as you know, you see it happening, a lot does get done in Congress.  But when it does, it’s by huge, overwhelming bipartisan votes, right?  It’s not that just a few members cross party lines and then go vote with the majority to do it – when budgets pass, when nominations are secured outside of the Supreme Court.  Now, when other high-ticket agenda items or non-controversial agenda items are enacted, it’s because both parties have the votes to do it.  But on those high-salience, high-controversial, in-the-public-mindset agenda items – climate change, gun control, abortion, voting rights – even now infrastructure which historically has been a bipartisan ticket item is now seen as a partisan agenda item.  You know where Republicans sit, and you know where Democrats sit and there’s not a lot of overlap between them. 

But more importantly, on understanding how Congress works, there’s not an incentive to compromise.  Their voters, because they’re sorted, are not overlapping in very many states.  There’s simply not a lot of competitive states out there, and that’s at the Senate level.  When you look at the congressional level, the House of Representatives, less than 10 percent of House seats are competitive, meaning they’re within plus or minus 10 points – 10 percent – which means that the decision effectively in the vast majority, upwards of 90 percent of our – the U.S. House of Representatives, are assumed to be one party or another.  There’s not a reasonable path for the other party to swing that seat.   

That’s a very, very different era in partisan politics, which is why we’ve seen this exacerbation of political partisanship, which was why we’ve seen the rise of the use of the filibuster or just the assumption that the opposition party, the minority party, will do nothing to help the majority party get something done, even if it’s in the vast majority of people’s, Americans’ interests, or even if the vast majority of Americans agree with certain policy positions.  This is why we’ve seen in instance after instance where polling says 90 percent of the American people agree with and nothing still gets done. 

This is why it’s affecting what type of member we get in Washington, D.C.  Because there are not a ton of competitive elections, where the members are effectively elected is in the primary election, which means you have to – to upset someone, you have to go to the extremes to get those partisans to turn out to send you to the general election.  And when those folks win their primary, they win the general, and then they come to Washington, D.C. and self-exacerbate all of these trends that are not in our favor if we’re in favor of getting bipartisan legislation going.  But not only that.  All of these things, the sorted voters, the aligned parties, the nationalization of elections, and the insecure majorities that we face each and every two years, it affects how Congress works from the inside out.   

And two things I want people to know about how Congress works right now:  It affects the type of procedures that we use to get things done, which is why we’ve seen the filibuster trickle to the top of conversation now.  The filibuster in the United States Senate is one of the most effective means at slowing bills down that the majority wants to get done, okay?  And then the second thing is what’s different now, which we’ve seen in previous eras, is that we’ve had a centralization of political power in the United States Congress, meaning that party leaders – the Speaker of the House, the Senate majority leader and their counterparts are effectively negotiating on behalf of their entire membership, where there’s 435 members in the House but effectively high-salience issues – big, controversial pieces of legislation – are negotiated not within committees but within Senate – House and Senate majority leader offices.  And we’ve seen members of Congress say this, we’re waiting for the legislative text from Speaker Pelosi.  We’re waiting to see what House and Senate leaders negotiate on our behalf to know if we’re going to support it or not.  And that’s a very, very different way of legislating compared to the past.  It’s not unprecedented, but it has been exacerbated to the point where a lot of members, rank-and-file members that are elected by their 750,000 constituents from wherever they come from or within their states, they come to D.C. to centralize and effectively delegate their negotiating authority to party leaders.   

And where we’ve seen cracks in this mold is with Senator Manchin and the Build Back Better plan.  When he said – because there is exactly 50/50 senators in the Senate right now, the Democrats can’t afford to lose any of those votes, and instead of party leaders taking advantage and negotiating those bills, which they tried to do, Senator Manchin has effectively told members and his leadership that – what is acceptable or not.  And this is kind of exposing the fact that leaders are only as powerful as their members let them be.  It’s one of the biggest misconceptions about American politics, that we assume that Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have endless amounts of power to conduct their legislative agenda.  But as we’ve seen in this instance with the 50/50 Senate and Democrats’ struggles to get legislation passed out of the Senate and signed by President Biden – of whom he is a member of their party – they can’t get it done because they don’t have intra-party agreement on all of these high-ticket items.   

It’s been a very tough struggle for Democrats right now, but if they just had a one, two, or three more votes within that caucus, we’d see a lot more things get done through various procedures that the majority has taken over and developed to get something done in an era of insecure majorities. 

So I know that’s a ton of information thrown your way; I can only hope that there is a lot of questions, whether clarifying or not.  But I want to pass it back to Bill to moderate hopefully a fruitful discussion about how the United States Congress works, and I’ll do my best to answer honestly and effectively for you all.  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Casey, for those remarks.  I really appreciate your insights about the Congress.  Now I’d like to take this moment to remind those of you who have dialed in to this Zoom virtual briefing to please go to your – to the Zoom participants field and click the raise hand icon or put your question in the chat box. 

I see that – and while I’m waiting for your questions, I’d like to pose one question that we got in advance, from YLE Finnish Public News.  The question was:  “Considering the average age of a senator is fairly high, should there be an age limit over which serving in the Senate or the House should no longer be legal?  Say, 80 years, or 85 years?  Would that be unconstitutional?  Is this a debate that is being had at all?”  Casey, over to you. 

DR BURGAT:  Thank you for the question.  So when we talk about putting restrictions on who’s eligible to run and represent in Congress, we go to the Constitution for their rules.  And as you probably did, you look and all you see are minimums of age within the Constitution.  The House of Representatives, it’s 25 years of age; in the Senate, it’s 30 years of age.  But I think you are a little nice to say that senators [are] on the high side of our age range.  They are disproportionately and unrepresentatively elder when it comes to the general population.  But to institute a age limit on the United States senators would take a constitutional amendment, to change, to add on that stipulation.   

That’s not to say that states [don’t] have some ways around it, maybe within their primary rules or their state party rules.  But only then – if they put those in explicit language, they’re likely to face a court challenge, which will then go to the Constitution and see that there is no limit on age there, so you’d have to add that through a constitutional amendment.  It’s likely facing a court challenger.  But this is a debate that has been going on, and we see that with – mostly right now not with the Congress, but with judges, federal judges, should there be term limits on their service or should there be age limits, as we’ve seen justices reach into their 80s and sometimes into their low 90s.  It’s a conversation worth having, but it would be an uphill battle given our state of polarization right now to get that constitutional amendment adopted and ratified. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Casey.  Appreciate that.  Now I have – we have one question from Shinichi Akiyama of Mainichi News.  Shinichi, please unmute yourself, if you want to go ahead and pose a question.  I see it’s in the chat; I can actually go ahead and pose it for you. 

“How” – Shinichi asks – “How do you analyze the future of the filibuster?  There’s some exemptions that were made in recent years.” 

DR BURGAT:  This is the other big debate going on when we have a 50/50 Senate, and this is one that is unlikely to go away anytime soon.  So the first thing that comes to mind is that if the Democrats – given that we have a 50/50 vote right now – if the Democrats had all 50 senators willing to throw out the filibuster, get rid of it by rules change – and we can go into the complicated logistics of what that would entail, but if they had all 50 votes, which would mean that they had Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema from Arizona, they would throw it out; they would get rid of the filibuster to enact their agenda, particularly and led by that voting rights bill that they tried to convince Sinema and Manchin to get rid of it for, or to create a carveout exception, which leads to answer number two.   

We’re likely to see instances where the majority party doesn’t have enough votes, 60 votes to invoke cloture, but they do have at least 50, a simple majority, to pass a bill if it ever reaches the floor.  Right now, that voting rights bill did not have the voting – the numbers to get to the – to get passed, assuming that they needed to get through cloture. 

But when parties do, they’re likely to ask for carveouts, meaning for this bill only, we can get rid of the filibuster requirement, or the cloture requirement, or bills pertaining to – and then fill in the blank given the topic area there.  We’ve seen it done with lower court nominees in 2013, and we saw a carveout for Supreme Court justice nominees in – when Mitch McConnell took back over the Senate, with Neil Gorsuch, and then now we’re starting to talk about carveouts for voting rights legislation, stuff like that, very specific carveouts. 

In my opinion, those carveouts are likely to be slippery slopes, where if you institute one carveout, you’re going to open up the floodgates to what is then justifiable for another carveout.  But the underlying precondition of all this is that you have your party united behind this willingness to go around Senate custom, this filibuster rule, to basically ignore the rules of the Senate, or at least how they’re interpreted in the modern era, and then get something to the floor by unconventional means.  That’s an escalation.  And what we’ve seen with other parties is that they warn you. 

When you’re in the minority, you love the filibuster, right?  It prevents the majority from enacting their agenda unless they have 60 votes.  And in a modern era, it’s very hard for the majority party to get 60 senators.  Last time we saw it was Obama’s election in 2008.  It’s going to be – I can’t foresee an instance right now when either party gets 60 votes to invoke cloture on a partisan basis, meaning that for the foreseeable future we’re likely to need bipartisan buy-in to invoke cloture at all.   

So without carveouts, other options being floated right now absent of just getting rid of the filibuster entirely, is lowering the threshold from cloture.  It used to be 66 votes to invoke cloture in debate.  Then it was lessened down to 60.  Perhaps there’s an agreement to be had to lower it down to 55 or 53 or 54.  But again, that’s just tweaking the wheels when the real debate being had is:  Will the Senate have a filibuster going forward or not?  And when there is a party united in a bill where it’s worth it to enact on only a simple majority basis, like it was for Supreme Court nominees, like it might have been for voting rights legislation if they just had Senator Manchin and Sinema willing to do it.   

But the next time a majority that doesn’t have 60 votes is united enough to change the rules, my guess is that they will.  They’ll take that opportunity, eliminate the filibuster entirely, and then we’ll have the majoritarian institution of the Senate similar that we do to the House of Representatives.  

MODERATOR:  All right, Casey, thanks very much.  We have two questions.  I’ll start with Pearl Matibe from Swaziland News.  Pearl, please unmute yourself and pose your question.  

QUESTION:  Casey, thank you so much.  Really appreciate the time you’ve taken to explain this out.  I think maybe mine is a two-part question.  So let’s just say hypothetically that I am a junior member and I’m not in the majority party and that my constituents voted me in for a particular bill, issue that’s important to them.  Maybe I come from California, Silicon Valley, and their issue is – or maybe I’m from somewhere else and the issue is big tech, for example, could be anything.   

What would be the procedure then?  Here I want to have this – I’ve drafted this bill; I really want this thing to go through.  Do I approach the chairman of the committee?  Do I go to the leadership?  Like what is the best way a sincere congressman that’s arrived there, new – others have been there for decades possibly, they already know what the deal is – to get something passed?  What happens there?  Approach the chairman, or it goes over to the ranking side first?  Can you just kind of explain that out?  

And then on the issue you mentioned about Senator Manchin, does Senator Manchin have a point?  Like is what he is – the stance he is taking, the position he has taken and keep digging in, is it logical?  And is he justified with that – with his position?  I think we don’t – I don’t really understand whether that is justified or not.  Maybe there’s a reason for that, so maybe you can explain that.  Thanks.  

DR BURGAT:  All right.  Here we go.  This is about to get – ready to get fun now.  So to your first question about the well-intentioned lawmaker who happens to be a part of the minority party in the House of Representatives, first let me say there’s no worse job on Capitol Hill than being a minority party member, particularly a low-ranking minority – a new minority member, where no one owes you any favors.  It’s an unenviable position if you genuinely have policy interests, like you said, if you want to advance policy.   

So I might give you an unsatisfying answer, but the most common answer to that low-ranking minority member who has a genuine policy interest is to make his policy interest as least controversial as possible, to make it so that no one cares, to make it so that it can be hidden in a bill that is going to pass anyway, and so that it doesn’t kick up dust by the majority members, trying not to give that member a way, right, that he can go back to his constituents and say look what I got done for you. 

Now, if that member is representing a vulnerable seat, I can promise you that the majority party is going to see that vulnerable seat and not want to give him that win to have something to run on his next election, so that his primary – or that his general election opponent said look what he promised you and look how he failed to deliver on that promise.   

Now if that member has a – let’s say a low-salience issue that no one cares about, he has two routes.  One, get it in a vehicle that’s going to pass, whether as a rider to an appropriations bill or a defense bill, something that is going to get overwhelming bipartisan support.   

The other most commonly overlooked procedural route for bills – not all bills, but many bills – the vast majority bills pass the United States House of Representatives [is] by what’s called suspension of the rule.  And we can talk about – I can bore you to tears about what actually happens there, but what they do is they take bills that they know are going to get bipartisan support.  Most often people joke about it that these are post office naming bills, right?  They’re so low controversy that they just change the name of a post office somewhere no one’s ever been to.  But in fact, a lot of things can get done, millions of dollars, in fact billions of dollars, can get spent by suspension-of-the-rules votes.   

And what those do is they expedite the debate, and assuming that it can get two-thirds of the House of Representatives to sign on, again signaling that it’s bipartisan or at least not controversial enough to solicit any pushback, those things can get passed rather quickly.  And over two-thirds of the bills that pass the House of Representatives are these suspension-of-the-rules votes, which means most of the bills that pass the House aren’t done on a party-line basis.  They’re done on, by a definitionally, bipartisan basis.  

So if this member has a genuine policy interest, if he’s not able to hide it in something that’s going to pass, and if he can make it low controversy enough, he can add it – get it added to the suspension calendar that is decided by his majority party, his leadership.  Again, centralized powers.  So in this case, Kevin McCarthy is going to decide which part of his party’s bills will go on the suspension calendar.  And in the House historically, about one-third of the suspension votes go to minority members.  It’s a way to keep the process moving on this low-controversial stuff, so we don’t have to have endless debates on bills that are going to pass anyway.  It’s a way to keep the wheels turning.  So that’s my answer to number one. 

My answer to question number two is:  Does Manchin have a point regarding the filibuster?  And his is the traditional theory of what the filibuster is supposed to do.  Because it requires bipartisan support, assuming that no party will get 60 votes, it is supposed to force compromise, right?  That if you can get willing members in the middle to hear your voice, or you water down the legislation so it’s palatable to at least 60 members, you can get minority members to sign on.  The thinking there, the theory, is that if you just work together, if you can find common ground, you’ll get 60 votes. 

Here’s where the theory falls short, at least in modern politics, because of all the reasons that I already bored you with, is that you don’t have 10 members of the minority party, on either party right now, willing to go that far.  They would rather wait the two years.  They would rather hold out and take either their bill, which can then be acceptable to the majority party rather than the other way around – it’s either their bill or they’re not working with you at all.  It is very rare that we see upwards of 10.   

Right now it would have to be 10 Republican members ditching their party, convoluting the party messages that Democrats are ineffectual or that the Democratic agenda is not worth passing.  It would take 10 of them to break away with your party when it is very, very dangerous right now, politically speaking, to break with your party at all.  They’re more likely to solicit a primary challenger than they are to get credit for working with bipartisan legislators.  It’s a warped system that this incentive structure has created where it is more beneficial politically speaking – politically, not procedurally and definitely not legislatively – but politically it is easier to wait out those two years, hoping you get the majority back, and then you get to write the bill on your terms. 

So does he have a point?  In theory.  But in practice right now, it’s getting tougher and tougher to explain it that way.  We don’t see – in fact we haven’t seen, except for a very, very few instances – where we’ve seen 10 willing minority members to buck their party on a position that is high-salience, that is highly controversial, that voters are paying attention to.  They’re afraid of getting tagged as compromisers.  And instead of that being a reward or something, a badge of honor, right now compromisers are seen as the best way to get primaried and the best way to lose your seat.  It’s a warped system of legislating, to be sure. 

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for explaining that.  I really appreciated it. 

DR BURGAT:  Of course.   

MODERATOR:  All right, Casey, I have another question for you.  It’s talking a little bit about some of these same issues.  This is from Handelsblad [Bas Blokker], Netherlands:  “I was wondering how the Republican infighting between former President Trump and Republicans he calls RINOs factor into the great alignment you’ve talked about.  Isn’t that a development that could change the dynamic in Congress?” 

DR BURGAT:  Great question.  And this is something that all of us nerds here are watching very, very closely.  So another misconception that I didn’t want to bore you with earlier about D.C. is that though we know that parties are genuinely united, they’re mostly faking how united they are publicly, where if they go behind closed doors and they have these knock-down drag-outs about what is acceptable to their party, there’s huge, broad-ranging opinions within their caucus.  When they open those doors and they go in front of the public, they put on a united front, right?  It is good for voters to assume that Democrats across the board believe the same thing.   

But when you get to the nitty-gritty of details, when you start negotiating and putting things to legislative language, that’s where the details really start to matter and where you see fractures within their party.  This is what we’ve seen with the Build Back Better plan, where you would think that all Democrats, especially on a big-ticket item that President Biden said we have to pass, they couldn’t get 50, all the Democrats, to agree, and the bill failed.  That’s what happens when you don’t have the votes.   

But we’re likely to see or we have the possibility to see some sort of realignment within the GOP specifically right now, because President Trump is fracturing his party to pro-Trump Republicans and anti-Trump Republicans.  What remains to be seen is how far that fracture goes.  And what we’ve seen so far, evidence is suggesting that more people, rather than take on the more moderate side of the non-Trump wing, the more traditional George Bush conservative part of the Republican Party, those people are leaving.  They’re retiring or turning independent, or in small numbers, and with given how polarized we are, those small defections mean a great deal.  They can swift[ly] – in fact, we saw it between 2016 and 2020, right, those small defections of an anti-Trump vote swung the election for President Biden along with some other factors. 

What we don’t know is how much the Trump wing of the party is able to generate that same base to bring members of Congress with them.  But because we have such few – so few competitive elections, we’re likely to see the extremes of both parties, but particularly on the Republican side, those members be re-elected.  We’ve seen this take out because the – because we see which side the Republican Party is more willing to choose.  It’s the pro-Trump wing, particularly because he is likely or at least still a contender for the 2024 nomination.  I mean, he hasn’t gone anywhere yet, so they still feel like they need to adhere to him.   

And the fact that they just censured two members of their own party for being involved with the January 6th commission, they censured them, of their party, which is the clearest signal that you can get that they don’t stand for what it means to be a Republican in this era.  That’s not to say that it won’t swing back for the Romneys and the Collinses and the Murkowskis and the Kinzingers and the Cheneys to take back over, but right now the trends are suggesting that the Republican Party is going in broad swath with the pro-Trump wing of that party because they see that as their most likely avenue for electoral success.  They’re making the calculation that they can’t win without Trump, so they might as well be within that wing of the party.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, Casey, and I have another question, this time from Alex Raufoglu of Turan News, Azerbaijan.  Alex, please unmute yourself and pose your question. 

QUESTION:  Bill and Casey, thank you so very much for this opportunity.  I want to stay on that line, but my question is about foreign policy, if I may.  The U.S. Constitution gives the President considerable power over foreign policy, but we have also heard quite often during the previous administration that legislators sense that the administrations sometimes are not telling them the whole truth and that they are simply incapable of playing the constructive role in matters of foreign policy, such as when it comes to war and peace.  If you were to provide a playbook for Capitol Hill, particularly to newcomers – I see there are so many freshman foreign policy leaders there – how can Congress safeguard the U.S. role in the international order?   

And separately, not to drag you into a business of predictions, but there is a good chance that next January President Biden will face a new reality, the chamber of Congress controlled by the opposition party.  How, in your opinion, it will challenge the state of play on Capitol Hill?  Thank you so much.   

DR BURGAT:  Great questions, and I’ll be forthright in saying I’m not in the predictions game.  That’s the quickest way to look dumb and I’m not – I like looking not dumb, so let’s not do that. 

But to answer your question about Congress and foreign policy – and this is true across the board, by the way – that since FDR, Congress has willingly – whether they chose to explicitly or not, but willingly – delegated a lot of legislative authority to the Executive Branch.  This is when we’ve seen the growth of the Executive Branch, and the, probably the best example of that is within foreign affairs, right?  The growth of the contracting industry, the growth of the agencies related to maintaining our policy positions abroad, and especially with war, right?  Constitutionally only one branch of government has the power to declare war, and that’s the Legislative Branch, that’s Congress.   

The President is not supposed to declare war, yet we’ve seen him take over different designations that are war in all but name, right?  Peacekeeping missions or authorization of military force, things like this that effectively are war.  We’ve been at war since 2001, September 11th, in one form or another, and Congress is still trying to work out the votes to repeal that authorization of military force.  

So to answer your question of what can they do to regain some of that power that previous eras of Congress have delegated to the President, it all starts with the power of the purse.  They decide what money is spent and for what purpose.  If they want to play hardball – and let’s be honest about the politics of playing hardball with our troops – if they want to play hardball, they can start cutting funding or making it contingent on x, y, and z.  Congress literally can write the law that determines whether money is spent and on what purpose.  They can retract funds. 

And then second, if they don’t want to escalate it to that sense because that’s when elections are starting to get – you’re starting to get painted as not supporting the troops or against America or unpatriotic if you’re starting to play with funds, you can exercise your oversight prerogative.  You can hold hearings.  You can have public backs-and-forths with high-level government officials where you bring them in, question them about their mission.  You can get on-the-record statements that present to the American people the tradeoffs that are being associated with these types of actions.   

Right now, we haven’t seen a huge appetite for that, right?  When you’re in the majority party, which is who is the one that is going to be calling these hearings, and your president is of the same party, like we have right now, there’s not a political incentive to bring your president’s administration to bear to Congress to answer their questions, let alone starting cutting funding for a president that is of your same party.  We’re likely to see some of that should the chamber flip and the incentive structure changes where Republicans are then questioning a Biden administration about their foreign policy decisions.   

And we’ve seen Republicans say that they’re going to do this regarding the Afghanistan pullout.  They’re going to bring those Biden administration officials in front of a camera and make them answer questions about their tactics there, which leads to the second question, assuming that as prognosticators [we] are predicting that Republicans are going to take at least one chamber – more likely the House but potentially both the House and Senate – and then we have divided government again.   

And will this escalate the back and forth that we’ve grown accustomed to of just infighting across party lines?  And the answer is yeah, probably.  It’s likely to get worse before it’s going to get better.  There’s not a huge appetite for bipartisan compromise there.  There’s not a lot of policy positions where they overlap on what’s acceptable.  We might see some deals on traditionally bipartisan issue items or non-partisan issue items like prescription drugs or maybe criminal justice.   

But honestly, that would happen now, too.  There’s just always competing demand for the agenda.  There’s competing demand for the media spotlight.  And passing a bipartisan program when President Biden is then in his second term of his first term, potentially running for re-election, there’s not a lot of political incentives for these parties to get together and get something done, which means we’re likely to see an escalation of what we’ve seen before, particularly the end of the Trump administration and before that the end of the Obama administration, where it’s investigations and hearings and a lack of any high-salience, substantive policy advancement on behalf of the American people.  It’s just where we are if we’re being honest with ourselves.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you for that, Casey.  I have one – we have time for one last question, and we’ll take one from the chat.  This is from Alexis Buisson from the French daily newspaper La Croix.  And the question is:  “Where does the current redistricting process stand today in terms of balance of power, both parties?  There have been a few articles saying that Democrats are actually doing better than what was initially thought.” 

DR BURGAT:  Right, my reading is exactly what you said in that last sentence, that the last – the latest that we’ve seen from projected maps is that Democrats aren’t likely to lose as many seats as predicted because of the map drawing.   

But the interesting thing to think about redistricting is that the states most likely to have adopted an independent commission, the ones that are remove the politics, or at least as much as you possibly can from drawing congressional maps, are liberal states, right?  They’re the ones that want to get gerrymandering out of politics more than Republicans do.  Republicans want to solidify in general – there’s exceptions to every rule, but they want to solidify majority – Republican majority states.   

And so that’s why we’ve seen, of the states that adopt these commissions to remove gerrymandering, they’re the liberal states, which have led to the predictions that the ones that are still able to draw the state legislatures, or the commissions or the executives that are able to draw their district maps, are more likely to be Republican, thereby solidifying their gains.  But we’ve seen in articles from people way smarter than me that are starting to put these things to paper and do the math on these things that that expectation may not be true or may not be as bad as we think.   

I think we’re heading into the midterms, Democrats, if you gave them some truth serum, they would be honest in saying they face an uphill battle.  They were always likely to face an uphill battle of maintaining majority status in either chamber.  It’s 50-50 in the Senate, and within those up for re-election in the Senate they’re facing some very, very tough re-elects for members that represent states that went for President Trump.   

And then on the House side, the chamber more likely to have bigger swings in terms of representation, they were always likely to lose at least a few seats.  And given that the fact that they only have a few seats to give, that would mean that the Republicans are likely to take over.  And if I was a betting man, that’s where I would put my money, redistricting or not. 

MODERATOR:  All right.  Well, Casey, this ends our Q&A session.  I want to thank you very much for your insights about Congress, for taking the time to spend time with us.  I want to thank the members of the FPC, the journalists, for participating in today’s briefing.  This concludes our briefing.       

U.S. Department of State

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