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Where’s Congress?

We’re in a national crisis. The House and Senate should get to work.
January 9, 2021
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UNITED STATES - JANUARY 7: Workers install more robust fencing along the east side of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday morning, January 7, 2021, following the riot at the Capitol the day before. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call / Getty)

On Wednesday at noon, two weeks to the hour before his term was scheduled to end, the president addressed a rally by the White House. He exhorted the crowd to “walk down to the Capitol”; he said “you have to show strength, and you have to be strong”; he said “we’re going to have to fight much harder.”

An hour later, the rally by the White House, egged on by the president, became a riot outside the Capitol.

An hour after that, the mob broke through the windows and doors of the Capitol, vandalizing and looting while smashing its way toward the House and Senate chambers. The legislative branch of the U.S. government was unable to function for a good part of a day. Scores of police were wounded in the halls of the Capitol. Five people died.

To its credit, Congress reconvened Wednesday evening and certified the election in the wee hours of Thursday morning. Over the next 36 hours or so, there was, as one would have expected, activity. The speaker of the House called on the vice president to invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment, asked for an article of impeachment to be prepared, and even spoke on the telephone with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the military chain of command. She then revealed, presumably with the chairman’s concurrence, that the two had spoken, so alarmed was she, and presumably he, about the instability of the president of the United States. Meanwhile, two cabinet secretaries and several senior White House staff resigned. And much more information emerged about the degree of organization in pro-Trump paramilitary circles that had taken place ahead of the march—and that was still in place prior to another planned march in a week’s time.

Much hubbub. Much activity. Much still to be done.

And then on Friday Congress went home.

At least the House of Representatives will return Monday. The Senate is out until January 19—a fact Mitch McConnell is not only not embarrassed about, but is waving around as an apparently unchangeable fact of nature that will excuse his colleagues from having to face up to a possible impeachment trial.

Impeachment is an important decision, with all kinds of historic and real-time consequences. Maybe the House should be in session every day to consider it as seriously as possible and to act on it, one way or the other, as quickly as possible. Maybe the Senate should be in town to prepare for a trial, if an article of impeachment comes over, and to take it up promptly.

But even leaving aside the question of impeachment, this is the Congress of the United States. The Article I branch of the Constitution. The people’s representatives. The Article II branch, the executive, is coming apart, with an unstable person still in charge. Might it not be a good idea for Congress to be on the job?

Yes, in part merely for symbolic reasons. But also to oversee, to regulate, to examine, even possibly to pass legislation relevant to what’s going on? Might committee hearings not be useful? If one discovered the president had called a state elections inspector and tried to pressure him to tinker with the results, might it not be useful to call him before a committee to testify? And to at least try to interrogate the White House chief of staff and all others involved?

But more important, perhaps, what about the Capitol itself? Is it secure? What training should members and staff be getting? What about the Capitol Police and other law enforcement bodies? Do they have the authorities and guidance they need? Should Congress itself not be involved in some of the decisions that have to be made prior to mobs potentially reappearing in a week—some of which decisions involve trade-offs of accessibility to citizens and security, for example? Do the authorities in state capitals, or elsewhere, have what they need?

Normally, to be sure, it’s the executive branch that works late, that plans, that prepares, with Congress chiming in a bit, and later reviewing what has been done and considering legislation. But for the next ten days we don’t have a fully functioning executive branch. And it was Congress that was attacked.

You’d think that these two reasons might have galvanized some leaders of Congress—that they would decide to keep Congress in session throughout, that they might work next week rather than be in recess, maybe even that they might work through the weekend. We are in a national crisis. You might think that the elected officials of the people might want to have some say about what’s being done.

If a business headquarters had been stormed mid-week, and there were threats of more such actions to come soon, and all kinds of decisions to be made, ranging from those affecting security to policy to public communications, all of senior management from the CEO on down would be at work through the weekend and the next week.

But, hey, it’s only the United States House of Representatives. Take the weekend off. It’s only the United States Senate. Take a week and a half off.

An assault on the Capitol? A constitutional crisis? A test for democratic government? Shh, keep it down. They’re napping. They’re at recess.

William Kristol

William Kristol is editor-at-large of The Bulwark.