U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez mobbed by reporters
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, (D-N.J.), and his wife, Nadine Arslanian, leave Federal court in New York on Sept. 27, 2023, after pleading not guilty to bribery charges. Credit: Lev Radin / Shutterstock
Jonathan L. Wharton

In the last week or so, I have had countless inquiries about what’s going wrong with Congress. With the House Speaker showdown as well as Senators John Fetterman (D-PA), Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and US Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) episodes, I can’t keep track of so many of our lawmakers’ issues. Ultimately, they reflect our nation’s political problems.

Since I receive so many questions about Congress, one would assume it’s because I am a political scientist. But there’s more to it, as many know I was a congressional aide working for both sides of the aisle. There’s something indescribable about working directly with lawmakers and embracing so much history within the US Capitol complex. It’s an imposing and revered space. Few know that it’s a city within a city containing post offices, shops, and cafeterias as well as a maze of tunnels and subways. 

Yet friends remind me, as they did this week, that I worked for a dysfunctional institution. I can’t escape polls demonstrating our distaste for Congress with 80% to 85% disapproval ratings. Many of us favor our individual lawmakers but are disinterested in the Congress overall. 

I share Americans’ frustration with our legislative branch as I gave up on it nearly 20 years ago and turned to state and local politics instead. I am grateful to specialize in state and local government as well as reside and teach in New England.  

But one cannot avoid what is happening with our Congress as much as I try to avoid my former employer. January’s House Speaker vote was trying after four days and 15 takes, but the motion to vacate by US Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) was predictable. Gaetz gained the attention of Congress and the news media months before his procedural tactic. The most concerning maneuver will be how many candidates run for House Speaker.

With Feinstein’s passing last week, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has since announced her replacement. But it turns out to be union leader and political donor Laphonza Butler, instead of any one of numerous candidates running for the seat next year. One glaring political principle that Newsom and Gaetz appear to embrace is opportunism. Timing is everything in politics and they appear to be taking advantage of every opportunity to confront their respective political party’s enemies. 

One tri-state area senator who has longtime and notable enemies is Menendez. It’s no secret that he’s operated machine politics within the political machine of north New Jersey and federal investigators are indicting him again on corruption charges for accepting cash, gold bars, and a Mercedes-Benz as the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. As a former resident and constituent in his former House district, I was not surprised by the indictment. But the charges coming out a year before his re-election is timely since candidates are now announcing plans to run against both Menendez and his son, US Rep. Rob Menendez (D-NJ), who recently won his father’s previous congressional seat.

The oddest recent episodes in Congress have been Rep. Bowman pulling a fire alarm and using an emergency exit from his Cannon House Office Building so he could make – or prevent – a floor vote (I can’t make sense of that) as well as allowing Fetterman to wear athletic attire on the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) was successful in passing a dress code rule change – and suddenly changed it back for senators to wear business attire.

After a half dozen years working for Congress, I learned political oddities like attire requirements and pulling fire alarms gain more attention than they deserve and some politicians want the limelight like Gaetz and Menendez. Most importantly, we elected these officials to represent us, which demonstrates our political decision-making.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or any of the author's other employers.