Congressional Dysfunction: The Many Failures of the 118th Congress

By Naveen Wineland ’27
Managing Editor, Ike’s Anvil

Naveen Wineland ’27

On February 15, the House of Representatives went on vacation, a two-week recess until February 28. This recess occurred despite numerous pressing challenges requiring our legislature’s urgent attention. During this break, Avdiivka (one of the most critical “fortress cities” in Ukraine) fell to Russian advances due to a lack of American weaponry. Also during this recess, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants crossed the border due to a lack of adequate legislation from Congress. This is all occurring amid a looming government shutdown, especially since the recess left Congress almost no time to make a deal. A shutdown was narrowly averted with temporary funding through March 8, with 12 funding bills once again in limbo. This is only one manifestation of a House incapable of legislating since being sworn in on January 3, 2023. 

So why is our legislature so dysfunctional during a tremendous national crisis? The blame lies almost squarely on House Speaker Mike Johnson and extreme far-right members of the House. 

The 118th Congress (2023-2025) is, by some accounts, the least productive Congress in American history. Severe infighting has marked the current slim Republican majority in the House, where the far-right Freedom Caucus tanked longtime Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) speakership and installed the incredibly inexperienced and extremist-inclined Mike Johnson (R-LA). In 2023, the House only passed 27 bills. This is a historic low, even for a divided government. In 2013, Congress passed 72 bills with a similarly divided government. 

This contrasts with the remarkably productive 117th Congress (2021-2023) led by Democrats, which passed numerous mostly bipartisan landmark bills, like the American Rescue Plan, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the PACT Act, and the Respect for Marriage Act. This Congress is also credited with significant foreign policy achievements, like deterring China with the CHIPS and Science Act and providing considerable aid to Ukraine to protect it in the face of Russian invasion. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine aid under the 118th Congress has floundered under Mike Johnson’s obstructionism, even though the Senate passed a bipartisan deal (70-29) to provide $95 billion in foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, and the Indo-Pacific. The bill passed after Republicans refused to vote on Ukraine aid until Congress would “resolve the border crisis.” Republicans then spent four months negotiating a border deal, delaying crucial assistance to Ukraine, eventually killing their own deal. 

The issue stems with far-right Republicans within the Freedom Caucus holding the rest of the party hostage and impeding legislative action. Mike Johnson has no prior leadership experience and was selected as Speaker on a whim. He has promised numerous legislative objectives, like securing the border and funding Ukraine and Israel; yet he has delivered on almost none of them. Johnson is constrained by the even more extreme Freedom Caucus, which possesses the ability to challenge his speakership at any time they wish. Despite campaign rhetoric on “draining the swamp” and “getting things done,” they have proven themselves nothing more than obstructionists. 

We as a country cannot have a legislature with its hands tied behind its back. There needs to be a concerted effort to reduce extremism in the House and encourage bipartisanship, especially during times of national crisis. 

Efforts to counter far-right Republicans in primaries and down-ballot elections are crucial. Given the likelihood of Republican victories in solid-red districts, primaries represent the most effective avenue for change. However, challenges exist, with more extreme candidates outpacing moderates in fundraising and polling. Funding from moderate Republican interest groups is also vital. For example, the group “Republicans for Ukraine” has unveiled a new ad campaign targeting moderate Republicans to vote in favor of Ukraine aid. These methods not only counter extremism but also make the Republican Party more competitive in swing districts. 

There must be more efforts within the House to bypass extreme far-right members and the Speaker. The Senate worked across party lines and passed a major foreign aid bill; there is no reason that the House cannot do the same. Recently, a bipartisan group of two Republicans and one Democrat unveiled a slimmed-down foreign aid bill worth $66.3 billion that potentially has a higher chance of passing. This is an optimistic sign. Democrats are also floating measures to bypass Johnson. For example, a discharge petition would require a majority of the House (which would require Democrats and Republicans to work together) to force a bill onto the House floor. Bipartisan measures are necessary to break partisan gridlock and resolve crucial national security crises. 

The status quo of partisan gridlock in the House is unsustainable and damaging American security. It is time for Congress to incentivize moderate candidates, promote bipartisanship, and act decisively to counter national security threats. Combating extreme far-right politics in the House will allow our country to overcome partisan gridlock that has hindered legislation during the 118th Congress. It is time for change.