Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv: arm, arm, arm Ukraine

Congress does its imperial duty

Biden’s military aid package looks like passing at long last. However, America’s political system is one of almost permanent gridlock, says Daniel Lazare

After seemingly endless psycho-drama, it looks like the US Congress is finally doing its imperial duty by voting for military aid for Israel as well as Ukraine.

Any number of things could still go wrong, but ‘responsible’ voices are beginning to speak up. Michael McCaul, a far-right Texas Republican who heads the House foreign affairs committee, cited Saturday’s Iranian missile barrage as a reason to get serious in both military arenas: “What happened in Israel last night happens in Ukraine every night,” he warned on one of the Sunday morning TV chat shows that are a Washington staple. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican who heads the House intelligence committee, assured another programme that military aid will pass with “overwhelming support.”

“Ukraine is beginning to lose the ability to defend itself and the United States must step up and provide Ukraine the weapons that they need,” he said.

“Speaker says funds for Ukraine and Israel will finally get vote,” The New York Times announced a couple of days later. If so, far-right isolationists may finally be losing their grip. Amid reports that Ukraine is buckling under the weight of a five-to-one Russian artillery advantage, aid is back on solid ground. And where Israeli military assistance was on the back burner it is now moving to the fore.

Does all this mean that Congress is finally regaining its functions after decades of paralysis? Hardly. But it does raise questions about the meaning of legislative breakdown. All that talk about stagnation, impotence, and a far-right Freedom Caucus riding roughshod over Republican moderates - was it merely for show? Were complaints about mounting gridlock just empty bombast? If Congress can function now, why has it been helpless for so long?

Or should dysfunction be understood not as a condition so much as an instrument that certain forces utilise for their own advantage? The late Alexander Cockburn, scion of the famous journalistic clan, used to enjoy shocking ‘goo-goo’ liberals by arguing that gridlock was positive because it prevented the ultra-right from doing its worst:

We like it. No bold initiatives, like privatising social security or shoving through [state-funded school] vouchers. No ultra-rightwingers making it onto the Supreme Court ... These days gridlock is the best we can hope for.1

That was more than 20 years ago. With the ultra-right now solidly in control of the high court, it can safely be said that Cockburn’s judgment was more than a bit off. With its advantages never more than momentary, gridlock otherwise fuels reaction by undermining democracy and making a mockery of anything resembling progressive self-government. Conservatives use it to fuel frustration, discouragement and despair. The goal is to leave everyone so exhausted that they either wind up voting for Donald Trump, in the hope that he will at least do something, or stay home and lose themselves in TikTok.

This is the American crisis in a nutshell - one marked by paralysis, dysfunction and an accelerating drift to the right. It is both the result of a centuries-old constitution that is beyond reform and a syndrome that conservatives have helped induce. Mike Johnson, the latest Republican sucker to serve as speaker of the House, illustrates the process to the letter, as he struggles to shepherd Ukrainian and Israeli military aid through to completion.

Johnson, a 52-year-old lawyer from Shreveport, Louisiana, assumed the speakership after the Freedom Caucus - the 42-member ultra-right cabal headed by Georgia firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene - all but rode his predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, out on a rail.


McCarthy, who chose retirement rather than the humiliation of lingering on as an ordinary member, fell victim to a curious constitutional flaw. Just as the British constitution now separates the head of state from the head of government, which is to say the monarchy from the prime minister, it also separates the speakership from the chairmanship of parliament. Where the speaker once represented the House of Commons in general, the post has shrunk to little more than that of a neutral umpire, as real authority has flowed to the cabinet, chosen by the dominant party or coalition. But the functions remain combined in America, just as they were in the home country before the United States was born.

This is one of the more archaic provisions that America’s 18th century constitution has carried forward into the modern era. The arithmetic can be pretty daunting as a consequence. Thanks to the party’s razor-thin lead, a prospective speaker must win nearly unanimous support among his fellow Republicans in order to win a majority in the chamber as a whole. This is why every last Republican member voted for Johnson in October - not because he is dazzlingly popular, but because no Democrat would touch a neo-Confederate Christian fundamentalist with a 10-foot pole. Johnson thus squeaked through by a vote of 220 to 209.

With the Republican caucus continuing to shrink due to ongoing resignations, the party’s lead is now down to just five. That means that three Republican ‘no’ votes would be enough to topple Johnson from his throne.

“I believe that scripture, the Bible, is very clear: that God is the one who raises up those in authority,” Johnson told his fellow Republicans on taking office. “He raised up each of you. All of us.”

If so, Allah must be a fan of backroom deal-making, since the only way Johnson has been able to survive since then is by entering into side agreements with the Democrats. With Republicans split down the middle, he was only able to pass a budget a month after taking office because Dems agreed to vote for it as well. The same went for a bill allowing US intelligence agencies to conduct warrantless surveillance of certain electronic communications. Five Republicans balked, but enough Democrats came out in support last week to put it over the edge.

One of the most rightwing speakers in history has thus entered into a de facto centre-right coalition that dares not speak its name for fear that Greene and her fellow militants will declare holy war. If military aid passes, it will be because the same coalition continues to exercise control. Since the association is always in flux, Democratic votes will predominate in the case of Ukraine, while Republican votes will predominate in the case of Israel. But, either way, it looks like the centre will hold long enough for both aid packages to pass.


Hallelujah! Not only has the House been saved, but the empire has been too. But, rest assured, it will not last long. The reason is a little thing called reality. In Ukraine, this is the fact that a country of 33 million cannot hold out forever against a determined foe with more than four times as many people plus an economy that is more than 10 times as large.

Even if the White House’s $60 billion aid package makes it through, it will be no more than a stop-gap. To be sure, Joe Biden may be able to push through more such packages if he wins in November. But if he loses the writing is on the wall that aid will stop. That means that an economically straitened Kyiv will have no choice but to give up the Donbas and Crimea, while submitting to demilitarisation, political oversight and other aspects of ‘Finlandisation’. Fear and loathing will be palpable from the Baltics to Warsaw, Berlin and Paris - and especially to the Nato headquarters in Brussels.

Reality also applies to Israel. With the Gaza war turning into a long, hard slog, the Jewish state has every reason to extend the conflict to Iran. One is that it is easier to attack a country that is weaker and farther away than deal with a highly motivated enemy ensconced in an underground fortress just next door.

But another is that it will draw the US into the fray, since Iran remains public enemy number one in Washington as far as the Middle East is concerned. It is not merely that memories of the humiliating 1979-81 hostage crisis still linger. Rather, it is because control of the Persian Gulf - source of more than 50% of the world’s gas and oil - has been a top US priority since the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan in December 1979. Since Iran is the only force standing in the way of 100% US control, eliminating the Islamic republic remains a top priority. By luring America into a war with the Islamic Republic, Israel is therefore making an offer the US cannot refuse. Its aim is to strengthen an all-important alliance, while tamping down US criticism of its tactics in Gaza.

America is entering more and more deeply into a conflict with no end in sight - a recipe for disaster if ever there was one. Conceivably, democracy might offer a way out of the maze. If the House was freer and more open, it might launch itself into a fully-fledged debate before the problem gets even more out of hand. It could thrash out issues having to do with the Persian Gulf and Nato, it could try to figure out whether certain alliances hold more risk than reward, and it could begin the process of paring back responsibilities. This would be the rational thing to do, so far as imperialism allows. But the House is not a free assembly. With more than 125 committees and subcommittees at the last count, it is a collection of warring fiefdoms, in which policy is thrashed out not in the open, but in innumerable back rooms. The classic description is by Woodrow Wilson, who made his name as a political scientist before running for president in 1912:

Power is nowhere concentrated; it is rather deliberately and of set policy scattered amongst many small chiefs. It is divided up, as it were, into 47 seigniories, in each of which a standing committee is the court-baron and its chairman lord-proprietor. These petty barons - some of them not a little powerful, but none of them within the reach of the full powers of rule - may at will exercise almost despotic sway within their own shires, and may sometimes threaten to convulse even the realm itself.2

Gridlock is what happens when an ever-expanding number of petty baronies squeeze together so tightly that no-one can move. Instead of negotiating, they enter into trench warfare. Internationally, gridlock is what happens when side deals with Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan et al proliferate to the degree that no-one can keep track. Is the US a beneficiary of such alliances or a victim? Does it have a strategy in Ukraine or is it merely painting itself into a corner? What is the end-game in the Middle East, if any? Where a free assembly might try to make sense of it, Congress cannot even begin, because it is lost in confusion. Little more than an appendage of the executive branch, all it can do is stumble blindly over a cliff.

Conservatives have used gridlock to march Congress toward the right. They have mobilised it as a tool of de-democratisation. The resulting pettiness and confusion are what allow imperialism to march forward despite its dangers and contradictions. But, now that the ice is beginning to break, conditions may grow even worse. The only thing more dangerous than a deep freeze may be a thaw.

  1. www.counterpunch.org/2000/11/09/election-2000-the-best-of-all-possible-worlds.↩︎

  2. W Wilson Congressional government Boston 1885, p92.↩︎