TIME language

Congress and Its Do-Nothing Code Words

Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation
Nothing doing—ever: House Speaker John Boehner, after meeting with his stalled caucus on border legislation Alex Wong; Getty Images

Conditional phrasing is the red flag of uselessness. Congress no longer talks about the things it "will" do; only the things it "would" or "could do"

Time was, reading news stories about NASA was a thrilling experience. What helped make it that way was something most people didn’t even consider: the verbs. Even before the hardware had been built and the people had been launched, the space agency knew where it was going. And so the press releases and the reporters’ stories were filled with promises that “the Gemini program will allow astronauts to walk in space,” and “the Apollo program will achieve the first lunar landing before 1970.” In early 1969, NASA even issued a “Neil Armstrong to Be First Man on Moon” press release.

As history notes, the Gemini and Apollo programs did just as they promised and Neil Armstrong was indeed the first man on the moon, and the only reason NASA didn’t get called on its hubris was because — as baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, the subject of TIME’s April 15, 1935 cover, famously put it — it ain’t bragging if you can do it.

But then the Apollo program ended, the manned space program started to drift, and slowly the declaratives gave way to the conditionals. So reports trickled out about a new spaceplane NASA was building that would take off and land like a jet, and the new Mars program the agency was planning that could have humans on the Red Planet by 2019, and the return-to-the-moon Constellation program that should be ready to go by 2020. But the space plane never flew and the Mars and Constellation missions were scrapped and, in its defense, NASA could at least say, well, we never lied to you.

Now, as NASA finally, slowly rebounds, an entire branch of government — Congress — has descended to the land of the conditionals. Increasingly, lawmaking in Washington has been reduced to little more than a pantomime, with both parties retreating to their bicameral would-sheds, cranking out a lot of doomed, never-gonna-happen bills — base-pleasing legislation that could or would do a lot of things, but never actually will.

Google the phrase “the bill would,” along with the words “House” and “Senate” and you get 59.8 million hits. That’s an admittedly imprecise way to go about things, not least because it gathers in a lot of similarly partisan behavior in state legislatures — though all that may indicate is that the celebrated laboratories of democracy have begin working with the same inert chemicals the federal legislature has.

Still, there are more than enough examples of Congress taking the lead—introducing a river of proposed legislation that would defund Obamacare (50 times), or reform the immigration system, or turn Medicare into a voucher program, or raise taxes on the 1%, or lower taxes on the 1%, or require background checks for gun purchases, or streamline the tax code, or raise the minimum wage, but that never actually will do any of those things. On Friday, the GOP majority in the House moved toward approving a bill that would at last address the unfolding border crisis, but only at the cost of deporting the 500,000 so-called Dreamers, people brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The move faces a certain death in the Senate or White House veto but allows the legislators to go home to campaign, claiming that at least they tried something. President Obama — who has proposed plenty of his own dead-on-arrival legislation — dismissed the bill as “the most extreme and unworkable versions of a bill that they already know is going nowhere.”

Showpiece legislation designed more to make a point than anything else is a part of every parliamentary body, and in the U.S. it has always been a bipartisan form of mischief — even if in the 112th and current 113th Congresses, the Republicans have been guiltier than the Dems. Both parties learned a powerful lesson in the uses of legislative vaporware 20 years ago, with the Republicans’ sweep of the House and Senate in the 1994 midterms.

The GOP surfed to power that year thanks in part to New Gingrich’s and Dick Armey’s celebrated Contract With America, an ingenious campaign gimmick that promised House action within 100 days of a Republican takeover on 10 bills dear to party stalwarts, including a balanced budget amendment, term limits, and capital-gains tax cuts. Every one of the proposals did come to a vote and cleared the House. And virtually none of them went anywhere — nor were they expected to, given a balky Senate and a Democratic president with a veto pen. But the strategy worked — at least insofar as shifting the balance of power in Washington — and that did not go unnoticed by strategists in either party.

Nobody at this point expects a return to the dew-kissed days of Ronnie and Tip and Lyndon and Everett, when politicians would maul one another for show, then quietly worked out deals for real. Even then, members of both parties would often take care to describe their bills humbly, hedging with the conditional would. But the will was usually implicit, because passing legislation was what they’d been sent to Washington to do.

That, however, no longer seems possible. The members of the current Congress are increasingly content to produce only hollow bills that benefit no one but themselves—and why not? It’s easy, it costs nothing, and it gets them re-elected. Voters — eventually — will catch wise and punish them for that behavior. History, surely, will pillory them for it — and on that last point, there is nothing conditional at all.

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