How do you put a crowd of congressional interns to sleep? Gather them in the cool, quiet serenity of the Capitol’s Statuary Hall and have them sit for an hour while a parade of House members delivers more or less the same speech over and over and over again.
OK, technically, the audience at Thursday’s rollout of the fourth piece of Speaker Paul Ryan’s “A Better Way” agenda—this one on how Congress must reclaim its constitutional authority—did not actually doze off. But as the event ground on, many visibly zoned out or turned their attentions to texting or perusing Snapchat. At one point, the young woman next to me (one of a trio of interns from Representative Joe Wilson’s office) stopped bothering to glance up from her phone when it came time to applaud; she’d simply clap in the general direction of the podium, eyes glued to the screen balanced on her lap. After the event, I listened to a pack of interns laughing about how it wasn’t until Ryan took the podium in the closing five minutes that people had stopped dorking around on their phones and started paying attention and snapping photos.
To be fair, it was a crushingly dull affair. Congressional powers as delineated in Article One of the U.S. Constitution is not the most scintillating of topics. Compounding the challenge, many rank-and-file House members are not the most enthralling orators. This was particularly true Thursday, with way too many lawmakers on hand to sing the same basic notes: The Constitution rocks, unelected bureaucrats are bad, and executive overreach is ruining America. Only the examples of regulatory outrage varied, based on each speaker’s home district: Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania’s 12th denounced the burdens on coal plants; Doug Collins of Georgia’s 9th talked about poultry-farming regulations; Bradley Byrne of Alabama’s 1st bemoaned the tightening of red-snapper season; French Hill of Arkansas’s 2nd shredded the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Rule; and so on, for 15, 16, 17 speeches. As the logic goes in Congress: Why have just three or four lawmakers explain a proposal when a dozen or more will happily hold forth for the cameras? Which guarantees redundancy and tedium, but makes perfect sense when you consider that Ryan’s entire “A Better Way” project is a grand exercise in messaging that, in addition to positioning his conference as the party of ideas, is also meant to give individual members a chance to impress the voters back home with all the deep policy thinking they’ve done.