The Vibe Shift on Capitol Hill

The events of the past two years have frayed relationships and shattered trust. Can Congress find a new normal?

U.S. Capitol Building outlined in red, white, and blue
Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty; The Atlantic

Bipartisanship still exists in Washington. At President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address last night, members of both parties stood to applaud the strength of Ukrainians, to cheer for getting kids back in school, and to celebrate funding the police. In February, Democrats and Republicans came together to pass bills reforming the post office and the way that workplaces handle sexual harassment. But all is not well on Capitol Hill.

Many lawmakers and staff say that something has shifted in the past two years—that the changes brought on by COVID-19 and the Capitol riot have frayed relationships and shattered trust between members, in some cases beyond repair. In light of this shift, members are doing their best to adjust and move forward. “I have to deal with them,” Representative Dan Kildee of Michigan told me of his colleagues who objected to the certification of the 2020 election. But “I look at them as smaller people now.”

Democrats sparred with Republicans constantly under President Donald Trump, and political polarization was on the rise well before then too. But the COVID-19 pandemic divided Congress in new ways. Business closures, mask mandates, and vaccine requirements sent politicians scrambling to their partisan corners. In the House, many Democrats sent their staff home to work remotely; Republicans mostly didn’t. Once they returned to the Hill, Democrats continued wearing masks in the hallways; many Republicans did not. It used to be difficult to tell whether the stranger who held the elevator door open was on your political team, and that uncertainty promoted a certain kind of cautious politeness. But mask wearing became a signifier of political affiliation and, to some, a symbol of concern for others. “If these people will put their own health at risk to own the libs, what else will they do?” Patrick Malone, the communications director for Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut, told me this week. “God forbid the Republicans take over the House.”

For two years, COVID-19 precautions in Congress also prevented lawmakers from having the kind of in-person interactions that good politics requires. Working together in the same place fostered cooperation, or at the very least, a veneer of civility, and gave members the opportunity for casual side conversations and negotiations. Very little of that has happened since 2020. “All of it pried us apart, and I hate that,” Representative Tom Rice, a Republican from South Carolina, told me. He and other Republicans have felt as though the COVID-19 restrictions in Congress ultimately did more to harm than help. Between members, “it’s gotten even more acrimonious,” Rice said.

The divisions brought on by the pandemic only deepened after January 6, 2021. Hill aides were watching along with the rest of America as Trump’s supporters tore through the building looking for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and calling for the execution of Vice President Mike Pence. Occasional shooting threats and bomb scares had rattled their work days before, but to see some of their colleagues trivialize the attack—and the Republican National Committee label it “legitimate political discourse”—felt unsettling in a brand-new way. “I’m sure the Germans have a word for it,” Malone, the Himes staffer, told me. “It’s a combination of disappointment, sadness, and terror.” A progressive aide, who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly, told me that last year she stopped hanging out with two friends who work for Republicans in Congress. “After the 6th, I was like, this is too dangerous,” she said. “I can’t get drunk with you and say something—I don’t know who you’re going to say it to.”

The wound of the January 6 attack has healed, but the scar tissue remains. Lawmakers must walk through metal detectors to vote in the House chamber. Ahead of last night’s State of the Union address, chain-link fences went up around the Capitol building, and police lined the corridors, checking ID badges. Members of the National Guard filed in four hours before Biden’s speech, carrying duffel bags of equipment. “A lot of us still feel unsafe,” Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar told me. “We have colleagues who walk around with their guns on them, and we’re still worried about who they might let in.” Republicans argue that, as with COVID, all the added restrictions only further erode trust. Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Republican from Texas, shook his head yesterday as he watched people go through the metal detector. “These kinds of things make this place a circus instead of a place where reasonable people can disagree,” he said.

The mask mandate in D.C. ended yesterday, and members of Congress walked the halls with their faces free. Soon, tours of the Capitol building will start again in earnest. Members see progress on the horizon. Last night, Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from Texas, watched the State of the Union from the House gallery, a place she hadn’t been since January 6 of last year. “We’ve seen both the best in people and the worst in people” in the past couple of years, she said. “We’re trying to find a new normal.” Kildee, the congressman from Michigan, couldn’t look at many of his Republican colleagues last year, let alone work with them on legislation. But he’s doing it now, because he has to. “We’re trying to find a way to get back to some degree of collegiality,” he said. “I’ve gotta do what I have to do to advance the interests of my constituents.”

Members of Congress have felt uncomfortable—or even in danger—at their workplace throughout the country’s history.  Earlier this month, when Democrat Joyce Beatty asked Republican Hal Rogers to put on his mask while riding the subway in the Capitol, Rogers poked her and replied, “Kiss my ass.” (He later apologized.) Over the summer, Republican Ted Yoho told Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that she was “disgusting” and “out of [her] freaking mind” on the steps of the Capitol building. The Tea Party movement fractured the Republican coalition and made lawmakers question when things had ever been so bad. (Although Representative Lauren Boebert’s shouted accusation at the State of the Union last night made Joe Wilson’s outburst in 2009 seem almost quaint.) Before that, House Speaker Newt Gingrich presided over a period of partisan conflict that, as my colleague McKay Coppins wrote, “poisoned America’s political culture and plunged Washington into permanent dysfunction.” Physical violence preceded rhetorical aggression: In 1856, an abolitionist senator was nearly caned to death on the House floor. The threat of violence was so high in the middle of the 1800s that most members of Congress were packing heat at work.

American democracy has so far weathered all storms, and lawmakers are optimistic that it will survive this one too. Members have figured out ways to work with one another because they must. Perhaps the most hopeful sign so far is the way that this country’s political leaders have responded to an attack on another democracy, half a world away. “It’s been a rough patch in American politics,” Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma told me. “But I don’t think there’s broad differences on doing everything we possibly can to help Ukraine.” A few hours before Biden’s speech, once the day’s votes were cast, members of both parties gathered on the marble steps outside the chamber for a photo. As the group assembled, a handful of lawmakers paused to fasten tiny blue-and-gold pins to each other’s lapels.