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'Moron' faction of GOP is holding Congress hostage, say former Reps. Barbara Comstock and L.F. Payne

The United States Congress is broken.

So said L.F. Payne, a Virginia Democrat who represented Virginia’s 5th Congressional District in the House of Representatives from 1988 to 1997, during a special visit to Charlottesville Friday.

“In the last Congress, I think there were over 500 pieces of legislation that were passed,” Payne said, adding that’s on track with recent history. “This Congress by comparison, now three-fourths of the way through, has passed 69 pieces of legislation. So it is clearly by many measurements dysfunctional.”

Now serving as president of Former Members of Congress, or FMC, a bipartisan nonprofit group, part of Payne’s job is to help remedy that dysfunction. But it’s a tall order.

Since the 118th Congress convened in January 2023, it has struggled to pass even the most basic, bipartisan bills.

Payne attributed some of that to Republican leadership, and offered former Rep. Barbara Comstock to explain.

“An easy question,” the Republican, who represented Virginia’s 10th Congressional District from 2015 to 2019, joked.

“I think to have civility and to have things work, you have to have character,” she said. “Character counts and every once in a while, it only takes a few people. There’s not a majority of people with character in that Republican Congress right now, I can assure you.”

While the two never served in Congress together, today both are leaders at FMC. On Friday, they were both guests of honor at the Charlottesville Tom Tom Festival, billed as a celebration of “music, art and ideas.”

“It’s a party with a much broader civic mission. It’s rebuilding the fabric of a community,” founder and festival organizer Paul Beyer told The Daily Progress.

Payne and Comstock joined the festival roster for a panel discussion titled, “Bipartisan Solutions: How to Increase Dialogue and Compromise in the Congress.”

Led by William Antholis, director of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, the former House members analyzed the state of Congress and what could be done to improve it.

Comstock and Payne said they believe that there is bipartisan support on a number of issues, such as aid for a war-torn Ukraine, and that it’s been a minority of Republicans who have kept Congress from taking action. Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, Comstock said, is being “held hostage by a few people.”

She did not mince words about who those people are.

“Everyone has wanted somebody to kick these guys to the curb, these Freedom Caucus guys. The do-nothing caucus,” she said.

The Freedom Caucus is headed by Republican Rep. Bob Good, who represents Payne’s former congressional district, which includes Charlottesville and a large swath of surrounding Central Virginia. His caucus comprises some of the more bombastic figures in the House, who have used a slim Republican majority to their advantage, recognizing that their votes are likely needed for anything to pass.

Perhaps the most striking example was their engineering of former Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster. The move received significant criticism, as it brought the House to a standstill, unable to do anything until Republicans could agree on a new speaker. Some on the far right wanted to see the ultra-conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio take the role, but more centrist Republicans thwarted that attempt.

“Well those guys got death threats,” Comstock said.

Death threats are becoming part of the job for many in Congress, Comstock said.

She referenced former Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, perhaps the loudest Republican critic of former President Donald Trump, now a professor at UVa’s Center for Politics. Cheney’s anti-Trump position resulted in her losing her seat in a Republican primary.

“You get kicked out of the tribe, you get death threats. Liz still has to have police travel with her because she still gets death threats,” Comstock said. “It’s not just political danger and the threat of being primaried, but physical danger.”

Comstock said FMC has conducted studies that have found that threats against members of Congress have increased exponentially.

She and Payne said they believe that a functional government requires both parties to be interested in governance. But they said a faction of the Republican Party has made governance particularly difficult, as certain members are more focused on press over policy.

Comstock singled out Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom she called a “moron” and an “embarrassment.” She faulted the media for focusing on figures such as Greene instead of those who have a track record of policy-making.

“Then the next idiot knows, ‘Great, I’ll get coverage. I can raise money if I say something even more stupid than what Marjorie said.’ Unfortunately, that’s what’s rewarded in the press,” Comstock said.

She recommended that the press instead focus on Republicans such as Oklahoma Sen. Jim Lankford and Indiana Sen. Todd Young.

“These are people who are brave, smart, getting things done,” she said. “People like that don’t get enough attention, because what are they doing? Instead of being on TV all the time, he’s getting bills passed.”

Lankford worked for months on an immigration bill that would help resolve problems at the country’s southern border. It passed the Senate in a bipartisan vote and had support in the House until Trump intervened, asking Republicans to kill the bill.

“The speaker will not bring that bill up for a vote. That’s Exhibit A in terms of what could be happening, which would be really good for us as a country and really good for the American people, but it’s being held hostage by politics,” Payne said. “It’s not helpful for [Trump] and his campaign for these problems to be somewhat solved.”

Comstock and Payne cautioned that voters should not feel as though the dysfunction is out of their control, urging people to vote and stay involved.

“We the people are in charge, and when we the people express ourselves, Congress listens,” Payne said. “We all need to think about as citizens rewarding people who are doing a good job, who are moderate people working hard and doing what Congress is supposed to do.”


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