Reporter's Notebook: Congress rings in holidays with one of its most stressful Decembers ever

Seth MacFarlane nailed it in the Christmastime episode of “Family Guy” nine years ago.

Stevie and Brian the dog headed to the North Pole during the holiday season on a nefarious quest to knock off ol’ St. Nick himself. The duo arrived, only to discover that Santa’s workshop was a dystopic tableau, populated with an exhausted team of overworked, crackhead elves and a bone-tired, cynical Santa Claus.

Christmas was exhausting everyone at the North Pole. Santa and his elves launched into song.

“Each bell would peal with a silvery zeal...

As the holiday was filling us...

But now instead, all we’re feeling is dread...

Because Christmastime is killing us!”

But, such wretched holiday dioramas aren’t confined to “Family Guy” or the North Pole.

Anyone who’s spent any time during the month of December on Capitol Hill knows exactly what we’re driving at here. The sheer, exponential volume of work and stress often in Congress each December saps away holiday cheer as lawmakers, staff and journalists toil around the clock.

December is the worst month on the Congressional calendar. The 12 days of Christmas are more like a month of pain in Congress.

“O Christmas tree. O Christmas tree. How faithful are thy branches?”

When it comes to December, you can bet that the legislative branch of government will be “faithful,” meeting in session right up until Christmas - if not toiling all the way through the holidays.

We’ve had some hall deckers around Congress at the holidays before. A Christmas Eve pre-dawn vote in the Senate to pass the first version of ObamaCare in 2009. Congress labored through the holidays in 2012 as the nation faced the “fiscal cliff” in 2012 and 2013. Vice President Biden came to the Capitol around 8:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve 2012 for negotiations. The Senate began voting just around 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2013, on the fiscal cliff measure, and the House voted that night. Last year, the government shut down just before Christmas and remained closed through the holidays. The sides were stymied in efforts to reach an accord to fund the government.

The House even impeached President Clinton on Dec. 19, 1998 – the Saturday before Christmas. And, perhaps appropriately, the first impeachment trial in U.S. history began in the Senate on Christmas Eve in 1797.

In other words, Congress has Christmas traditions to uphold when it comes to impeachment.

So, here we are with perhaps the most overwhelming slate of work facing Congress at the holidays in decades. The House began a “markup” session to prepare articles of impeachment at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The full House may debate the articles and vote to impeach President Trump sometime before the holiday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., even announced a deal on the new trade pact between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, known as USCMA – one hour after the House unveiled articles of impeachment.

The sheer juxtaposition of House Democrats announcing they would impeach the president – within an hour of announcing they were on the precipice of granting Trump the biggest, bipartisan policy victory of his presidency, was simply bizarre.

A somber Pelosi appeared at a 9 a.m. news conference to release the impeachment articles on Tuesday. By 10, Pelosi was all smiles as she strode to the lectern for a second news conference on USMCA.

“It’s like we’re dealing with whiplash here this morning,” said yours truly to the speaker. “Impeachment at 9. USMCA at 10.”

“The day is young!” exclaimed Pelosi, triggering a peal of laughter in the press gallery.

Finally, the sides still must work out an agreement to avoid a government shutdown by 11:59:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 20. Failure to do so could trigger yet another holiday season government shutdown.

“Sleigh bells ring! Are you listening?”

Frankly, no. Everyone has spent hours sequestered in various impeachment hearings and markups starting at dawn and running until nightfall – and some even beginning after nightfall. We’ve heard testimony about alleged quid pro quos, Gordon Sondland, the whistleblower and Jonathan Turley’s angry goldendoodle. And, the only thing Christmas-like in the hearing room is the temperature. It feels like the North Pole.

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose.”

The House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees conducted their hearings in room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building. It’s a cavernous facility, home to the House Ways and Means Committee. The room is historically the coldest room on Capitol Hill. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, referenced the extreme chill in the hearing room last week and complained to Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.

“This is the coldest hearing room in the world,” Collins exhorted during one hearing, also grousing about the lack of comfort of the chair.

Some reporters covering impeachment resembled “folks dressed up like Eskimos,” wrapped in wool blankets for the marathon hearings.

The House used 1100 Longworth as the actual chamber in the 1940s while workers renovated the real one across the street in the Capitol. 1100 Longworth has retained its status as a backup chamber to this day. The House has kept the room at a very cold temperature in case of a chemical or biological attack. Colder temperatures would restrict the aerosolization of particles in a terrorist attack.

So, here we are again on Capitol Hill, and Christmastime is killing us. And, the deadline to fund the government looms.

House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., noted there was “no progress” on funding the government as she headed to a meeting with Pelosi and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The same issue that triggered a government shutdown still hasn’t been resolved this year: funding for a border wall and the treatment of people in U.S. detention.

“We want to get as much dignity and protections for migrants as possible,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said as she headed into the conclave with Pelosi and Lowey.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., published the Senate calendar for 2020 last week. Anticipating a prospective impeachment trial, McConnell released an 11-month calendar. No, he didn’t leave January blank. He simply ripped January off the calendar as if it didn’t exist.

McConnell couldn’t predict what was ahead in the early days of 2020. So, McConnell didn’t even make a guess.

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McConnell may harbor serious reservations about January. But, everyone knows that December is the real black hole. Everyone faces prodigiously lengthy days ahead. Christmastime is killing us.

Perhaps McConnell is onto something with the 11-month calendar. An easy way to cure the December ills in Congress? Just delete the entire month from the calendar.