Buried beneath the obvious and tragic dysfunction of the U.S. Congress and its ridiculous partisan tirades are some politicians who actually long to get something done but feel as trapped in our pathetic political system as do their alienated constituents, We the People.
I’ve been away for a month on the road. In addition to meaningful connections with family, colleagues, and numerous people I met along the way, my trip included a speech in New York on “Big Empathy”, America’s second Community Wisdom Council in Asheville NC, and the biannual conference of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation on the topic of “Democracy for the Next Generation” near Washington, DC. I’ll be writing about all these in the coming weeks.
But today my colleague Rick Ingrasci alerted me and others to a notable article from ESQUIRE magazine which I want to share right now, given the energies swirling in this mid-term US election season.
It is easy for citizens – including those of us revisioning democracy or promoting dialogue and deliberation – to be very critical of public officials running our government. Their dysfunctionality and the dysfunctionality of the systems in which they (and we!) are embedded are painfully obvious. What is not so obvious is how many of them are fed up with it, too.
This ESQUIRE article speaks to that. Journalist Mark Warren interviewed 90 members of Congress with remarkable results. The article details a number of unsurprising disagreements these representatives have about the behavior of some of their other-party colleagues. However, and more importantly, these politicians were passionate about the shared and devastating predicament within which most of them feel trapped. The fabric of their dilemma includes (a) the destructive influence of money in politics, both in terms of skewing the debate and in terms of the exhaustive time legislators must spend fundraising*, (b) gerrymandering one-party districts so they strongly favor the election of either incumbents or extremist fringe candidates, (c) conflict-hungry 24-hour news media that force their communications into partisan platitudes, (d) an almost enforced personal alienation from each other, and (e) the resulting near-impossibility of creative conversation and compromise, the traditional basis for successful legislative work which these legislators yearn for.
A startling number of such politicians truly want to get good work done and – feeling blocked by the way American politics and Congress have evolved – they try to engage in unauthorized back room conversations in various attempts to actually accomplish something. Their complexity as human beings – largely hidden by the intensely adversarial nature of our current political system – comes through vividly in the interviews.
As readers of my blog posts and mailings know, I think most existing political structures and cultures are fundamentally flawed and in need of major transformations including greater use of random selection, informed citizen deliberations, and systems thinking. Institutionalizing these will require a re-visioning of the roles of elected politicians. In the process, it will be vital that we not demonize who these public offiicals are in their current roles, and that we take into account how contextual and systemic dynamics shape how they (and we) show up in political activity. The article below can help us reorient our thinking along those lines.
Ultimately, our collective survival and thrival will require functional collaboration between We the People and those to whom we delegate some of our powers of collective self-governance.
PS: For those unfamiliar with government jargon, “cloture” (referred to in the article below) is a procedure for ending debate and taking a vote on a proposal. In the US Senate it is a way to end a filibuster.
* The anti-candidate Honest Gil Fulbright, with the creative sponsorship of Represent.US, has been hilariously trying to remind us of this problem for months. Check out his videos, e.g.,
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HELP, WE’RE IN A LIVING HELL AND DON’T KNOW HOW TO GET OUT
By Mark Warren
ESQUIRE, October 15, 2014
I spoke with ninety members of the House and Senate about what’s gone so wrong in Congress. Sometimes it got a little emotional.
“I didn’t get elected to Congress to not get things done—most people here want to get things done. I didn’t get elected to Congress to make meaningless speeches on C-SPAN and tell lies about people. I didn’t get elected to Congress to scare the hell out of the country and drive the sides further apart. I didn’t get elected to Congress because I love politics—I hate politics, to be perfectly honest, and if I didn’t before I got here, I do now… .”
The man is very angry, about the way his life is going, about Washington, about some things he has found himself saying that he wishes he could take back—he got carried away, total herd mentality, just so juvenile. People in public life should take stuff back more often, apologize more, and correct course more—now that would be making a real statement, maybe even be a breath of fresh air for the public. But he would just be screwing himself, he goes on, because those guys at Heritage Action or Club for Growth or Americans for Prosperity or some other goddamn group with an Orwellian name that thrives off of division and exists to create conflict might primary him, drop $3 million on his head, and he would be dead. And the way his district is drawn, you can’t ever be conservative enough. He could get up at one of his town halls and say that the president is a transvestite Muslim from Mars and get a standing ovation. He wants to do the right thing and make a public stand for greater decency and civility in public life. But he can’t. Oh, in his own quiet way he does. He has many friends who happen to be Democrats. “No matter what it seems, we don’t hate each other,” he says. “We are civil, we try to get to know each other, and most of us work hard to find areas of agreement, things that we can make progress on. People are stunned when I tell them that, because from the outside it just looks so bad.”
At the same time, it’s worse than he thought it would be before he was elected, the congressman says. He’s a Reagan Republican. Nobody drew more lines in the sand than Reagan, nobody was more of a partisan warrior, but Reagan didn’t believe insane things about the opposition, and there wasn’t this unconscionable amount of money in the system back then. “Bribery wasn’t legal yet,” he says.
His voice is gruff but surprisingly gentle. “I always believe things are going to get better,” he says. “Hey, look. It’s been worse. I mean, we are not caning each other on the House floor. That has been done.”
There is plenty of blame to go around, he says—the Democrats in the Senate, for instance, what a disaster—but there is only one guy this conservative Republican congressman does acknowledge enmity for by name, and it’s not Harry Reid or Barack Obama. “If you talk to Ted Cruz,” he says, “tell him to stay on his side of the Capitol. We have enough problems without that idiot coming over here and screwing things up.”
FOOLS ARE NOTHING NEW. There have always been fools, and rancorous factionalism, too. What is new in this part of history that we are living through is that we have been taken hostage by them and by the heroes of the Constitution and various other charlatans. But maybe earth and hell have finally been satisfied, and there is hope for common cause once again. From many members in both houses of Congress, I have heard bipartisan loathing for Senator Cruz of Texas. Hardly an era of good feeling, but it’s a start.
“No one here respects that guy,” Congressman Kurt Schrader of Oregon, a Democrat, tells me. “And yet he has this great following outside the building. And no one respects him in his own party in the Senate. It’s really a travesty, Mark. It’s really a travesty.”
Not long ago, animated by the public mood about Congress and its current historic ineptitude and extremism, we decided to talk to members of Congress, from both houses and both parties, to find out what their problem was. And they started talking, often at length and in surprisingly thoughtful ways, about their jobs. I ended up talking to ninety members—a third of the Senate, more than a tenth of the House. They have all been eager to talk, as if they wanted to get something off their chest. They represent the full ideological spectrum, and the full florid bouquet of American accents, and an almost astonishing variety of biography. There are women combat veterans and Hindus and members who take their oath of office with left hand on the Bhagavad Gita—and all of that is just one congresswoman, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. There are preachers and physicists and car salesmen and former All-Pro tackles and civil-rights heroes. There are hard ideologues and conciliators, partisan warriors and declared independents. Some are voluble, some are terse, some are jovial and defiant, some have just about had it and seem depressed. “That’s what happens when you don’t have meaningful work,” says a Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham.
But who really cares about the sad plight of members of Congress? “I had $42 million dropped into my 2012 race by outside groups—$42 million—a record that will likely be exceeded this year in North Carolina, now that the Supreme Court has become almost an arm of corporate America. I’m not whining about this,” says Sherrod Brown, Democratic senator from Ohio, “because nobody cares about the problems of people in our position. No whining on the yacht!”
Except, of course, that their dilemma is our disaster.
I had initially planned to ask for no more than ten minutes of their time, basically just to ask them why they were so bad at their job, but fairly quickly it became obvious that these were going to be richer and deeper conversations than I had bargained for. And along the way, something unexpected happened: I became less angry and more sympathetic to the thresher that all of these people find themselves caught in. They are not whining. They are crying for help. After only a few interviews, I stopped asking, “Why are you so bad at your job?” because it occurred to me that it was a cheap question, the kind of question that’s not interested in an answer, which is just the sort of cultural deformity that got us into this mess. It’s a terrible job, being in Congress in 2014.
“It’s become shirts versus skins far too often,” says Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. “A couple of years ago, I got invited to play basketball with the president, myself and nine other House members. And I was in the White House in the basement lacing up my shoes, and I got a call on my cell phone. Somehow somebody patched it through, and it was a woman from Arizona, a constituent, crying hysterically. ‘Don’t play basketball with that man!’ she said. It’s become terrible. It really has.”
WHY HAS IT BECOME SO TERRIBLE? Why, if so many members believe that things have gone so wrong, can’t they just fix it? There are reasons, they say, forces brought to bear that are beyond their control, and these symptoms of their current malaise are all related in a complex syndrome. In conversation after conversation, congressmen and congresswomen opened up and talked about each of these realities, regardless of party or ideology.
“You know, if I had a magic wand, one thing I would love to change—which you can’t do unless you’re king—is the redistricting process by which our boundaries are drawn,” says Republican Aaron Schock of Illinois. “Because what has happened over the decades is he who controls the mapmaking process, you know, creates hyperpartisan districts. And you get more and more members who come out here and say, ‘Gee, I know that I want to accomplish something on this issue. I want to take action on this issue, but the base of my district is so far to the right or to the left it makes it difficult for us to negotiate to the center.’ But whether you’re the most conservative member or you’re the most liberal member, if you have half a brain, you recognize you’re not going to get everything, and that any successful legislation requires the art of negotiation.”
“With the way we draw districts, with so few competitive districts, we’ve bifurcated ourselves as a civilization,” says Republican Scott Rigell of Virginia. “We get one ticket to the State of the Union, for the gallery, and my wife attends. And this year I came home from the speech, and she said, ‘Scott, I’m just struck by this, that the Republican side is just all white. And then you look over on the Democratic side, and—and it really doesn’t look like America, either, you know? It’s disproportionately represented the other way.’ ”
“The Democratic conference in the House looks like America,” says Democrat John Lewis of Georgia, who left his blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and now regularly takes bipartisan groups to civil-rights landmarks to educate his colleagues in nonviolent conflict-resolution techniques he learned during that period of national upheaval. “The country is changing,” Lewis says, “and change makes some people uncomfortable. But our congressional districts don’t reflect that change, and there are so few competitive districts remaining that people only fight for or speak up or speak out for the narrow base of people who reelect them.”
James Clyburn of South Carolina points out, “There are seven people who make up the House delegation from South Carolina. Seven. Of that seven, one’s a Democrat, and that’s me. Of that seven, one is black, and that’s me. Forty-four percent of the electorate is Democratic, yet we get one Democrat in Congress. Twenty-nine percent of the state is black, and yet we get one black in the House.”
“When you have these one-party districts, the only election is in the primary, and the winner of the primary will be the one who is closer to the views of the narrowest base,” says Angus King, Independent senator from Maine. “You can’t be moderate. Who votes in primaries? You have a 10 percent turnout in a primary election in Georgia, and Republicans are 30 percent of the population. So 10 percent of 30 percent—that’s 3 percent of the population voting to choose the nominee, and then if it’s a multiperson race, and the winner gets 35 percent, that’s one third of 3 percent—1 percent of the population chooses the nominee, who in a gerrymandered district will be the eventual member of Congress. That is bizarre, and it has completely polarized Congress. In the primary system that we have now, there is no upside for a Republican to be reasonable. I have a friend who is a very conservative senator, and he faced a primary this year, and I said, ‘Good Lord, man, what are they gonna charge you with?’ And he said: ‘Being reasonable.’ ”
“Our Venn diagram,” says Derek Kilmer, Democrat of Washington State, “is two circles, miles apart. Just after we got here, a group of us, Democrats and Republicans, were at a burger joint talking, and after about forty-five minutes, I said, ‘We have to be able to get our act together and figure some of these things out. And across the table, one of my colleagues said, ‘Derek, I like you, but you have to understand that I won my seat by defeating a Republican incumbent in my primary, and I campaigned against him for not being conservative enough. The first vote I cast when I got here was against John Boehner for Speaker, and I put out a press release that I had voted against him because he was too compromising. I like you, but I have zero interest in compromising with you or anybody else. My constituents didn’t send me here to work with you; they sent me here to stop you.’ I left there and called my wife and said, ‘Oh, my God!’ ”
“We’re seeing the political equivalent of segregation going on in the country,” says Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
AND AS EVER, THAT SEGREGATION makes it extraordinarily difficult to form trusting relationships that make working together possible. It incentivizes hyperpartisanship and punishes compromise. But all the same, the great majority of members interviewed said that the most rewarding work they ever did in Congress was in finding points of agreement with a congressman or senator from the other party, working to forge legislation that bridged the usual divides. “But nobody cares about that stuff,” says Republican congressman Morgan Griffith from Virginia. ” ‘News flash: People are getting along, compromising, doing their jobs like adults’ doesn’t have the sizzle of conflict that the media demands in order to hold your interest. I have good relationships with several Democrats, and last year Diana DeGette [Democrat of Colorado], Gene Green [Democrat of Texas], and I introduced an important compounding-pharmacy bill to help prevent disease outbreaks. It really matters. And gets very little attention.”
Conflict media. Many of them argued that because conflict is rewarded with attention, more actual conflict is fostered, which is then amplified by social media, which blasts powerful narratives at members around the clock—who cares if they’re true?—largely obscuring their meek attempts to actually get something done. All of that drives what most members think of as a perception gap between the way things are and the way they seem to be. The “twenty-four-hour news cycle” was mentioned by nearly every one of the members I interviewed as something that makes their lives hell and, more important, makes governing very hard. “It’s the coliseum,” says Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas. “And in the coliseum, people get hurt for sport.”
“By some measures I am the most liberal member of the House,” says Representative Donna Edwards, Democrat of Maryland. “I’m the ranking member on the Space Subcommittee of the Science Committee, and Steve Palazzo, a very conservative member from Mississippi, is the subcommittee chairman. We were reauthorizing NASA and the committee chairman just did his bill, and then there was a party-line vote and only the amendments that he wanted were accepted, and that was going to be it. But I called Steve and said, ‘Can we meet for coffee?’ We sat down and I said, ‘This is ridiculous that a bill reauthorizing NASA has to be like a party-line bill.’ And so the two of us just completely, you know, separate from our chairman, went back to the drawing board and started working on trying to resolve some of the issues that we had. We had no idea how it would work, but we were able to work through those, and then later in the process we involved the chairman and the ranking member. The four of us came up with a bill that we were able to move out of subcommittee, then out of committee, then it went to the floor, where I think we only had two Republicans who voted against it. That’s what should happen with every single piece of legislation that we do. When you remove the opportunities for members of Congress to work with their colleagues, then there’s no question that things are going to break down along purely partisan lines. So I just picked up the phone.”
“Working with members of the other party, on legislation that matters, is the way I keep my sanity,” says Erik Paulsen, Republican of Minnesota. “With Karen Bass [Democrat of California] and Louise Slaughter [Democrat of New York], we worked on sex-trafficking legislation that just went to the president’s desk.”
“The thing that allowed me to connect with Marco Rubio was a night in 2011 that the two of us are sitting there, in the back of the chamber,” says Delaware Democratic senator Chris Coons. “This was a night where it was just—it was just an awful argument.
“And he kinda looked at me and I looked at him, and I said, ‘I guess we’re here all night.’ And he says, ‘You know, this’ll all get better.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he says, ‘Well, after the election.’ I said, ‘Really. Really? You think it’s gonna change after the election?’ He goes, ‘Yeah!’ I said, ‘ ‘Cause somehow President Romney and you guys being in the majority is magically gonna change all this?’ I said, ‘We’re gonna do exactly to you what you’re doing to us. And we’re gonna hold you here as many nights as you’re holding us.’ And he looks at me and he’s like, ‘That’s depressing.’ I said, ‘No, it’s reality. We gotta learn to work together.’ And he looks at me and he says, ‘Have you ever even read Governor Romney’s economic plan?’ I said, ‘No. Have you read President Obama’s?’ He looks at me and says, ‘Does he even have one?’ I’m like, ‘Marco! You know, look, can we go downstairs?’ So we go down to the inner-sanctum thing where, you know, it’s only senators and you can have a drink—not that he had a drink—and I said, ‘Marco. Why don’t we try this? I’ll have my economic guy sit down with your economic guy, and let’s see what we can do. ‘Cause we ought to be able to agree on something.’ And both of us, our respective political handlers thought it was a terrible idea, you know, ‘What? That guy?‘ But we ended up finding five ideas that each of us were perfectly happy putting our names to and would be very good for the country. We came up with some silly acronym—something that spells AGREE—and introduced it.”
MAKING THOSE POLICY relationships harder still is the fact that most members of Congress just don’t know one another anymore. When Newt Gingrich rose to the speakership after the 1994 election, he urged his members to leave their families at home in their districts as a statement against Washington, thus shortening the congressional workweek, keeping people constantly running either to or from the airport, and preventing anybody from developing the relationships that make governing possible.
“I’m always running back and forth to the district,” says Gene Green, Democrat from Texas. “But since Helen moved up here—she retired from teaching in ’03—she’s gotten to know a number of wives. In fact, she helps lead a Bible study for congressional spouses every Wednesday. There’s only a couple of Democrats who attend. Helen jokes she goes to make sure they’re not praying against us. But there is a very conservative Republican from northern Mississippi named Alan Nunnelee. Helen came home from the prayer meeting one day not long ago and said that Alan’s wife says he has a tumor on the brain and had been told he needs to come to MD Anderson in Houston. And well, I didn’t know the guy, but I do a lot of work with MD Anderson, and here was this other human being, and he needed help quickly. And when he was in the hospital, Helen and I went out there two or three times to see him. Now, I have never voted like Alan, but in Washington we do not often enough look on each other as fellow human beings.”
“When I first came to the Senate, people in both parties went out of their way to have personal relationships,” says Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. “I remember being there for about a few months and Hubert Humphrey said, ‘Have you been to Moscow?’ ‘Well, no,’ I said. And he said, ‘I want you and Marcelle to come.’ And I didn’t have any money, I was flat broke, and I blurted out, ‘What do you suppose the airfare is to Moscow?’ And he said, ‘No, we’re gonna take Jerry’s plane.’ And I said, ‘Jerry who?’ And he said, ‘Jerry Ford. He’s the president. Don’t you read the papers?’ Humphrey led the delegation. His Republican counterpart, Hugh Scott, the Republican leader, came also. There were other senior and junior senators from both parties. I had just turned thirty-five, and I was with this group representing my country. And we would build relationships, talk about where our kids went to school, the vital business of daily life, which then enabled us to work together on the vital business of the United States. Those relationships don’t happen so much anymore.”
And any spare moment that in the past may have been used to build trust between the members of Congress is now spent begging for money, particularly since the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which permitted unlimited spending by corporations or associations in support of political candidates. And it’s not just “front line” members—those in tightly contested districts—who have to spend their allotment of hours per week at the call center, working donors. It’s everybody. Some members report having to spend thirty hours a week on fundraising alone.
“When you look at the cost of a House seat now—which is about $1.6 million or something—you’ve got to raise that money,” says Donna Edwards. “And particularly for our candidates and for incumbent members who are in these really tough districts. I mean they’ve got to raise double or triple that to win their seat. And they have to do it every two years. It’s a never-ending hustle. You get elected to this august body to fix problems, and for the privilege, you find yourself on the phone in a cubicle, dialing for dollars.”
And as if that weren’t bad enough …
“There’s an entire industry in Washington that makes money on conflict,” says Republican Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. “Some of these outside groups—you know, your Club for Growth types, and your Heritage Action, and your FreedomWorks—they go out and they fundraise by saying that Republicans aren’t sufficiently conservative. Or they pick an issue to go to war on because they can stir the base and raise money on it and pay their big salaries. And what that does in the long run is it takes what would be a solid Republican agenda and causes chaos. And they do the same thing on the Democrat side, you know? If Democrats want to reach out and work with Republicans, you have these groups that will stir the base and say, ‘If they’re working with Republicans, they’re capitulating.’ So there’s a very destructive cottage industry that exists on ‘Hey, we can raise nice salaries for ourselves by just raising people’s ire with Washington.’ ”
“As for the outside money: There’s a phalanx of extremists on the Republican side who, in a better world, would be a rump group who sensible people ignored as we went about the business of governing,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island. “And you’d be able to forge bipartisan coalitions on major issues, and the extremists would be relegated to hopping up and down in the back benches. That’s been a political phenomenon in parliaments and legislatures, you know, through history. But here, those extremists control or represent a great deal of money, an enormous amount of political threat that can be brought to bear against their own colleagues. That’s where the outside money comes in. If you’re just a plain conservative Republican and not an extreme Tea Partyite, you are very anxious about the combination of the Koch brothers producing a candidate who has untold millions of dollars in outside money coming in for him, in your primary, while the right-wing TV and radio echo chamber suddenly tees off on you, out of the clear blue sky. And then you’ve got Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter vilifying you. And the next thing you know, you’re all done. And it’s not the merits of their ideas, it is not the appeal of their personalities—it is the raw political weight of Citizens United money.”
On all of that—the crippling effects of the money, the empowered extremes, the outside pressures—there is general agreement among the scores of legislators I spoke to. But that is where agreement ends.
IN TALKING TO SO many members of Congress, you discover many things. You discover, for instance, that Congressman Cedric Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana, has an eighty-mile-an-hour fastball, and that last year he shut out the Republicans in the Congressional Baseball Game 22–0. This year at Nationals Park, Richmond showed mercy and beat them by only 15–6. “I was out of practice,” he says.
You also discover anguish and anger, a surprising candor, a deep degree of thoughtfulness, a great deal of humor. This comes as something of a surprise, given the dimmer lights who so often represent their institution on TV. You wonder if you might be peeling each member off the herd one at a time, the act of isolation itself shocking them into reasonableness, only to then have them return to the mania of their respective mobs.
You discover new terms at the heart of the conflict, like “messaging bills,” which the House has passed in the hundreds but are purely political documents, meant to satiate the base but worthless as policy and to the public; and “filling the tree,” which sounds poetic and bountiful but is instead toxic, as it refers to the prerogative of the majority leader in the Senate to fill up the “amendment tree,” thus preventing anybody else from offering amendments of any kind; and “regular order,” which everyone claims to want restored, but which no one can define.
You also discover the broad embarrassment and anger among members of both parties that the public might associate them with the antics of people like Senator Ted Cruz and Republican congressmen Louie Gohmert and Steve King—avatars of a conflict that is deep and real, but also agitators in favor of dysfunction. Member after member fumed to me about those who measure success in terms of how many things they can stop, how much disruption they can sow, how much ill will they can foster, and how that ill will, lapped up by an eager press, is self-perpetuating. “If you don’t want to legislate, maybe you shouldn’t run for the legislature,” says Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
You discover that the toxicity in the partisanship is owing to “the president” (Leonard Lance, R-New Jersey), “the president” (Mick Mulvaney, R-South Carolina), “the president” (Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee), and “You have to include the president’s race in the equation,” (Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan), “Some of it is race” (Gene Green, D-Texas), “We have an African-American president” (Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio). “I have come to this conclusion,” says Beatty, “because no one else can offer me another answer.”
And you discover that the underlying institutional conflicts rage on unceasingly.
“Ninety percent of the good days I have are good days because I have a good attitude, and 90 percent of the bad days I have are when I have a bad attitude. And right now, 100 percent of the Senate days, people have a bad attitude,” says Republican senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia. “And that is caused in large measure because of the nuclear option that Harry Reid exercised [changing Senate rules to allow simple-majority votes on judicial nominees and executive-branch appointments, and removing the opportunity for filibusters in those cases]. And also mischaracterization of things like the filibuster. To merely refuse to vote for cloture and protract debate does not mean you’re filibustering a nominee or an amendment or a legislation. That got repeated in the reporting to where everybody thought we were down there holding everybody up. We weren’t holding everybody up.”
“I feel like the rule change was the best thing for the country, and the best thing for the Senate, and it should have been done a long time ago,” says Tim Kaine, Democratic senator of Virginia. “The framers didn’t intend for approval of presidential nominees to be by a supermajority vote, or they would have put it in the Constitution, which they did for certain kinds of votes, like treaty ratifications. But the Senate rules were being abused to turn every nomination into a supermajority vote. A president was elected. That president should have the popular mandate to assemble a leadership team, but there was, really, the nullification of laws going on… . We don’t like the National Labor Relations Board, but we can’t muster the votes to destroy it, so let’s just not put people on it. We are worried about what filling judicial vacancies might mean—we got to fill up a lot of people, we don’t want the Democrats to be able to—but we can’t change the law about the number of judges on the D. C. Circuit, so we’ll just block every nominee. We have donors who hate the idea that the federal government is involved in the housing industry, but if we put in a bill to destroy the FHFA, or Fannie or Freddie, the real estate industry will say, You’re crazy! so we just won’t approve a new head of the FHFA. We were never wild about Medicaid and Medicare, so we won’t approve a CMS administrator for six and a half years! There was an effort by Republicans to destroy programs of government—that they could not defund or legally eliminate—by not approving appointees, in a way that was completely contrary to the law.”
“Republicans are not going to put up with it! We’re sick of it!” says Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. “The Senate has emasculated itself and put us at the whim of what is, in my view, a politically destructive president. Let me tell you, when the Republicans take back the Senate, the Democrats will need to be taught a lesson. They will regret changing the rules. Some more senior members already do. And then Harry fills the tree and doesn’t allow amendments? Because he doesn’t want his members to take difficult votes? That’s why we’re here, to take tough votes! And why doesn’t he bring up any of the more than 350 bills that have passed the House, most of which passed with bipartisan support? They’re all sitting on Harry Reid’s desk.”
“They can do 364 bills, they can do 3,640 bills, and it’s all just partisan sausage cranking,” says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island. “There’s good reason that we don’t waste our time picking all that stuff up. It hasn’t gone through the basic work of bipartisanship that is a requirement in the Senate.”
“That’s hogwash,” says Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz. “I had two bills pass unanimously. It’s hard to get more bipartisan than that! That’s just a smokescreen to keep the Senate from having to make votes. How do we fix this? Vote!”
“All those bills the House passed?” says Pete Gallego, Democrat of Texas. “Well, we’ve gotten pretty good at naming post offices.”
“I think Harry Reid is probably the worst thing that has ever happened to the institution of Congress,” says Idaho Republican Raúl Labrador.
“Every morning, John Boehner wakes up and he asks himself a question: Am I going to be Speaker of the Tea Party today, or am I going to be Speaker of the House of Representatives?” says Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. “If he’s going to be Speaker of the Tea Party, there’s going to be no chance for any kind of mainstream, bipartisan movement forward on almost any issue. If he’s going to be Speaker of the House, he can almost always put a majority together with a number of people from both parties, and get something done.”
“There isn’t a Democratic senator of long standing who was enthusiastic about the rule change. You can check your notes, and it is those senators who just got here who demanded it,” says Republican senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. “The Senate is injured severely, because once you decide to break the rules, then no rules have impact anymore. Those senators who have more experience understand that.”
“Harry Reid had no choice,” says Senator Stabenow, who has been in the Senate since 2001. “I voted to give President Bush his leadership team. The same respect has never been offered this president.”
“It’s simple. The president deserves to have his nominees voted on,” says Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, in the Senate since 1996.
“I had opposed the rules change in years past, but supported it this time because in all my time I had never seen anything like this obstruction,” says Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in the Senate since 1975.
“It’s pretty easy for us to put the blame on Harry Reid and say, Ya know, Harry fills the tree and doesn’t give us any amendments and by God, we’re gonna put all the blame on him!” says Republican senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. “But the fact of the matter is, too, that we have some folks who are bound and determined to come up with some wild and crazy amendments that are intended to be purely political amendments rather than doing the business we were sent here to do in a very serious way.”
“There was a meeting of the Democratic caucus,” says Senator King, the Independent from Maine, “and several members were saying, ‘Let’s just vote. Let’s allow the amendments, we’ll vote on them, and we’ll move on.’ And a member who is up for reelection in ’14 made a pretty powerful point. He said, ‘I don’t mind making hard votes, but not if the Republicans are going to turn around and filibuster the bill anyway, so it’s all for naught.’ And I thought that was a persuasive argument. If you’re gonna be forced to vote on one of these crazy gotcha amendments—Viagra for sex offenders or whatever—then there oughta be some purpose. If no Republicans are gonna vote for cloture and the bill’s not gonna pass anyway, then what’s the point?”
“Part of the reason that certain groups and the cable shows fixate on something like Benghazi is that we aren’t offering much else for them to talk about,” says Jeff Flake of Arizona. “When you go through regular order, you’ve got twelve appropriations bills to pass, each of which funds a different agency. There’s a lot to talk about. There’s a lot to fill the void that currently exists. And so I think if we get back to regular order, allow legislation to be debated on the floor, then we’ll fill the void that others will fill if we don’t.”
All these institutional grievances—changed rules, broken traditions, oppressive majorities, abused filibusters—have their current tap roots in the poisons of outside pressure and empowered extremism.
In response to that, you discover, all sorts of formal and informal groups are breaking out, in both houses, to try to make things better, because people are “sick of this shit,” as one senator told me. The Problem Solvers, the Future Caucus, the Civility Caucus, the Gang of 14, the Gang of 12, the Gang of 6. The twenty women in the Senate have a bipartisan dinner once a month to talk about what jerks the men are. And the members of the massive freshman class in the House—more than seventy first-term members—have resolved to maintain bipartisan class cohesion, hold social and policy events, and keep a conversation going, even when Mom and Dad are fighting. In a sign of faith that the dynamics can change, six members of the class, including Luke Messer of Indiana, the Republican class president, have moved their families to Washington.
As a group, the freshmen seem very serious about this effort to change things, although a couple of them tell me they are skeptical, indifferent, or consider it to be a waste of time.
“Well, you can’t just leave me hanging,” says Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a Democrat. “You have to tell me who!” And then she guesses. “Tom Cotton.” Cotton is running for the Senate in Arkansas and is known for his sharp elbows.
“No,” I say. “I actually just spoke to one of them, a Democrat.”
“Alan Grayson!” she says.
“How did you know?”
“Everybody knows,” Gabbard says. “It was either going to be Cotton or Grayson.”
Others agree. “When a Grayson amendment comes up on the floor,” says a Democratic member of the class, “I’ll ask colleagues what it’s about, and they’ll just say, ‘It’s Grayson. I’m voting against it.’ ”
“They’re assholes,” says another. “The Asshole Caucus.”
Grayson, an aggressively partisan Democrat from Florida, dismisses the freshman-class effort at comity as “window dressing. This class has gotten nothing done.”
By now, the conversations have taken on a therapeutic air. “What’s everybody saying?” members will ask. “What’s the verdict?”
And to properly answer that question, you discover that you have learned something about the laws of contradiction. Because with very few exceptions, everything the members of Congress have said—complaints, accusations, warnings, and critiques—is true. Which is not to say that everybody is equally to blame, because that’s an abdication of reasoning and just silly. It is, rather, to say that some truths obtain more than others, and some factors carry more weight. And the recurrent citing by members of those who come not to talk but to silence, not to compromise but to attack—whatever insult or injury they may feel—is damning.
And when you talk to this many members of Congress, you discover from many of them what can only be described as a yearning for humility and civility. “I have two lovely offices in the Capitol,” says Senator Leahy. “One is very ornate, and huge, with a large conference table, and I can bring senators there, with no staff, and we sit and talk. That’s where the immigration bill happened. My other office has a balcony overlooking the Mall. And there I’ll have Prayer Hour and Holy Water, as we call it. One senator was invited for Prayer Hour, and he said, ‘You know, I’m Jewish.’ And I said, ‘We’ve got twelve-year-old and single-malt holy water.’ And he said, ‘Oh! Well, that’s kosher. I can come.’ ”
Leahy has been in the U. S. Senate for forty years and is known by all to be an expert legislator and reliable negotiating partner. He names some of the giants—Democrats, Republicans—with whom he has served. Everett Dirksen. Mike Mansfield. Howard Baker. George Mitchell. Bob Dole. “Boy, in those days, you’d have never dreamed of giving your word and not keeping it,” he says, his voice trailing off. “Never dreamed …”
And with that, a final discovery: When you talk to so many members of Congress, you realize that those who are widely reviled can do much more damage than those who are widely respected can do good, and with half the effort.
Published in the November 2014 issue of ESQUIRE.