The devolution of Congress

I don’t think I’m alone in believing that members of Congress — as a species — have devolved instead of evolved. The Perpetual Political Conflict™ that has stymied improvements in government of, for, and by the people has become a loathsome barrier to resurrecting the American Dream for whose who have lost sight of it. Voters get that. Folks in the street get that. But Congress critters, as a herd of panicked horses wearing blinders, don’t.

As a journalist, I’ve known many politicians — as individuals — at all levels of government in my professional lifetime. I’ve liked many of them, too. My favorite, the late Silvio O. Conte, who served 17 terms in the House, was my Republican congressman when I lived and worked in Massachusetts. He’d drop into the newsroom unannounced, wearing his Red Sox cap and jacket, just, he always said, to visit. But he was a politician, and he had a reason for every word he uttered and every action he took. And he’d take my newsroom godfather, statehouse reporter Neil Perry, aside … and promptly give Neil The Conte View of The Political World. That benefited Neil — but it surely benefited Silvio, too.

Conte had a receptive soul and a large Italian heart. His constituents knew that. That’s why they elected him repeatedly. His House colleagues knew it, too. That’s why Conte was an effective legislator.

Conte was a politician who understood his job. He served his district, his state, and his nation. He did not do so solely because he sought power. He sought better government and benefits for those he represented. But he did not believe in partisanship for the sake of merely being maliciously obstinate.

Conte said he hated pork-barrel spending. In 1983, he wore a pig’s mask in a protest, denouncing it. But he was beloved in western Massachusetts because he did, in fact, bring home the bacon. He knew that a significant duty of a member of Congress was returning to his district as much of the tax money that the district sent to Washington as possible, if not more. It helped that he served on the House Appropriations Committee during all his terms in the House. Conte knew his colleagues well — because so many were his friends as well as peers. He could negotiate well to legislate well. And it helped that his frequent bridge partner was Massachusetts Rep. Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House.

Tip O’Neill as speaker of the House and Ronald Reagan as president could have been bitter ideological enemies. They surely gave no quarter as politicians. When Reagan set out his tax-cut plan O’Neill opposed it with uncommon ferocity, and Reagan fought for it, equally adamant. A few years ago, Gloria Borger wrote:

It was pure Tip. But Reagan hurled it right back at him, calling his statement “sheer demagoguery.” As John Farrell recounts in his superb biography, Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century, the speaker went to the press gallery to try to claim the high road, saying, “I would never accuse a president, whoever he was, of being a demagogue.” Farrell writes that the president phoned O’Neill the next day to call a truce. “Ronnie called him to clear the air, and Tip told him right then, ‘Old buddy, that’s politics — after 6 o’clock we can be friends; but before 6, it’s politics.‘” [emphasis added]

That, to me, is what’s so striking about the behavior of politicians today versus those of yesterday: They’re not friends after 6. As a reporter, I saw state and national politicians in social situations, actually enjoying each other’s company. I saw them drink beer and eat Fenway franks at Red Sox games and josh with the various mayors of Boston at Celtics’ games.

While fundraising for re-election was important, it was not the all-consuming passion it has become. K Street had not yet grown more important than members’ relationships with constituents and congressional peers. Members of Congress stayed in D.C. on many weekends. Families shared dinner and nights out. Members of Congress knew each other, liked (mostly) each other and, most importantly, trusted and respected each other. Because of that, they got stuff done.

Today, loathing oozes from the feigned cordiality of “my good friend, the gentleman from South Carolina” mouthed in the well of the House or Senate as one member refers to another.

It is a given these days, and few in power should deny it, that members of Congress spend more time raising money to remain members of Congress than doing their jobs as members of Congress. Because they rarely remain in Washington for weekends, they do not have the same social cohesion as those of yesteryear. Sure, they attend many events together, but those are almost always fundraisers. That’s not the same as knocking back a beer at a backyard barbeque, watching each other’s kids flop around in the pool.

Members of Congress are, as fictional president Andrew Shepherd said, “so busy keeping my job I forgot to do my job.”

That should change. But as long as members of Congress fail to forsake chasing re-election with such single-minded focus instead of learning to play well with each other, and consequently the rest of us, then they will not be doing the job we elected them to do.

If you think the passage of time — that these miscreants will wither and die or retire — will resolve the viciousness in Congress, think again.

They will eventually be replaced by the Instant Gratification Generation™ born with a smartphone in its collective mouth and a credit card for a soul. You ready for that?

photo credits:

Silvio Conte, Life magazine.
President Ford, Conte, Tip O’Neill, The Washington Post.
Conte, Life magazine.

7 replies »

  1. No hope here, either. I think any dynamic – from personal relationships to professional and back again – can reach a level of dysfunction where there’s simply no road back. I look at Congress kinda like I’m starting to look at the union itself – I don’t see a path to reconciliation.