Rep. Norm Dicks’ (D –Wash.) retirement announcement today, along with Rules Chairman Rep. David Dreier (R -Calif.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R – ME) shocker earlier this week, is a symptom of a larger problem in Washington, and one of the main reasons that retirements are up this cycle: being in Congress just isn’t as fun as it used to be. By any measuring stick, fewer things are getting done in a timely and regular fashion and people, both inside and outside the Beltway, are getting fed up with it. As a result, smaller problems are piling up on any number of legislative issues and fewer people feel like they have made a difference. Just talk with any staffer or lobbyist who has been in D.C. for more than 20 years and ask if all the technology that we have now have allowed them to accomplish more.
According to many of those staff, one of the reasons for this is that the nature of the fight between the parties has changed. Now the goal isn’t to win and get your legislation passed, but to not allow the other side to win. When Carl Perkins ran the House Education and Labor Committee, his standing order was that unless it would hurt one of the Democrats on the Committee, let the Republicans have the issue. As a result the members were actually civil to each other. One former member often told the story of the first time he met Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. During a committee meeting, he said something that would be considered tame by today’s standards to a member across the aisle, but it got the freshman Dem summoned to the Speaker’s office. As he went to sit, Rayburn told him “I didn’t say you could sit down. I heard what happened in Committee and I’m going to tell you that we don’t speak to other members that way.” I can only imagine what Rayburn would have done if someone heckled President Truman during a State of the Union.
Part of the change in tone is due to a more “in your face” type news system that is constantly being broadcast. The dirty secret of 24/7 news is that really isn’t 24 hours of news being made every day, so anthills have to be turned into mountains for all the prime-time hours to be filled up. The rocketing influence of Twitter only ads to this phenomenon. One Senator a few years ago told me that it is Electronic Cigarettes “a lot easier to turn the other cheek when you are only hearing it once.” The changing format of the shows we get our news from has only exacerbated the problem, as Jon Stewart pointed out years ago. Since the news is constantly running campaign coverage because it draws eyeballs, the members, even if they are “safe” and not engaged in 24/7 fundraising, feel the sword of Damocles at all times. It is a lot harder to cut the guy across from you a break if you are only thinking about what will happen in November… 5 years from now.
Speaking of campaigns, increasingly gerrymandered districts are also having an increased impact. Dems controlled the House for more than 40 years with strangely constructed districts, yet most people would agree the debate was much more civil during much of that time. Additionally, the horrible apathy that voters have for the process gives the most partisan voters an outsized influence. That more people can name Brittany Spear’s ex-husbands than their own representatives is just an example of why both parties have to move further left or right. If only the wings of the parties are going to come out to vote in a primary, why care what the “average” person thinks?
Since the voters aren’t really watching (or rather doing anything about it), the checks and balances of the system have been thrown out of whack. These days neither party, despite the lip service they give, actually follows the rules. Between things like fired parliamentarians and former Majority Leaders saying that the “parliamentarian doesn’t run the [expletive deleted] floor, we do!” there is no longer a true referee for the game. Kind of gives the process an “inmates running the asylum”-type feel.
Sooner or later the pendulum will swing back to a system based on compromise, not extremes. At least no one these days is shooting or fist fighting anyone on the House or Senate floor (even if it has gotten close). Even when compromise was part of the M.O. of the day it still wasn’t as wonderful as the nostalgic, rosy-colored glasses “old timers” would have one believe. However, Members and staff, despite likely being able to make more in the private sector, signed up for the job to make a difference, and looking back on a career of only partisan fighting isn’t that appealing. No one wants to look back on a career and see they were a casualty of a system that won’t let anything happen.