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Silver Bullet?

(Capitol Reflections, photo by John Constance)

Congress is broken. Politics is a vicious blood sport. There is no such thing as a moderate anymore.

Bipartisanship is dead.

There is no solution.

Wrong. While not easy, there are solutions.

Many of you have probably heard my theory of when it all went off the rails. I was there and witnessed a sea change that in my opinion largely contributed to the Washington division that we have today.

When it became vogue to run against Washington and Ronald Reagan famously told us that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem,” the trend gradually started.

Dana Milbank, Columnist for the Washington Post, in 2015 wrote.

It was a gradual and pernicious trend, cemented around the time of Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution of 1994: Lawmakers, worried that they would be perceived as out of touch with their districts, decided to leave their spouses and children at home and commute to Washington. The arrangement was supposed to keep them from going native and succumbing to Washington's backslapping ways.

Lawmakers' commuting obsession has essentially made theirs a Tuesday-to-Thursday job before they dash home or go off to raise money. It's no coincidence that in the time this trend has taken hold, much of what had previously existed in Washington disappeared: civility, budget discipline, big bipartisan legislation and just general competence. In place of this has come bickering, showdowns, shutdowns, and the endless targeting of each other for defeat in the next election.

In the 19th Century, sessions were short and the city was not a comfortable place to live. But when Congress went to a year round schedule, the trend of moving your family to Washington started and was the norm for close to 100 years. This from the newspaper Roll Call a few years ago:

The House historian’s office has among its documents a transcript of a 2007 interview with Cokie Roberts, journalist and [the late] daughter of late Democratic Reps. Hale and Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, who spent much of the late 1950s and early ’60s in D.C. “Everybody knew each other, and that is a huge change from now,” she said in the interview. “Because transportation was such that we were here, … members were not going home on weekends, … people played bridge. People did get to know each other. And there was that sense that after the sun goes down, we’re all friends. You’d see each other at church, you’d see each other at school events.”

When I first arrived in Washington in the early 1970’s congressmen and senators were still maintaining two residences after election. To fulfill residency requirements, they kept a house or an apartment back home, but moved their families to Washington, DC. Their lives were shared with their fellow lawmakers in the Capital City. They were neighbors, fellow parishioners, and parents of children going to the same schools and growing up together. Rather than spending their lives in airports and eating off the tray table in flight, they spent evenings and weekends at backyard barbeques and fundraising events in Washington and its environs. In short, they got to know each another as people.

Their work lives were partisan, but their social lives were totally bipartisan. I heard Senator Evan Bayh, who grew up in Washington DC with his parents Senator Birch Bayh and his mom, Marvella, once say that his parents would never have thought to have a party without inviting the Republican senators who lived in the neighborhood. Evan went to St. Alban’s School and enjoyed life-long relationships with the children of both Democratic and Republican Members of Congress.

While the announced reason for anchoring back home was fundraising, Newt Gingrich saw this as part of a larger package called not losing touch with the constituents and putting you in a better position to run “against Washington”. You couldn’t run against government if you lived in the city whose business was government.

But the real question was, at what cost?

I was there and I saw the change. Members moved in with each other (along party lines) and shared small apartments on Capitol Hill or moved sofa beds into their offices and showered in the House gym. As my boss and I sat down on a sofa one day in Congressman Jack Kingston’s office (R-GA), he proudly announced, “You know you fellas are sitting on my bed?”

As Dana Milbank said, business was compressed to a Tuesday to Thursday routine and members only saw each other in committee hearings, on the floor, or in one caucus luncheon per week. Spouses and children never met each other and barely knew each other's names. The few members who still moved to Washington were as isolated as if they had never moved at all.

Gradually the acrimony that was at the heart of the Gingrich revolution permeated Washington and any sense of bipartisanship went away. The trust and civility necessary for compromise disappeared. Politics became a blood sport.

Ironically, not only did trust disappear across the aisle, but members didn’t even really know their own party mates. I was shocked at a 2001 dinner we hosted at the National Archives to honor Senator’s Trent Lott and Tom Daschle who were the leaders in a 50-50 Senate at the time. Having shared a table with Senators and their wives at a similar event when Mark Hatfield retired in 1996, the contrast was dramatic. Senators from the same party were clearly introducing their spouses to each other, and table conversation included questions like, “Do you have children?” That would never have been imagined in decades past.

Senator Fritz Hollings (D-SC) retired in 2004 after 39 years in the US Senate. He was at an event at the Archives during his last week in office and I’ll never forget the conversation I had with him and his wife, “Peatsy.” She said, “I’m just so sad to be leaving, but we just don’t know anyone in Washington anymore. I feel like we are slipping out of town unnoticed.”

The Senator added in his deep sartorial voice, “This move away from Washington over the last 10 years has effected everything and don’t let anybody tell you any different. It’s mighty hard to call someone from the other party a son of a bitch on Tuesday when you sat next to him in church on Sunday.”

I will grant you that it is a long road back to the land of camaraderie, familiarity, and social tranquility. Many factors have interceded over the years to make any restoration of civility difficult to say the least, with campaign finance leading the list. Money continues to be the root of all political evil and the need to build enormous war chests burdens any reform efforts.

But I have several questions in that regard.

There was plenty of money in politics before Newt told everyone to move back home. If the playing field is level and everyone agrees to make Washington a governing residence, what difference does it make?

With the ability to connect electronically to an increasingly tech-savvy donor base, can members of congress maintain a Washington presence, a longer work week, and still stay in touch with the folks back home? Wouldn’t less time in airports and airplanes be an attractive incentive and drive some level of reform? Wouldn’t the restoration of family stability that has been lost in recent decades, be an attractive incentive to a return to Washington residency? Soccer, Little League, swim meets, PTA meetings don’t just happen on weekends. And dinners at home are a nice alternative to take-out or “fundraiser chicken”.

Since one man was largely responsible for a disruption of close to 100 years of tradition and custom, couldn’t one or more leaders turn the tide are recreate a governing community in Washington DC? Could a combination of tax incentives and leading by example be enough or are changes to campaign finance reform essential for a return to an equitable and sane system?

But then there is the matter of redistricting.

The creation of safer and safer congressional districts has extended the distances between the poles of ideology in the last 20 years. If your district is safe Republican, your only fear is having someone get to your “right” in a primary. If Democratic registration is dominant, your concern is that someone is going to be more progressive than you. It doesn’t take too many years to have these facts virtually wipe out moderates and drive the parties further and further apart.

The courts have tried to ride herd on these trends without much success. Radical solutions such as bipartisan redistricting commission, while logical, fly in the face of the maintenance of the status quo. State legislatures currently hold the power and have been similarly polarized in their own races. Compromise is a very difficult goal.

So, while the solutions are obvious to some of us who experienced a better past and can see the need for change, those changes are not going to be easy. I am heartened by the fact that members themselves are not happy with the status quo. As the travel trends of recent months have turned commercial air travel into a nightmare, I have thought about the members of congress who literally travel for a living. How bad do their lives have to become to force some leaders to step forward and demand change? How obvious do the solutions have to be to drive a new normal?

In the meantime, here are some danger signs to watch out for that could make this move from Washington permanent. Remote or virtual voting is one that I am the most fearful about. As the generation shifts and members of congress become younger and younger, the ability to do everything with your smart phone could become a siren song for remote voting. If we are relying on electronic security in commerce and banking; if we are willing to transfer thousands of dollars of our personal wealth online, how long will it take before a groundswell of support could get behind voting from back in the district?

Both 9-11 and the Anthrax attacks led the Congress to the brink of change in this regard. Alternatives to in-person assembly and voting were considered but rejected. While there is no clear prohibition to remote action in the Constitution, words like “assembly”, “meeting” and “convening” all seem to assume physical presence. The British Parliament allowed remote voting during the pandemic, but not many other governing bodies have followed suit.

If we ever did go that route, I fear that Washington DC and the US Capitol Building would look like a big vacant Blockbuster Video Store in a very short time. Members would drift even farther apart, and we’d never get back to face to face public policy and compromise. Hopefully originalist interpretation of the Constitution will continue to hold the line in this regard.

The other fear is the use of private aviation as the solution to the grind of the commute home. Currently House and Senate ethics guidelines are very restrictive when it comes to acceptance of a corporate “ride home” and there is a good deal of bureaucracy, forms, and approvals regarding the use of anything other than regularly scheduled commercial airline travel. Even when traveling the “friendly skies” the sources of funding for the ticket involve specific rules and regulations. As commercial aviation becomes more and more cumbersome, keep your eyes open for changes in law and regulation to ease the way for your members of congress. If we are going to ever “fix” the problems with cancelled flights, lost luggage, and skimpy in-flight service, it will require that our elected officials suffer along with us, until law or regulation provides relief.

So there you have it, a new goal that while not truly a silver bullet would be a game changer in my opinion. Wanted: a leader or two who can lead the way back to homegrown civility.


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