Off the Cuff: June 2012
For some time now, I’ve been thinking about the mess the country is in and what a lousy job you’re doing in Washington. I know that doesn’t surprise you, because according to every poll, most of the country thinks less of you than at any time in the nation’s history. Recently, at a fund-raiser for Shore Medical Center, I heard Charles Gibson speak about the problems in Washington. The former ABC news anchor called all of you an absolute disgrace, and he ought to know. Mr. Gibson covered Washington for 20 years, and like all of us, he is fed up with the way you’re screwing up the country; in my view, none of you even gives a damn.
How can any of you expect to get us out of this mess if you’re only working two days a week most weeks out of the year, with summers off? That’s something Gibson pointed out—how it is now customary for you to jet into Washington on Tuesday afternoons and skip out on Thursday evenings.
When Gibson was covering Washington in the ’80s, he estimates that as many as three-quarters of you brought your families to the city and actually lived there. Recently, he sat in on a conference at Harvard designed to help incoming House members become acclimated. Gibson asked who was moving his family to Washington. To his chagrin, out of about 35 new House members, only one raised his hand.
You whine about how hard it is to get reelected. You say you must leave Washington to raise the enormous amount of money it now takes. Maybe I’d feel for you if you were really driven to serve your constituents, instead of slavishly following the mandates of your parties.
It’s really all about partisanship now. Both your parties separately hold a weekly caucus of senators and congressmen. “It’s like throwing red meat on the table,” Gibson told me, where you “whip each other into a frenzy” to push your extreme agendas. No wonder the polarization in both the House and the Senate, in Gibson’s view, hasn’t been this bad since Reconstruction.
A generation ago, Washington wasn’t like that. When former Democratic Senator Evan Bayh’s father Birch was a senator, he would have Republican Everett Dirksen and conservative Southern Democrats over to dinner. Evan Bayh told Gibson that during his recent 12 years as a senator, he never had dinner with a Republican senator.
That is no small thing. Former senator Tom Daschle told Gibson that the problems in Congress have “a lot more to do with chemistry than issues. If we don’t have chemistry, which only comes from a lot of interactive experience, it’s just not going to happen.”
Charles Gibson did not merely find fault, however; he has a list of remedies. One: You’ll convene starting on the first Monday of each month for all five days of the next three weeks. That’s right: You would actually be required to work 15 days a month. Two: You’ll get you a housing allowance to help you live there. (I realize that even though congressmen start at $174,000 a year, that doesn’t go very far in Washington.) Three: Let’s eliminate the center aisle dividing the parties; it’s a symbolic and practical barrier that needs to go.
Four—and maybe the most important one: Let’s build a Congressional bar where all of you can get together to have a few drinks. You never know—maybe you would actually find that you like each other, and then would hang around Washington to start solving some of our pressing problems.
Isn’t that what we sent you there to do?