Trouble under the Capitol dome
What’s wrong with Congress – and us
By Rick Holmes
Nov. 23, 2017
Washington, DC – The last time I was in Washington, the Capitol was wrapped in scaffolding, undergoing a $60 million restoration. The cast iron structure had been rusting away, and had to be fixed. Now the scaffolding is gone, the job is done, and the magnificent dome positively glistens in the afternoon sun.
Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing that has gotten better in our nation’s capital since my last visit. The rust under that gleaming dome may be gone, but the political rot has only gotten worse.
I watched from the gallery as the House debated the most significant change in the tax laws in 30 years. The ornate chamber was nearly empty as members took turns performing for the C-SPAN camera. The other members weren’t listening, since debates aren’t about persuading anyone of anything anymore. There were no fights over amendments to the bill, since GOP leaders weren’t allowing any amendments.
The tax bill is a big deal, but there were no activists packing the galleries, no marchers in the streets. Just the usual school groups and tourists moving through a small section of the public gallery. They stayed a few minutes, got bored, and moved on.
Nobody was listening, either inside or outside the chamber. Nobody was engaging with anyone from the other side.
The bill they were debating had been drafted in secret, with no public hearings and no Democratic input. It was being rushed through Congress because GOP leaders didn’t want to give the opposition time to get organized. It was urgent, everyone said, because if the Republicans don’t get something through Congress before the end of the year, their jobs could be in danger.
House Republicans gaveled through the bill, to no one’s surprise. Not a single Democrat voted for it.
Meanwhile, everyone was talking not about taxes, but about the wave of sexual misconduct accusations lodged against a sitting senator, Al Franken, and a candidate for Senate, Roy Moore. A discussion about how men should treat women might be healthy. But in Washington, it’s all about which side gains a partisan advantage from which scandal. It’s all about making our side win and the other guys lose.
That’s not how a great legislative body is supposed to operate. But the standards of behavior in Congress have changed over the last 20 years. Procedures written to respect minority viewpoints have are now routinely ignored. Customs and political incentives that used to encourage civility, compromise and problem-solving have disappeared.
Sen. John McCain, the end of his service in sight, reflected last month on his long friendship with Joe Biden: “We often argued – sometimes passionately. But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions. We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in. We believed in our mutual responsibility to help make the place work and to cooperate in finding solutions to our country’s problems.”
Congress isn’t like that these days, and neither is America.
American’s political divisions have grown, with extremism and distrust on the rise. Pollsters, historians and social scientists see this shift in a dozen different measures. A 2014 Pew Research study found that the percentage of people who believe the other party is “a threat to the well-being of the country” has more than doubled.
Politics is souring the relationships of people far from Congress. Back in 1960, 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans said they’d object if their child married across political lines. By 2010 those numbers had grown to 33 percent and 46 percent, respectively, and I bet they are higher now.
Congress isn’t the only pillar of democracy that’s crumbling. The presidency has become a center of conflict, not unity. Since George H.W. Bush, each president has been more detested than the last by those who didn’t vote for him. The Supreme Court has never been more political. Vote suppression and foreign interference have undermined confidence in elections. Political parties are a mess. The media is in disarray and disrepute. Religion has been tarnished by scandal and politics. Education, which used to be a unifying value, is constantly caught in the political crossfire.
Politics is even threatening Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays. An analysis of 10 million cell phone calls made last Thanksgiving found that “politically divided” families cut their holiday visits by an average of 20 to 30 minutes. How can we expect Congress to be civil and productive when some of us can barely make it though the main course without a fight?
America, I fear, is facing a crisis of citizenship, a moment when the respect and obligation that lubricate the democratic process have run out, and the machinery is grinding to a halt. Our people - and our leaders - are angry and frustrated with a corroded political system.
Bringing back Washington’s luster will be a lot harder than restoring the Capitol’s dome.