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March 1, 2007

Why not get to know your government?

[img_assist|nid=4037|title=The U.S. Capitol at night|desc=is an impressive sight/like a beacon on the hill/telling us what’s right.|link=|align=left|width=133|height=200]Several years ago, when I was just on the leading edge of puberty, as a matter of fact, our family took a famous vacation to Washington, D.C. I had a fine new pair of suede Chuck Taylors — navy blue with two stripes and a star. Washington, you may recall, is a walking city. Bad situation.On that trip I also experienced firsthand the heartbreaking realization that the world’s not so nice — someone broke into our big blue Pontiac Bonneville and stole my cool little G.E. console tape player. That was shocking.The kicker, though, is where we stayed: the Watergate. That came about quite by accident, after the Howard Johnson’s across the street was overbooked. HoJo paid the difference to put us up at the soon-to-be-infamous hotel/office building. This was the summer of 1972. It was June. We could’ve been there when the second and most famous break-in occurred.This all came to mind a couple weeks ago when I traveled to D.C. with LEO staff writer Stephen George to shadow Kentucky’s newest Congressman, John Yarmuth. It’s a great city, full of impressive buildings and purposeful people. A friend who lives in Alexandria, Va., says it’s a “city without a soul.” I guess we knew that, but we can always hope.So, what did I learn?You can’t drink the tap water in the restrooms of the House and Senate office buildings that connect to the Capitol. At least that’s what the signs say. That struck me as odd, and inscrutable, a bit like the whole American political process itself.I’m sure there’s a good reason why you shouldn’t drink that water, but it probably takes more effort to find out than it’s worth. Sorta like understanding our political system. Really, who’s got the time?Which explains what we have now — a political system that a great many people out in America find too dense to understand or care about. Not to mention too disconnected and too corrupt. Hello, reality TV.The writer poses for the obligatory tourist photo in front of the White House.This ongoing downward slide is aided by mass media, which, worried no one will care if they report on what actually happens, instead tend to focus on scandal and conflict, to the point that we all believe that’s the sum total of what happens in our nation’s capital. Meanwhile,  cynical power brokers turn ethical behavior on its head, confident no one will notice because, you know, the public’s turned off and the media is asleep or capable only of sensationalizing. It’s a vicious cycle.It doesn’t have to be that way. When you see it up close, it all seems amazing. For one thing, by and large these men and women exude an impressive studiousness, a sense of purpose. Ideology and ego aside, many seem to be actually interested in what’s at stake, and willing to engage in the painfully slow process of hashing it all out.They keep an incredible pace. They run from one meeting to another, back to the first one, maybe to a third meeting, and so on. They may sit on one committee that’s conducting hearings into something complicated and important, for which they must be able to read and digest complex information quickly. They may be doing this while another committee they’re on is doing a “markup” of proposed legislation — that’s where the rubber meets the road, where bills are debated, amendments are put forth and either added or rejected. All legislation goes through this grinder before it reaches the full House of Representatives. This is also where politicians try to take non-germane actions, like adding amendments or attaching other bills, that further their political agenda. For example, during a recent markup of a Senate bill that would make it illegal to take animals across state lines for things like cock-fighting, a Senator tried to attach a bill making it illegal to take a girl across state lines for an abortion.This, of course, is a way to get folks from the other party on record as voting against something that can be used against them come election time. And election time is always just around the corner.I don’t buy the argument that big money belongs in politics. I recall former Indiana Gov. Frank O’Bannon, a good-government guy, noting that when someone gives your campaign a mere $500, it is nigh impossible to forget that when you run into said donor at a function. So I agree with Rep. Yarmuth when he says the Democrats’ essentially status quo defense of these legalized bribes is less than inspiring.When it comes to elections, though, politicians are often knocked as overly ambitious, which seems like a real Catch-22 criticism. If you buy the notion that some people are called to public service and therefore seek election to Congress for the right reasons; and you thereby concede that, to enact the vision and principals that got you interested in the first place, you need to win elections; then it’s clear that a certain amount of ambition is necessary.More problematic, in my view, is the perpetual nature of electioneering that House members must embrace. The congressional election cycle is virtually constant, which leads to all kinds of ridiculousness that’s far removed from actual governing. An election makes smart people say goofy things and contort like a pretzel when trying to cover their tracks and think of how whatever they may have said in the middle of a complex and non-linear debate in a committee can be misconstrued at some inopportune time. That is demeaning to everyone.So here’s an idea: Why not amend the Constitution to double the length of House terms to four years? I’d like to see these folks have time to do their jobs. Think about it.I’m happy to report that I returned from D.C. with no blisters on my feet, all of my electronic gear intact and none of my illusions shattered.So what did I learn? I learned that I want to believe in the scoundrels, I really do. I don’t buy that old saw about sausage and politics. Call me naïve, Pollyanna, delusional, brain dead or the silliest little twit this side of Britney. I want to believe.It’s the Congress, stupid — the Senate, but more importantly for this discussion, the House of Representatives, the living, breathing embodiment of our bold and profoundly inspired form of representative government. It will never live up to the hype unless we all play our parts. Contact the writer at cstemle@leoweekly.com