Al Swift 2¢ Worth

This Uncivil Congress – No. 2: Reasons for it

In the last 2¢ Worth we talked about how Congress used to be and how, more recently, civility has rotted away. I think the story of George Mahon and Clarence Brown engaging in fierce legislative battle all day and then dinning together and playing bridge is very instructive as to why the Hard Right/Hard Left animosity is not the entire cause for deteriorated relationships on the Hill.

That is caused at least as much by jet planes, rigid rules and the relentless campaigning that typify Congressional life today. Let me explain.

First, a truism:
o You can’t compromise with someone unless you trust them.
o You can’t trust them unless you know them.
o You can’t know them if you never spend any time with them.

Relaxed times are when you really get to see “inside” a person and take their measure – not as partisans but as persons. It is in the relaxed times that we can measure whether a colleague is deep or shallow, serious or frivolous, trustworthy.

Years ago there was time for dinner with a colleague, a time for a bridge game, or golf or such. What happened? Well, the jet plane happened for one thing.

When I arrived in Washington, DC in 1965 (AA to Lloyd Meeds, D-WA) Members were allowed only two trips home a year. Any more had to be paid from campaign funds. A West Coast Member, for example, might only travel home a dozen times. I remember a popular Seattle Congressman who hated to fly. He took the train home – just a couple of times a year. A similar, more relaxed schedule was typical for Members from other parts of the country as well.

By the time I retired in 1994, Members’ trips home to the West Coast had escalated to every other weekend. Today, the Capitol empties like a kitchen sink about mid-afternoon every Thursday and begins to fill up the following Monday evening and Tuesday morning. Everyone goes home…every weekend.

There is simply no time for dinner and bridge with colleagues. The terrible pressure to raise campaign funds and the frenetic campaign pace those dollars help finance is only part of the hugely increased pressure to get home and “campaign.” And many of the opportunities that used to exist – weekend golf financed by lobbyists, for good or ill, no longer exist. (Incidentally, I never believed a round of golf and a nice dinner ever influenced anybody.) Foreign travel – which offers the best chance to get to know colleagues because you share close quarters for several days – have always been unpopular with the public and the press. Recent revelations of overseas shenanigans will only make that worse.

So we have a Congress in which technology, institutional pressures and modern political realities (the jet plane, continuous campaigning and rigid rules, if you will) combine to prevent Members from really getting to know each other.

Does that matter?

Oh, hell yes! And we’ll look at that in the next (and, I promise, last) piece on this subject.

Posted on Monday, August 15th, 2011
By: csh
Posted in: 2005
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