Down on the Hill
Hard-core Trump supporters burned their red hats, and Breitbart turned on him, when the president reached out to Democratic leaders Schumer and Pelosi on immigration. To the rest of us who want our nation’s elected leaders to work together to get things done, it was a glimmer of hope.
But when it comes to Washington, I always balance hope with healthy skepticism — especially after a long, provocative conversation with the 30ish son of an old friend recently.
The Lad, I’ll call him, just left a top congressional staff position in Washington for a private-sector job far from the Beltway bubble. I met him when he was 10. It was a thrill to watch the boy mature into a model young man — bright, responsible, and passionate about public service.
But while he left Congress delighted to have served, The Lad is concerned about what he witnessed.
He understood going in that Congress gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield. Legislators often suffer an unfair rap because they must balance the conflicting demands of 323 million geographically and culturally diverse people, not to mention a hoard of lobbyists. Balancing takes compromise. In our polarized politics today, compromise is for losers.
No wonder Congress’s approval has bottomed at 20 percent, per Gallup. Recovery is unlikely soon. Not just because of the exceptional gridlock and lack of accomplishment, but also thanks to several issues plaguing Congress that are not so obvious from the outside, as the Lad described:
Millennial attitude. The cliches are true. Just post-20s himself, The Lad was appalled by many of his peers’ self-promotion and sense of entitlement. He recounted that one staffer, after getting a bad review, asked a week later for a better title and a raise. And while dedicated staff typically work 12 hours a day or more, some Millennials blithely depart before 6 even while the boss is still working.
Fast staff turnover. With staff cuts, and stagnant and far lower pay than in the private sector, plus fewer meaningful policy roles, Millennials might see Congress as a brief stop to build the CV and connections. One 2012 study found that a third of all House staffers had only a year of experience or less. Two thirds didn’t make it five years. The problem: Less institutional memory to get things done, but worse, the lobbyists are writing your laws for their clients’ benefit.
GOP intraparty gridlock. If only the Democrats were the GOP’s main problem. The ultra-right Freedom Caucus is blindly my-way-or-the-highway, but has no “my way” — they’re just against everything. And working with the Trump administration is a nightmare for even GOP offices. The White House legislative affairs office lacks staffers, so Republicans in Congress who want to check before acting can’t get an answer. Even if they do, Trump’s inner circle often has differing views and overrides the legislative staff. Worse, sometimes Trump slam-tweets Republicans for doing what they thought the White House wanted.
No bacon. Congress outlawed “earmarks,” the practice of carving out funds for hometown roads, bridges and other “pork.” Sounds good. But then, unintended consequences set in. That is:
Demagoguery is rewarded. Without pork, members of Congress and now have to run for reelection solely on the issues. That sounds good too. But it rewards preaching to the choir instead of helping constituents understand complex policies and hard tradeoffs. Why bore people with policy when you can whip up crowds about Obamacare, Muslims and immigrants? The partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts to create “safe” districts of true believers also helps the best demagogue win.
It doesn’t help that many Americans are uninformed or prefer opinion over facts. Only 34 percent of Americans can name our three branches of government, let alone how they provide checks and balances. The spread of fake facts doesn’t help.
The Lad was not singling out his fellow Republicans. The Democrats and the Obama White House have undermined Congress too, he believes. But since the GOP enjoys the largest Congressional majority since 1931, solutions fall to them.
My conversation with The Lad might sound depressing, but it wasn’t. He’s still a believer, and maybe he’ll be back in Congress someday. His belief gives me comfort.
That’s especially true if Congress could return to the attitudes of the late 1980s, when I worked for a moderate House Republican. Maybe it’s a sepia memory, but voters seemed interested in applying objective facts. Most resisted demagoguery. Bipartisan cooperation happened because voters insisted on it.
The Lad went to Capitol Hill with high hopes. I hope his time away restores his idealism and optimism. And someday we’ll have the Congress that inspires him anew.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.