An­i­mal House: Life and times of to­day’s U.S. Congress

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - SCOT FAULKNER

The latest polls show Amer­i­cans’ con­fi­dence in Congress at an all-time low. Gallup’s 14 per­cent rat­ing is 4 points be­low the 18 per­cent that ended the Demo­cratic Party’s 40-year hold on Congress in 1994, and 5 points be­low the 19 per­cent that drove the GOP from power in 2006.

Th­ese in­di­cate starkly that both par­ties dis­ap­point Amer­i­cans. This new low tran­scends spe­cific is­sues, like the Iraq war. Gallup be­gan track­ing con­fi­dence in Congress in May 1973. That means Congress weath­ered the Viet­nam War, Water­gate, re­ces­sions and gas lines while main­tain­ing higher voter con­fi­dence. The new low un­der­scores ma­jor in­sti­tu­tional weak­nesses in how Congress con­ducts it­self in the 21st cen­tury.

It has long been said that, “No man should see how laws or sausages are made.” In my years of per­for­mance con­sult­ing I have, in fact, seen sausages made. At the world’s lead­ing hot dog fac­to­ries, you see prime cuts of meat be­ing pro­cessed in a clean and ef­fi­cient en­vi­ron­ment op­er­ated by ded­i­cated pro­fes­sion­als de­voted to qual­ity as­sur­ance. I de­vour hot dogs know­ing the in­tegrity of th­ese pro­duc­ers’ brands is at stake with ev­ery bite.

It is, there­fore, dis­may­ing that Congress does not share the same con­cern about brand in­tegrity as hot dog pro­duc­ers. In­stead of a sausage fac­tory, the House projects the im­age of a huge fresh­man dorm on a col­lege cam­pus. Ev­ery­one is ad­just­ing to liv­ing away from home for the first time. Just like col­lege fresh­men, they mess around all term and then pull all­nighters to get the min­i­mal work done. Oc­ca­sion­ally, they even seek ex­ten­sions. Look at the end of any con­gres­sional ses­sion. Af­ter many re­cesses House mem­bers will stay in round the clock to com­plete their work, and then pass a con­tin­u­ing res­o­lu­tion to avoid ap­prov­ing a real bud­get.

Just like a fresh­man dorm, the House is a mix: party an­i­mals, drug­gies, slack­ers, so­cial climbers, jocks, ide­al­ists, ac­tivists and schol­ars. Dur­ing my years as a House staffer and as its chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer, I en­coun­tered nearly half of mem­bers and staff dis­play­ing some form of ad­dic­tive be­hav­ior in­clud­ing ego, power, greed, sex, drugs and al­co­hol.

In par­tic­u­lar, fresh­man mem­bers and al­most all staff can get away with any­thing, and do. The na­tional me­dia have no in­ter­est in the ad­dic­tions of th­ese small fry. They, there­fore, de­velop an air of in­vin­ci­bil­ity and un­ac­count­abil­ity that car­ries them through their ca­reers. Their lifestyle choices may only catch up with them if they as­pire to a ma­jor pol­icy po­si­tion.

This dys­func­tion was borne out by the dozens of mem­bers at­tend­ing the drug and al­co­hol re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grams I man­aged, and the doc­u­ments I signed each week re­lat­ing to le­gal ac­tions against them. Th­ese doc­u­ments, as many as 50 a week, in­cluded bank­rupt­cies, gar­nish­ment of wages and court or­ders re­lat­ing to not pay­ing al­imony and child sup­port.

Re­cently, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives passed its leg­isla­tive branch ap­pro­pri­a­tions. House mem­bers spent an hour dis­cussing the nam­ing of the overblown Capi­tol Vis­i­tor’s Cen­ter, de­bat­ing whether culi­nary school stu­dents should prac­tice in the Mem­bers’ Din­ing Room and bick­er­ing over turf with the House Ad­min­is­tra- tion Com­mit­tee. There was also much pos­tur­ing over how “green” to make the House’s op­er­a­tions.

There was no men­tion of find­ing ways to open Congress to the pub­lic. Of­fi­cial House Web sites re­veal vir­tu­ally no move­ment to­ward new tech­nolo­gies to ex­pand cit­i­zen en­gage­ment. Where are the pod­casts of hear­ings? Where are the blogs for over­sight? It is im­pos­si­ble to e-mail some com­mit­tee staffs. Many mem­bers block emails from out­side their dis­tricts. How is a con­cerned cit­i­zen to gain the at­ten­tion of a na­tional ad­vo­cate on their par­tic­u­lar is­sue?

The an­swer to th­ese ques­tions is the same since the Con­ti­nen­tal Congress. You can write a let­ter to a mem­ber or work through a lob­by­ist. I once wrote a mem­ber about pre­serv­ing a Civil War bat­tle­field and got in­un­dated with let­ters on vet­er­ans’ ben­e­fits.

Mem­bers are not lis­ten­ing or pay­ing at­ten­tion to what is hap­pen­ing. Congress has not learned a thing from the voter re­bel­lions of 1994 and 2006. It is not just time for new blood and third par­ties but to re­think how we make rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment work in the 21st cen­tury.

Scot M. Faulkner was the first chief ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

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