The following is a TWIC editorial from April 30, 2010
Suiting up, playing the game…or not
April 30 2010
That Americans are paying more attention to Congress these days is predictable. During election years, if for no other reason than trying to regain the majority, the minority finds its opinions frequently picked up by the major media. It seems the more outlandish their assertions the more attention they are given.
With some exceptions Republicans have revisited the 1994 strategy of resisting Democratic legislation with quite a bit of vitriol. It worked in 1994 if you remember Newt Gingrich’s advice to the GOP to use combative and worrisome words describing their opponents, and the anger among their activists showed itself again during the 2000 election recounts. It was akin to street theater.
This year, though, there is a different and interesting twist to the usual.
This year we have seen a more organized street theater from Tea Party activists whose activities have dominated the press particularly when a major piece of legislation neared final vote. But we also see what you might call a slow-drip growth of the Coffee Party that, at this point, urges its members to organize, discuss issues of importance, present their wishes to their elected officials, and make a pledge to be civil about it all.
Not that Tea Party leaders don’t urge the same of their members and keeping in mind that there are some Tea chapters that hold reasonable discourse and define their position, there is a difference in demeanor at least as far as what is presented in the press; Tea seems bent on anger-based change, Coffee on a more nuanced, informed change.
It is a sad commentary that anger and impulse frequently captures the attention of undecided voters, but it seems to be the state of our culture these days. Americans have traditionally made their votes and then went about their lives paying little attention to what their elected officials did from there on. Come the reelection cycle they are told of accomplishments, not told of failures, and vote again without any genuine knowledge of whether or not any of it is true.
Americans have not taken the opportunity the founding fathers gave them. They have not been engaged in the democracy but rather have turned their involvement (or allowed their involvement to be turned) into a spectator sport. And there is a difference between watching the game and commenting, and playing the game.
One thing for certain from TWIC’s view after watching legislation enacted over the past seven years, if Americans are not playing in the game, others will, they will win, and the laws and changes in laws that result may not be in the interest of the public.
Major legislation is important but Congress moves an average of 25 bills each week. Some bills are standalone, others become part of larger legislation later in the year. All bills are important.
A better informed voter asks better questions of candidates and knows immediately if the information they are given is accurate or otherwise. As we like to say around here, Read TWIC on hour per week and you will know more about what your elected officials vote on than they do. We urge readers to make keeping up congressional activities a part of their week. ##
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Hamilton on Congress
By Lee H. Hamilton
Back in March, two young members of Congress from Texas, Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd, became brief internet celebrities. Unable to fly back to Washington because of a snowstorm, the two hit the road together, tweeting and livestreaming their trip north. They fielded questions along the way on everything from the war on drugs to immigration – and so ended up holding what O’Rourke called “the longest cross-country livestream town hall in the history of the world.”
What sparked people’s interest was a fact that, a generation ago, would have been unremarkable: O’Rourke is a Democrat, and Hurd a Republican. They disagree politically on many things. Yet somehow they managed to share Whataburgers, sing along to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” joke with colleagues of both parties – and wind up signing on to each other’s legislation once they got to D.C.
That this struck a chord with the national press and hundreds of thousands of Facebook viewers shouldn’t come as a surprise. When I talk to people about Congress and Washington in general, I’m impressed by their hunger for bipartisanship. Americans of all stripes believe that the institutions of representative democracy are not working as they should. And they want members of the two parties to work together more.
The litany of forces tilting our politics toward polarization is long and dispiriting. The political extremes, left and right, make up perhaps a third of the American public, but they’re disproportionately active within their parties and help drive polarization. This is amplified by Americans’ increasing preference for associating with people who share their views, and by the army of consultants and politicians who use negative politics to bring out their “base” and sway those in the middle.
The institutions that once sought the middle ground no longer do so. The media has become more impulsive, more aggressive, and far less objective. Strong, sophisticated, well-financed interest groups have learned to play the political game hard and to brook no compromise. Political parties that made it their job to build consensus have set it aside. Political and congressional leaders, far from seeking to build the center, find reward in pursuing conflict and confrontation, demonizing opponents and even members of their own party who show a willingness to compromise.
O’Rourke and Hurd’s joint adventure seemed so unusual in part because all of these trends come together in Congress. It is the sole American institution explicitly designed to air the diverse needs and voices of Americans when policy gets made. Yet these days, it is the place where no one expects this to happen.
As a nation, we are far worse off because of this. At home, we get deadlock, dysfunction, and loss of faith in our political institutions. Abroad, we’re seen as indecisive and incapable. So how do we fix this?
The answer lies in four arenas. First, we need to bolster the middle by expanding the electorate: the more people who vote, the less influence held by ideologically driven activists who are unwilling to compromise.
Second, politicians need to step up – and most especially, the President and the leaders of Congress. They have to remind people that the job of the policy maker is to put the country before politics, and that it is necessary for us to work together to meet our challenges.
Third, Congress needs to fix its practices with an eye toward reversing polarization. It should return to the deliberative order of doing business, and to real conference committees, which would require members to meet, discuss, and compromise with one another. It needs to reduce partisan control of elections, the influence of special interest money, and gerrymandering for partisan advantage, and to strengthen the integrity of the electoral system. I am heartened by several private-sector groups that are determined to push Congress and the President to work together to get things done.
Finally, we as citizens have to convey to politicians that there’s a right and a wrong way to conduct the dialogue of democracy. If we want to keep this country strong, prosperous and free, we need to place a premium on politicians who know how to work together – and with people who don’t agree with them.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
Magic Mondays with Rep Marc Pocan (D-WI)