D.C.’s pit of despair
There are countless oddities in the way Washington works, but few as mystifying as lawmakers’ definition of the word “friend.”
In other, saner walks of life, it means someone you yearn to see. In the Senate, it can also mean someone you yearn to see under the wheels of your sport utility vehicle, writhing in agony and wheezing surrender.
I assume this was the usage that Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, had in mind when he called Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, “my friend” during a closely watched speech Monday. After all, everything else about Reid’s remarks and the furious days leading up to them reflected a state of play between the two parties, and the two men, that no conventional dictionary would ever describe as amicable.
Right now, “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” as the Senate has been called, looks a whole lot more like the set of “The Jerry Springer Show.” Is it any wonder that so many prominent pols are taking a pass on membership in the club? The one who most recently did so was Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, who announced his decision not to run for the Senate over the weekend.
“I kicked the tires,” Schweitzer, a Democrat, told The Associated Press, meaning he had mulled the idea. “I walked to the edge and looked over.” And saw what? A pit of bottomless despair? Ted Cruz ranting into the wee hours? Rand Paul filibustering like there’s no tomorrow?
Schweitzer had previously commented, “I am not goofy enough to be in the House, and I’m not senile enough to be in the Senate.” In years past, he might have been referring to the advanced age of many senators. In our grim present, he seemed to be saying that a person must be of bedraggled mind to court an assignment so acrimonious.
As potential newcomers say no, old-timers say goodbye, in numbers greater than before. Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Kent Conrad, among other senators, retired at the end of 2012. Carl Levin, Max Baucus, Tom Harkin, Tim Johnson, Mike Johanns and Saxby Chambliss have all announced that they won’t seek re-election in 2014. The reasons vary, but the take-away is clear. The Senate doesn’t exert the pull it once did. It’s an arena of petty gamesmanship and pointless gridlock, which are engines of Reid’s understandable ire and reasons he’s pushing a reconsideration of filibuster rules this week. The current Republican minority has been an epically obstructionist one.
On top of which, the gerrymandering of House districts means that when the Senate indeed manages to get something accomplished, the legislation is frequently “torn apart, ignored completely or dead on arrival” on the other side of the Capitol, said Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 2010 and used words like “frustrating” and “disheartening” to describe his experience since. In the Senate these days, the blush fades quickly from the rose.
Coons told me that while most of his Republican colleagues are “personable and collegial,” the exceptions hold inordinate sway, and that much of the time the chamber “is either empty of any senators or one is giving a partisan screed to the cameras only.”
Thanks to the voracious appetite of blogs and cable news and to all journalists’ tropism toward tantrums, the screed givers get more attention than the worker bees.
As for respect, well, that’s gone the way of the dodo. You could at this point fill an entire book with pundits’ and politicians’ efforts at witty similes and metaphors for how low Americans’ opinion of Congress has sunk.
Referring to the oath of office that every lawmaker takes, Bob Kerrey said to me, “The moment your hand comes off the Bible, you’re in a profession where the approval rating is down there with waterboarding.” I told him that he vastly underestimated the esteem for waterboarding.
Kerrey, a Democrat, served Nebraska in the Senate from 1989 to 2001. In 2012 he ran again (and lost). I asked him why he’d bothered. He said that just as our country needs people “to go down in a coal mine,” we need people to brave the toxic realms of Congress. Coal mining and the Senate in one breath: that says it all.
If the Senate is this troubled, what hope exists for the federal government all in all? For its ability to solve problems, its appeal to high-minded individuals?
On Monday, in a voice of surprising sadness, Reid declared the Senate “broken.” He looked weary, beaten down: a mirror of Americans, whose faith in Washington has ebbed. When we look toward the Potomac, we see posturing in lieu of cooperation, tribalism in place of collaboration. And that’s not what friends are for.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.