Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. , has been in Congress since 1977. He says the polarized atmosphere in the House is the worst it’s been in his entire career. “It’s a different place. The camaraderie is totally different,” he said last week as he and hundreds of other House members milled about the Capitol waiting for something to shake loose on the fiscal cliff negotiations in which they had virtually no role.
Rahall said families of members used to know one another in Washington, and everyone was friendly and respectful to one another. Of course, that was when Democrats had ruled the House for decades. So it shouldn’t be surprising that from Rahall’s perspective, everything changed when Republicans took over the House in 1994 and Speaker Newt Gingrich ushered in a new era of, in Rahall’s words, “viciousness.”
Rahall posited that previous Democratic House Speakers Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright never would have behaved in Newt-fashion. It’s true that the gregarious Gingrich was the first House Speaker in modern times to face off with the president from the opposite political party about budgets with government funding on the brink. That behavior now has become almost standard practice.
So how does Rahall deal with it now? “I just roll with it,” he said. “I have great confidence that understanding and respect will return.”
Optimism from some unknown source seemed to provide House members the solace to keep going as they traipsed from their offices to the House floor and back to vote on post office names or kudos to winning baseball teams. They never got the chance to vote on anything close to a fiscal cliff deal.
Most of the rank-and-file knew nothing about what was going on in the fiscal cliff negotiations except what they read in the papers. Members who would not be returning for the 113thCongress were forced to work out of numbered cubicles, having been evicted from their offices at the end of November.
Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, who is retiring and has a reputation for not pulling punches, was one of those lame-duck members wandering around hoping for a deal to materialize. No wonder he referred to the place as an “insane asylum” when House Speaker John Boehner failed to garner enough votes for his “Plan B” tax plan to keep current rates for all but those who made more than $1 million annually.
Other members remained surprisingly upbeat. “I go someplace every month for my sanity,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who has been in Congress since 1996 and describes himself as a relentless optimist. He is also an avid cyclist and die-hard advocate for mass transit—the quintessential urban planner and futuristic thinker--with a decidely liberal bent. He blinked questioningly when asked how he handles the inability of lawmakers to get anything done.
“I go to places where I worked in the past, like in Phoenix—the light rail where they thought I was crazy 20 years ago. … They are now completing three light rail lines in Houston,” he said, and then repeated for effect, “Houston!”
“I campaigned with their Democratic [pause] lesbian [pause] mayor [pause] for a 150-mile bike and pedestrian path that passed overwhelmingly,” he added.
Blumenauer used the Houston example to illustrate his view that constituents are way ahead of Congress when it comes to figuring out next steps on public policy. “This is all coming to a head. I think we’ve entered a period, and I don’t know either it’s ten months or ten years from now, but things are fundamentally going to be different,” he predicted.
Blumenauer and other members have a laundry list of things they would like to accomplish, from health care to tax reform to infrastructure investment.
That’s probably why they keep coming back. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., planned on retiring six years ago after a comprehensive immigration bill was enacted. He's still here waiting for the same bill, and he willingly will take on the role of rabble rouser inside the Democratic caucus to keep his colleagues on task.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., who is in charge of whipping the freshman Democrats, said she is primed for next year's action--already gathering votes for immigration legislation. “It’s getting better,” she said of the congressional environment. “Have you met the next group [of freshman]? They’re wonderful.”
On to next year. The grass will be greener.