Reflections on Congress
Twenty-five years ago this week, I suited up for my first job in Washington, D.C., a position with the United States Senate. I was only seventeen years old (please stop doing the math), a freshman in college and extremely nervous about my assignment, which was running a Senator’s mail room.
I was to play a very minor role for a junior senator from a small state. This made absolutely no difference to my parents. My father, a poli-sci major who found his college experience permanently interrupted by a stint in the jungles of Vietnam, proudly told everyone within earshot that I was practically running the place. My mother, an inner-city math teacher, sent me an Ann Taylor gift certificate, accompanied by a note directing me to keep an eye out for important developments in science and technology policy, as these issues would be the key to employment and competitiveness in tomorrow’s world. She was fearful of her students being left behind. Perhaps realizing her message was a bit heavy-handed, Mom tacked on a postscript with the advice, “Let your smile change the world, but never let the world change your smile.”
Recent events in Congress have caused me to reflect on my early days working on Capitol Hill. It is shocking how much the spirit of the place has changed, and none of it for the better. Worse yet, I have been saying this for 15 years, and the situation deteriorates with every one that passes. I came to this realization on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, when old footage was shown of the entire Congress singing God Bless America in a show of unity. You may recall that it wasn’t long after the last note was sung that the finger pointing started.
So where are we 11 years later? We have the most divided Congress in generations. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman dubbed the 80th Congress the “Do Nothing Congress”, as a result of their less-than-impressive record of passing only 906 legislative bills during their term. Contrast this with today’s 112th Congress, which adjourned last week, passing only 173 measures. Oh, and in case you’re keeping score, these bills do not include a budget bill nor any 2013 appropriations bills, so we get to spend the beginning of the 113th Congress doing the 112th Congress’ work.
I realize that many Americans feel safer when Congress is less active, but something has to give when Congress passes dozens of bills renaming post offices, but no bill to reform the U.S. Postal Service, which is losing more than $42 million per day. It’s enough to make respected Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein conclude, “We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional.”
Let’s move beyond the dismal statistics and take a look at the stories behind them. Because one of the hardest things to accept about today’s political environment is that the concept of motherhood and apple pie may live on in the hearts of the American people, but it is dead on arrival on Capitol Hill. There is no issue that is so important to society that it rises to the need for final Congressional action.
In the past week, Congress failed to pass several fairly non-controversial, critically important pieces of legislation before hitting the campaign trail. One of these is the veterans’ jobs bill. There are currently 720,000 unemployed veterans across the nation, including 220,000 veterans who have served since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In the past, putting veterans back to work would have been considered to be a cost of war. But the Senate blew them off on a procedural vote, with some wagging their fingers that the bill was expensive and not guaranteed to work, but providing no further suggestions as to what to do.
The timing cast a bleak shadow on what was to be a happy day at InfoComm. For the past six weeks, nine unemployed veterans participated in our first AV Heroes program, a joint program of InfoComm and the United Veterans Learning Centers. Graduation was the day after the failed vote, and weighed heavily on my mind as we bid our goodbyes. The students smiled as we took pictures of them holding their certificates of course completion. Their faces beamed with pride. But what these vets really want most is a job. And I can’t help but think that there are more than 700,000 more just like them, hoping for a chance — the same chance my father and so many others wanted 40 years ago.
Besides failing our nation’s veterans, Congress also managed to ignore our country’s technology needs on its race out the door. The House of Representatives was unable to clear a STEM Visa Bill, which would have allowed foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math to stay in the United States upon graduation, instead of returning them to their country of origin. The bill was created to remedy the brain drain of students who come to the United States to earn unique skills at U.S. universities only to be shown the door out of the country when they are unable to obtain a green card or temporary work visa.
This bipartisan bill was of great importance to the nation’s technology and manufacturing sectors, and InfoComm was one of many organizations strongly supporting this proposal. After all, many of our country’s most respected technology firms, including Google, Intel, and Yahoo, were founded or co-founded by immigrants. If we want the next generation of tech companies to be founded in the United States, and retain enough technology workers to keep our industry humming, we need to hold onto the world’s best and brightest. However, this did not stop the House from getting the bill mired down in larger immigration issues, resulting in the bill’s demise. Once again, common sense was transcended by politics.
Apparently, there is no item too small to quibble about either, for this summer also marked the sudden end of Seersucker Thursday. Seersucker Thursday was a tradition started by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in the 1990s to mark the beginning of summer in a bipartisan way. Senators would don their cotton suits the third Thursday of June, and jointly attend an annual ice cream social hosted by the dairy lobby, which was coincidentally held the same day. But this year, on the night before, the Senate leadership informed Senators that the tradition was being discontinued immediately, because it would look frivolous in contrast with the stark division over the big issues of the day. So, in other words, the Senate is so divided that it cannot agree to dress alike and eat ice cream together for one evening a year. It is this very lack of cordiality that is leading to the inability to compromise and govern in an effective manner.
Twenty-five years ago, Senators of different parties (and their staffers), dined together, drank together, travelled together and socialized. Today, this is surprisingly rare. In fact, with increased travel budgets, most members of Congress don’t stay in town more than three days a week, opting to leave town instead. What we are learning is that it is a lot easier to demonize the opposition when you have no relationship with them.
So I bid adieu to the 112th Congress. Hopefully the most disagreeable of the players will not be returning, and those who are will appeal to their better angels. For during this past session, their world has made my smile a little wearier, and a lot less likely to appear.