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October 1, 2015

The Matter with Congress

Patricia A. Kelly

After we finish spitting expletives through our teeth and banging our heads in frustration against the nearest wall, we try to figure out what’s the matter with Congress.


We, or I, often think of Congress as a body of elected officials we send to Washington to make things better in our country, to solve problems, to judiciously spend tax monies, and create a budget, not to mention assist with our security. We think the job of our representatives is to learn of an issue, figure out a solution, discuss it in committee, draft a law and bring it to the floor for a vote.


We think of creating and passing a bill as the essential activity of Congress, when, in fact, bringing a bill to the floor is something like placing a dollop of whipped cream on top of an already frosted cupcake. The deal is done behind closed doors long before we ever hear of it.


Your new congressman, excited as can be after his or her win, goes to Washington ready to change the world. He gets his office set up, learns how to order flowers for the receptionist’s desk courtesy of the taxpayers, and begins meeting the players. First there are the other members and the staff. Then there are the lobbyists, and learning who’s the most generous. And the press, of course. Yes, he’d be glad to appear on television any time. How flattering.


Meanwhile there’s the work.  Nowhere near bills before the House yet, but the work.


This work, the behind the scenes stuff unknown to the public, is quite complicated. First, there’s defining the issue. Maybe there’s been a scandal somewhere, or the voters are clamoring, or the president has a new idea.


So, first is defining the issue. This step involves looking around to see who thought of it first, checking on potential constituent reaction, determining who potential allies are and who are enemies, and learning what gravy he can get for the citizens back home if he votes whatever way. It’s also good to know who will owe him for his vote. There might be studies and data gathering, too.


He might head to committee to review everything next, but, more likely he and his professional staff will spend time in the back hallways, first to see who’s who, and who might become an ally.


In committee, all the information will be hashed out, and, possibly a bill written.


Then, it’s back to the halls to start counting the votes, and finding out what pork will have to be added to get each vote. Maybe downtown Canton, Ohio, needs a new flagpole, or Utah another waste water treatment plant.


Next, there’s the mandatory check to see how the Senate will likely vote on it, and what their members need, and, of course, whether the president will veto.


Whew! Your poor new congressman is probably in shock by now – all that work that no one sees. Then, if it doesn’t appear the bill will pass, it’s carefully placed in a corner to decay. That’s the smell you notice in the hallway.


In the old days, when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil could get together for a drink after a day of such wrangling, and there were many across the aisle friendships, this method wasn’t so bad, although it would never have been my choice. In an atmosphere of collegiality, there were some possibilities of compromise.


Now, when the focus of the members of each party appear to be figuring out how to cut each other’s throats without being blamed, these behind the scenes operations have an even more negative impact.


The method of operation of Congress is nothing more than a carefully orchestrated effort to ensure that voters are unable to hold representatives accountable for the job they have been sent to do. We want, and must demand, transparency – that dead animal in the corner of the congressional back hallway.


Bills, once created, should be brought to the floor for votes; some end in a loss than may look bad in party statistics. This way, voters would know who was responsible for each decision, and be able to vote accordingly in the next election.


If the president vetoes something, so be it. We’ll all know who is responsible.


Send your congressman an email, and let him know your wishes.


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