More (good) Congressional introspection

This time from a Congress member instead of staffer

via The Last Moderate –

Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog Democrat who represents the Nashville area, was first elected to Congress in 1982.

Cooper is the House’s conscience, a lonely voice for civility in this ugly era. He remembers when compromise was not a dirty word and politicians put country ahead of party. And he’s not afraid to talk about it. “We’ve gone from Brigadoon to Lord of the Flies,” he likes to say.

I first heard him lament the state of Congress during one of those “get Elizabeth Warren” hearings held earlier this year. … He pleaded with the junior members to change their mean-spirited ways before they became ingrained.

To Cooper, the true villain is not the Tea Party; it’s Newt Gingrich. In the 1980s, when Tip O’Neill was speaker of the House, “Congress was functional,” Cooper told me. “Committees worked. Tip saw his role as speaker of the whole House, not just the Democrats.”

Gingrich was a new kind of speaker: deeply partisan and startlingly power-hungry. “His first move was to get rid of the Democratic Study Group, which analyzed bills, and which was so trusted that Republicans as well as Democrats relied on it,” Cooper recalled. “This was his way of preventing us from knowing what we were voting on.”

In a college paper about how technology affects the political process, a large portion was spent discussing how Newt was a pioneer of using “new” mass media for partisan gain. C-SPAN first put cameras in the House in ’79 and the Senate in ’86. Gingrich was a lowly minority party backbencher in the mid 80s, a backbencher with a visionary idea about how to get noticed: give wild, inflammatory, animated, partisan speeches late at night for the CSPAN cameras. House members are given a certain time each day to give few minute speeches for anything of their choosing. Most of the time there are about 5 other people in the chamber while they are doing so. With no cameras, Newt would be ranting at the stenographer and a few staffers. With CSPAN, Newt was speaking to tens of thousands and the camera angle made it look like the chamber was full. Why else would this guy be ranting and raving, right?

The moral of the story is that Newt ended up being rewarded for the craven behavior with becoming Speaking of the House. The rest is history.

“This is not a collegial body anymore,” he said. “It is more like gang behavior. Members walk into the chamber full of hatred. They believe the worst lies about the other side. Two senators stopped by my office just a few hours ago. Why? They had a plot to nail somebody on the other side. That’s what Congress has come to.”

It has, but, again, I think most of the blame has to be put on technology itself, not the people that use it. Not all of the blame. Not 90%. But a very considerable amount of our misplaced anger about the nature of politics actually be directed at fax machines, pagers, cell phones, texting, and the internet.

I won’t get into all of the mechanics why, but you can extrapolate easily from the Gingrich example. Before certain technologies, Congress members had to actually present ideas to each other to gain institutional power. Now, all you have to do is say something crazy on TV and it gets spread like wildfire on blogs and youtube and talk radio and BAM – an idiot like Michelle Bachmann (who has never writter or even sponsored a bill that has become law) is a political rising star with Presidential aspirations.



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