Congress Loses Its Heart

By Richard L. Wallace

A few months ago an insightful piece on hate speech ran in the Ethical Spectacle. Written by E.S's own Jonathan Blumen, the piece described the proliferation of hateful comments being aired, intentionally or otherwise, by Republican members of the U.S. Congress. Mr. Blumen noted at the time that "these Republicans are intoxicated with the wine of victory; their inner beings are revealed in the general giddiness, and hate is in the air."

This phase of the Republican backlash (a result of achieving their long-desired status as majority party in both houses of Congress) has now passed, if recent polls are any indication. Republicans, with the exception of presidential hopeful Senator Bob Dole, are seemingly out of favor. President Clinton's approval rating is more than 50% for the first time in three years, Newt Gingrich's popularity is at its lowest since he became Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the public appears finally to have been roused by the hateful rhetoric of the Republican majority.

This is good news indeed, and a welcome reality check for Gingrich and the Republicans, who may now realize that the people are not willing to let their elected representatives tell them what is best for them (the authors of the Constitution, after all, intended the system to operate the other way around). It is also a reality check for those of us, advocates of social and environmental causes especially, who were beginning to get seriously depressed about the direction that the new Republican right was attempting to take the country. I don't know if I'll vote for Bill Clinton in next year's election, (I'll certainly not vote for Bob Dole), but I rest assured that come next November there will not be banners flying throughout the country reading "President Newt."

And yet, the Republican's belligerent takeover of Congress has spurred some of the most substantial changes in the history of the elective body. Not only have the Republicans staked their claim to the operation of both chambers of Congress (as is their right -- after all, they won it fair and square), but they, largely at the whim of House Speaker Gingrich, have initiated a wholesale change in the way things are done. Croneyism and favoritism replaced seniority in the appointing of committee and subcommittee chairs. Long-standing committees were abolished in the name of slimming government (not that abolishing a congressional committee goes far towards slimming the government, but it makes a strong statement that the executive agencies for which those committees were responsible are no longer considered as important). Certain committees, indeed entire issue areas, such as natural resources, were turned over to members of Congress whose backgrounds belie their desire to do away with them completely. For the first time in U.S. history, for example, both the House and the Senate natural resource committees are chaired by Alaskans. The Alaskan congressional delegation is notoriously anti-environmental. Representative Don Young, chair of the recently re-named House Resources Committee (heaven forbid the word "natural" should appear in the title, Gingrich and Young must have thought when renaming the committee), is one of Congress's least liked and, until this past year, most marginal legislators. The man is famous not for his contributions to legislation (reactionary or otherwise), but rather for his attitude and antics, such as the time he brandished a walrus oosik, or penis bone, in front of then-newly appointed director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mollie Beattie at her first appearance before the committee. You can almost hear him bellowing "Welcome to the House Resources Committee!"

It is this sort of behavior that has led to the saddest and most foreboding change in Congress. Statesmen and women are retiring at an unprecedented rate, and with every election those senators and representatives that we have come to hold in high esteem for their integrity, honesty, and devotion to the legislative process are being replaced by idiots and hatemongers. These changes are indicators of a sea change in Congress. Gone are the days of reliable debate, where individuals carried with them not only the respect of their constituents, but respect for each other. The old adage that no one smart enough to serve in Congress is stupid enough to run for office seems to be truer with every passing election. Imagine a senate full of Michael Huffingtons and Oliver Norths. In short, long gone are the days of the Federalist Papers and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Here to stay are the days of "Barney Fag" and "homos in the military" (see "Hate is in the Air").

Twelve senators and a larger number of members of the House of Representatives have announced their retirement at the end of their current terms. These include Senators Bill Bradley (Democrat-NJ), Hank Brown (Republican-CO), Jim Exon (D-NE), Mark Hatfield (R-OR), Howell Heflin (D-AL), J. Bennett Johnston (D-LA), Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Sam Nunn (D-GA), Claiborne Pell (D-RI), David Pryor (D-AR), Paul Simon (D-TN), and Alan Simpson (R-WY). Among the representatives retiring are the senior female member of the House, Pat Schroeder (D-CO), and Gerry Studds of Massachusetts, long-time environmental advocate and former chair of the now-abolished House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Both Schroeder and Studds began their service in 1973. The average length of service of these folks is almost 20 years; their average age is 64 (the youngest is Bill Bradley, 52; the oldest, Claiborne Pell, is 77). Perhaps their time, reasonably, has come. Certainly their decisions to retire are personal ones, and thus are theirs alone. However, what we are left with is a growing void once occupied by true leaders of the legislative process by which this country grows and advances.

Upon announcing his retirement, Senator Simpson of Wyoming said, "The definition of politics is this: In politics, there are no right answers, only a continuing flow of compromises between groups, resulting in a changing, cloudy, and ambiguous series of public decisions, where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom." Indeed, it is this "continuing flow of compromises" that has been so earnestly fostered by the departing cadre of legislators. It is their ability to carry the needs of society through the clouds and ambiguousness and to communicate goals rich in ideals and created in a bipartisan atmosphere that will be so sorely missed. With the declining quality of political discourse and the increasing frequency of poisonous rhetoric and immature posturing in Congress, what hope have we of maintaining the high caliber of legislative debate, the willingness to talk with and listen to one's opponents? If we lose this aspect of our political culture which has been responsible for nurturing our political and intellectual leaders, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy, we lose the heart and soul of the democratic republic created under the Constitution.

Richard L. Wallace is a Ph.D. student in natural resource policy at Yale University.

Copyright 1995 Richard L. Wallace