Can Congress progress?

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Posted: Monday, March 18, 2013 2:01 pm

It’s become a sort of bittersweet irony that the Founding Fathers chose to name that deliberative body which best exemplifies the Great American Experiment “Congress” because the name means “come together.”

Coming together was no casual matter in the 1770s. Man and horse, often alone, endured rain, snow, freezing wind and scorching sun for days, knowing that important issues might be decided before they could arrive.

In order that the Declaration of Independence might be approved and sent to King George III, Caesar Rodney, dying of cancer, rode hard from Delaware to Philadelphia to cast his deciding “yes” vote.

“Coming together” meant leaving one’s affairs in the hands of family or friends whom one might never see again.

Imagine the combination of anticipation and dread a 1790s member of Congress must have felt, cantering up to his homestead after weeks of riding home from New York City or Philadelphia (Washington did not become the capital until 1800) and not knowing whether reunion or bereavement lay beyond the gate. In the beginning, coming together — the new republican work in progress — was a costly, risky personal investment.

Today members of Congress are, at most, a few hours away from home by jet and essentially never out of contact. But the fact of coming together — not the means of accomplishing it — has become the costly, risky investment.

As a practical matter of politics, to have a working relationship with folks across the aisle has acquired some of the stigma that, during the Cold War years, used to attach to having had Socialist or Fascist connections during the Great Depression.

I’m a strong supporter of public broadcast and our family contributes every year to the public radio and television stations serving our area.

But during election years, public broadcasting lets us down in an unexpected and disappointing way. Instead of ferreting-out and highlighting the subtle issues most likely to shape our national destiny, public broadcasting casts-off the toga of gravitas and dons instead the touting plaid of commercial TV’s poll-mongers.

The one loophole where thinking, collegial, compromising candidates might expect public access is thus bricked-up. I can’t get out of my mind the almost smirking way Gwyn Ifil of “The News Hour” dismissed moderate presidential candidate Jon Huntsman when he dropped out of the race. It felt like, “That’ll teach him to mix it up with the big boys.”

For years, Jon Huntsman, Joe Lieberman and most other moderates have treated like trespassers in the obscenely profitable campaign advertising business. The consequence is that the nation’s business is left to politicians combative enough to get past the casting couches of news broadcast producers who take TV journalism down the reality show level of ice road trucking and crab fishing profanity.

Small wonder “coming together” is beyond the skill set of a Congress in which comity has been aggressive bred out of the gene pool!

I wait in vain to hear reporters ask the President or the Speaker, “What are some desirable courses of action that aren’t divisive...that both parties and Independents can agree on?”

That such questions are often asked, I do not doubt. But that those questions—and the answers to them—will never be aired, I’m all but certain. It’s not reporters flogging the race to the bottom; it’s those who decide what makes it onto the air.

Last year a friend of mine came back from a fact-finding tour of Afghanistan with a sad story. For years the working media there have filed story after story on bright spots...instances of women involved in leadership, democracy beginning to peek through, visions of some good that the US and our allies have accomplished there against the odds.

But to these reporters’ frustration and anger, their stories, developed carefully and probably at considerable physical risk, are never aired. “The place is a mess and always has been; we are powerless; let’s get out and damn the hindmost,” is the consensus industry story and they’re sticking to—it in the face of continual contrary reports from the boots on the ground.

But I digress.

If the U.S. is to regress to former days when Congress was able to progress beyond aggression and confrontation, the best hope is probably to ask around and pick up any scraps of collaboration that might be happening in back rooms and under cover of darkness. We need to write and let our Representatives whenever we can find any of these unreported bright spots and say that we appreciate them.

Better yet, we ought to make a note of everything positive we hear about Congress members undertaking and thank them when we see them at civic meetings.

For now we see on a screen darkly, but then face to face.

Mooresville’s Stan Thompson is a retired strategic planner and environmental futurist for AT&T. His column appears every other week in the Tribune. Email him at:


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