The Capitol dome is one of the great symbols of freedom, democracy, and representative government in the United States and it is a world-wide icon of government by the people. It is altogether fitting and proper (to borrow a phrase from Lincoln), to restore this great symbol and preserve it in all its glory for future generations. This is a massive restoration process requiring a colossal system of scaffolding twenty-five stories high which is composed of 75,000 parts and 52 miles of steel pipes. The work will take two years and cost $60 million. The restoration is expected to last for 100 years.
But what are we doing to restore what goes on under this magnificent dome? There are no quick fixes or dollar amounts we can attach to this larger problem. There are no sandblasters, welders, painters, engineers, and architects who can fix a dysfunctional Congress trapped in hyper-partisanship and blinding ideology. What has happened to Congress when threats of impeachment and government shutdown follow every major disagreement with the President? This is not governance; it is warfare, with the U.S. Constitution and the American people, not partisan officeholders, as the ultimate victims.
Our current crisis of governance did not occur overnight any more than the Capitol dome began to rust overnight. But neglect of cast iron leads to rust, and neglect of what Congress is supposed to be and do under the Constitution leads to another kind of rot that is so much harder to fix and far more dangerous to the wellbeing of an entire nation.
During the 200th anniversary of the Congress in 1989, I was serving as Historian of the House of Representatives and one of my assignments was to help plan a joint meeting of Congress to commemorate this anniversary. I asked the Poet Laureate of the United States, Howard Nemerov, to write a poem for the occasion and deliver it on the floor of the House chamber. His remarkable poem, especially its opening line, has stuck with me all these years since. He began by saying: “Here at the fulcrum of us all….”
When was the last time we thought of Congress as the fulcrum of our government? Yet for most of American history it was Congress, not the executive branch, which set national policy. Now, in the age of the so-called imperial presidency, we have come to think of presidents as superheroes or as supervillains as if they alone out of the 320 million of us should be able to fix everything that is wrong with us and the world we live in.
Both parties in Congress have contributed to an erosion of the powers of the legislative branch over many years. The late Senator Robert C. Byrd used to give whole orations and history lessons on the demise of the prerogatives of the Senate. He even made a study of the Senate of the ancient Republic of Rome to make the case that when the Roman Senate gave up its powers to the emperor, the Republic fell. He was equally critical of presidents for encroaching on the powers of Congress, and was an eloquent opponent of this nation’s rush to war in Iraq without a full debate in the Senate. Congress is supposed to declare wars when necessary, not presidents.
Restoration of Congress as a functioning co-equal branch of government will not happen just by pointing to the provisions of the Constitution. We need an effort extending forward for a generation or more to take a hard look at how our national political process can be restored to a better balance. What will it take to again make Congress the fulcrum of the American government?
We might begin by understanding a fundamental truth that when we solve one problem another emerges. Politics and governance have never been about permanent fixes for anything. It is about addressing ongoing, ever changing challenges. The struggle never ends. Get used to it. Don’t drop out of the process. There will never be a time in the future, just like there never was in the past, when everything is fixed. Those with hardline ideological positions presume that something can be fixed forever if people will only come to their senses. It is why ideologues make poor governors or legislators and usually turn out to be dictators.
The way we study and report on government needs restoration too. We do far too much analysis and reporting through polling, where the results of the daily polls become the top news of the day until another poll is taken. We hear pundits say “if the election was held today….” Unfortunately we hear that all year long. We are engaged in a constant campaign that never ends and requires extreme statements to feed the 24/7 news cycle in all media and the same extreme statements are required to raise the astronomical sums of money it takes to run for office.
Money has always been part of politics but we have got to get control of campaign financing. Today we raise money by making opponents into enemies. Local issues in local campaigns have been swept way and replaced by the nationalization of local politics largely controlled by those with the most money. The money to run campaigns is also nationalized and internationalized and often comes from unnamed sources far from the state or district of a Congressional election.
Free speech should be about open competition about ideas and policy, not corporate advertising. Today we elect members to the Senate and House who have no time to govern because they are too busy raising money for their next campaign. They are part-time legislators and full time fundraisers. Most of the members hate this process, but they seem unable to find a solution to their predicament.
The way we report on Congress is usually devoid of historical context. Everything is based on the here and now as if the governing process occurs in a contemporary vacuum. Reporters and pundits offer too little context, preferring to write 800 words on a red-meat topic. We need all the tools in our bag to fix government, including historical analysis over time to see larger patterns than those gleaned from the daily news. Most news media use history only for nostalgia or quaintness.
We need to do a better job of seeing the political process in a much larger context of decades, and even centuries. The roots of global warming caused by humans can be traced to the dawn of the industrial revolution, not from discussions about the Keystone XL Pipeline. The solutions to global warming and our ability as a species to survive in the natural world we inherited will not be solved by the purchase of an electric car that charges its batteries from fossil fuel sources, but by systems we can put in place over several generations and even centuries. Who in government, who in the media, who in our schools and universities are thinking that far down the road? When we find such thinking, we should encourage it, and expand it.
I am so glad that the beautiful dome of the Capitol is being restored. It inspires me every time I see it. I want again to be inspired by what goes on under that dome. During the Civil War as the current Capitol dome was nearing completion, President Lincoln remarked: “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.” The newly restored dome will last a hundred years. Can we say the same about Congress, the fulcrum of representative democracy?