Walter Shapiro’s recent column excoriating incoming Members of Congress for their enthusiasm and desire to make Congress work better is the pinnacle of Washington cynicism and media elitism. His writing does a grave disservice, and I hope that every single incoming freshman ignores him.
The source of his ire is a letter from the newly elected House Democrats to the leadership asking for transparency, representation on key committees, expanded opportunities for constituents to participate in the legislative process, and a commitment to bipartisan work.
What extraordinary concepts. The more than 60 Members-elect want Congress to be accountable to the people who elected them. They do not want to hide behind closed doors, in legendary smoke-filled rooms where secret deals are hatched. They want accountability. They want to legislate actively, instead of just voting how their leaders instruct them. They want to find solutions to the very real challenges our nation faces.
And for all of that, Mr. Shapiro calls them “naïve.”
So what if they do? So what if the freshman feel like they can take on the world? I may not agree with the incoming Democrats, but I want them to be able to fight for their ideas in a Congress that fosters respectful debate. This is the idea of a dynamic and properly functioning legislative as envisioned by the writers of our Constitution.
But instead of focusing on legislation, Mr. Shapiro urges Democrats to spend the bulk of their time on oversight of the Executive Branch. He’s as guilty of the double-speak of which he accuses the freshmen by giving a rhetorical nod to “reasserting congressional oversight” while writing that such hearings will “bring with them 2020 political benefits.” There should be appropriate oversight of the Executive Branch regardless of which party controls the White House or each chamber in Congress. But Mr. Shapiro appears to want lawmakers to engage in a permanent campaign. We would be equally naïve to show surprise at a journalist encouraging Democrats to morph from the loyal opposition to vitriolic enemies of the Trump Administration.
In the book Surviving Inside Congress, my co-authors and I examined the role of the media in affecting legislation. A Pew Research Center study noted that 70 percent of Americans believe the media “has a negative effect on the way things are going in the United States.” Fully three-quarters of those surveyed said the media is biased. Bottom line: people are more distrusting of reporters and columnists than ever before.
It is more common now for news outlets to race to get the story first than to be concerned with getting it right. And the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” has become the de facto way of doing business.
For reporters looking to please their editors with clicks and retweets, bipartisanship is boring. The Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reforms made significant progress on identifying meaningful changes that could make the congressional budget work better. But the committee received scant media coverage until it was clear that it would fail to produce legislative recommendations.
The incoming freshmen of the 116th Congress – both Democrats and Republicans – are diverse, passionate, enthusiastic and, yes, there are a number of rabble-rousers among them. They are true representatives of our country. Has the media become so jaded that they see the freshman Democrats’ eagerness for bipartisanship and a sense of duty to set policy as naïve? The Constitution demands consensus, not partisan dictates. The Senate cools the passions of the House. And we should cheer for lawmakers who want openness and a willingness to reach across the aisle to make Congress work better.
Mark Strand is the president of the Congressional Institute, a non-profit organization that examines the operations of Congress and provides guidance to members, congressional staff, and the American public on understanding how Congress works and how it can work better. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.