Saturday, June 9, 2012

Congress ("Do Not Ask What Good We Do" by Robert Draper)

There are few things more disliked in our country than Congress--not the institution so much as the people who are elected to fill it. At last count, Congress' approval rating was a dismal 9%--the lowest ever. And judging by the last 18 months, it's not likely to rise any time soon.

What's strange is that, while Americans disapprove of Congress with near unanimity, they still approve of their own individual representative. It's a complex, almost paradoxical mindset that detaches individuals from the institution and treats them as Kafkaesque everymen trapped in some sort of inescapable beaurocracy. Everyone in Congress is a do-nothing crook, we tell ourselves, except our guy. He's on our side. Hence, all those members of Congress we claim to dislike are, not surprisingly, returned back to office every two years, often by hefty margins.

Robert Draper's Do Not Ask What Good We Do has an obvious bend to it, as is evident in the title. But what sets his book apart from other examination-cum-diatribes against Congress is that, rather than list the institution's failings to prove a point about its intractibility, Draper selects about two dozen members and tells their individual stories. Some of them are new, Tea Party-backed freshmen, while others have been in Washington for years or even decades...and one who, as of a few years ago, is officially the longest-serving representative in American history. They are a mix of men and women, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives and moderates bridging those two gaps. 

Perhaps the two most surprising cases highlighted in Draper's book are both Republicans, though they couldn't be more different. The first, Missouri representative Jo Ann Emerson, is someone most Americans have never heard of. Unlike other members of Congress, Emerson does not appear regularly on cable news programs or seek out cameras to make a name for herself; she is a moderate in the classic sense of the word, and she's one of the few politicians who seems to favor the rational over the immediately popular. By Draper's account, she works hard for her constituents, who happen to live in one of the nation's poorest districts, even if it means bucking her own party and voting with Democrats. And on top of all this, she came to office unwillingly: after her husband, Representative Bill Emerson, died suddenly in 1996, she ran for his open seat and has kept it ever since.

Allen West, on the other hand, came to Congress by running against the same Democrat who defeated him--narrowly--in 2008, in a Congressional district that isn't even where he lives. A proud member of the Tea Party, West is one of the few House members known to a wide swathe of Americans thanks to his visibility as an outspoken conservative and one of only two African American Republicans in the House...a fact that has given him no shortage of troubles from both parties. West is frequently interviewed on television, has engaged in a few public scuffles with other members of the House, and was even touted by some earlier this year as a possible VP nominee, a suggestion West himself scoffed at. Unlike Emerson's Missouri district, West's Florida district--which was created less than twenty years ago*--has a median income of over $50,000 a year and lies along the Florida coast, making it a hub of tourism.

Two entirely different kinds of congresspeople. And yet, the way in which Draper presents these two representatives makes them both so downright fascinating that they shed their political selves and become individuals--which, I suppose, is the point. Any vitriol I felt towards Allen West, simply after seeing snippets of his "bayonett" speech or gossipy retellings of his fued with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, became secondary, and I felt a sudden appreciation for this man who, on more than one occassion, has become frustrated by his party trying to score political points rather than act on a piece of legislation. Similarly, my attitudes about the lack of strong moderates in Congress was challenged by Draper's words on Emerson, and I suddenly found myself wondering how many other level-headed members filled Congress' halls.

There are others, too, who transcend the "R" or "D" after their names and become fascinating individuals. There's Sam Johnson, the 81-year-old veteran from Texas who brought silence to the floor of the House in memory of fallen soldiers. Or Sheila Jackson Lee, who had promise as a reformer but has become her own worst enemy, the inspiration behind jars of change meant to calculate her insufferability. Or Walt Jones, the once in-line Republican who's become disillusioned with his party and now spends most of him time with Ron Paul. Each of the members featured in Draper's book come off as more vulnerable than one might expect, especially in an age when a politician's entire legislative years can be boiled down to five-second soundbites and 30-second attack ads. It's this human side that we need to see more of, especially beyond our own reprentatives, so maybe when pollsters report that, despite Congress' dismal approval ratings, most of its members will be soundly re-elected, we shouldn't be surprised after all.

*In contrast, Emerson's district has been around since 1863.