Contempt for Congress: Who Can Be Blamed?

Contempt for Congress: Can we blame media, the public, or Congress itself?

The level of disapproval of the US Congress by the American people has fallen to above 90%. Why has this happened? The short answer is: they have not been responsive to the needs of the country. But the answer as to “why” is not clear—and that is essential to “fixing” it.
Clearly, the Congress itself has a good deal of responsibility for this. Its disciplinary committees rarely, if ever, discipline members, and their reports are not made available to the public. In addition, though it requires Federal agencies to release information under the Freedom of Information (FOIA) and Privacy Acts, it does NOT require Congressional offices to do the same. When queried on why not, the usual answer is that what they do must be kept private—without explaining why. But the FOIA does have exemptions, and agencies must review all releases for Privacy as well, which seems to refute that argument. What is so secret about most of the nation’s business that how it is conducted is not available to the public? Taking the secrecy out of Congress is a first and essential step toward “cleaning it up.”

Confidence and respect for Congress has been declining for many years. How can it clean up an institution the public now sees as defiled and corrupt, short of diverting the now-clean Potomac River through it, as Hercules of Greek legend did the Augean stables?
Recent analysis has blamed both parties for this inaction. The Democratic President is blamed for lack of leadership, timidity, and unwillingness to push for changes. The Democratic party minorities in the House and Senate and the President do not work together, and so accomplish little.
But the Republican House and Senate are blamed for their “just say no” approach that has thwarted any Administration initiatives, based on the Senate Majority Leader’s statement of 7 years ago that his “first priority” (which has failed) was to get the President out of the White House. In addition, House Republicans—who control the Chamber—have what is called “the Hastert Rule,” which says they will pass nothing without a majority of ONLY Republicans in favor of it. In addition, they will not permit Democrats to propose legislation or amendments without their approval.
This is a descriptive view of the “gridlock” in the Congress, and the reason it has accomplished so little. But the question remains, what is the basis for the “overall” disapproval? Shouldn’t one or the other of the parties be given some credit as well as blame? The answer is: perhaps. But there are deeper reasons for the contempt in which the Congress is held.

The ability of the media, especially social media, to elicit immediate responses to almost any “sensational” event, whether important or not, and the public to express itself on it, extending the “sensation,” creates the environment for trivializing the important, which media often does.
Another factor is the media creation of unrealistic scenarios and expectations–”do something, anything, now!” is a common plea to Congress from mass murders of children to stopping the kidnapping or beheading of prisoners in foreign countries. Some realistic expectations are needed.
Finally, and more insidious, are the frequent descriptions in novels, television dramas, films, and sensational “documentaries,” based on reports of real life Congressmen and Senators taking bribes, working with nefarious special interests or criminals, or even plotting to become President and taking over the country. This decades-long drumbeat depicting Congressional complicity—usually fictional, (but sometimes true)–in illicit activity has contributed to the overall picture of members of an institution that is not only incompetent but sometimes guilty of treason or other crimes.
Is reform possible? More openness, less bickering, and more cooperation between parties can only happen when the public sees how the Congress does its work and only they can make that happen. Unfortunately “they” are sent to Washington every two years by the public. Wiser selection of who they send would go a long way toward getting something done.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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