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Mr. Woebegone Goes to Washington


Photograph by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

It’s worth examining how we got here. Forget about the fact that Congress has received consistently low approval ratings over the last few decades. (Harry Reid’s approval rating has actually gone down six points since January, from 35 to 29, in spite of the health-care victory.) The real problem is how much senators themselves have soured on the institution. The most searing testimony on this subject has lately come from Evan Bayh, who announced his retirement in February. But he’s hardly the only one. Most old-timers will tell you that the job’s more demanding now, and that its psychological pleasures are fewer and farther between. “I think there’s still a source of pride in being in the Senate,” says Thad Cochran, a genteel, no-nonsense Mississippi Republican who’s been in office since the Carter administration. “But new senators might not enjoy their service as much.”

At its crudest level, this senatorial malaise has to do with the concept of “hurry sickness,” or the sense that we’re inexpressibly busy, never able to unplug ourselves from the grid. Most professionals suffer from hurry sickness to some extent. But it is hard to think of a group that suffers from it more than senators, whose time is seen as a public commodity. “People expect more than you can deliver now,” says Cochran. “It’s harder to attend all the events you’re expected to. More people come to see you in Washington; you have all the organized professions and groups, and they’ve all got volunteers who get emotionally involved and let you know what they think … ” I ask what the most frustrating aspect is of his life today. He thinks. “Not being able to be everything to everybody,” he finally says. “You have to make choices on controversial issues, and there’s nowhere to hide.”

Theoretically, the framers wanted senators to live and think in an unhurried, unobstructed way. And one of the reasons that Cochran can speak so candidly about these matters, no doubt, is that he’s one of the rare unhurried senators. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat who still runs his own 1,800-acre farm, comes off the same way, and his explanation for it is simple: no cell service. “When I’m on the farm,” he says, “I’m on the tractor, alone. You can think through all kinds of stuff with a motor humming in your ear.” But for the most part, if you approach a senator these days, you are greeted by a look of mild terror before the practiced smile kicks in: Dear God, not now. “There’s just an incredible intensity to Senate life,” says Daschle, now a senior policy adviser at the law firm of DLA Piper. “You have to vote, you have hearings, you have markups, you have your five minutes of questions at committee meetings, you have speeches to give, you have home-state problems and constituents demanding to see you, you’ve got press and press-related things. And all of that is happening simultaneously. And then,” he adds, “you’ve got to fund-raise.”

“You’re now a demagogue the full six years,” says Bob Bennett, whose father was also a senator.

One can’t understand the dysfunction of the contemporary Senate, stresses Daschle, without understanding the deranged state of American political fund-raising. It’s a massive, Sisyphean distraction, a slog into which senators pour thousands of hours that could be spent reading, negotiating, or talking to constituents. And some of this time-consuming process has been the direct result of various campaign-finance reforms themselves. Lawmakers can’t make fund-raising phone calls from their Senate offices, for example, “which means you have to uproot yourself, go to your political office, go vote, and then go dial for more dollars again,” says Daschle. “That’s almost a daily occurrence.” He estimates that today’s lawmakers spend at least 10 percent of their time fund-raising. As their elections draw near, he says, the number climbs to 40.

“I think the problem is that we’ve lost the capacity to actually legislate,” says Olympia Snowe, the moderate Maine Republican who worked with three Democrats and two other Republicans—“the Gang of Six,” as they came to be called—to fashion a bi-partisan health-care bill. “Nor is there any patience to allow the process to take hold.” She rattles off the usual explanations for why this may be—exaggerated partisanship, the generally anxious tenor of our era. But then she, too, mentions the time crunch. “People don’t have time to sit still for one moment,” she says. “I’ve spent weekends, late weeknights, until midnight trying to get the right approach to this issue. My last year and a half has been consumed by health care. But the point is, no one has time.”

It didn’t help, she adds, that she and her five compatriots were working in a media universe that compressed time, where “everything is telegraphed within nanoseconds.” This obsession with process inevitably led to less patience with it. “There was a lot of criticism about how much time we were taking,” she says, “which to me was an indication people didn’t understand the complexities of health care, which warrant that much time.”


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