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Not Every Member Of Congress Is Mediocre (Or Worse)

Today, Politico Magazine's cover story was by John Harris and he was in territory DWT has been covering since the birth of the blog. In fact, covering the story-- the mediocrity (and corruption) of Congress-- was why we founded the blog. Many of our original targets are long gone: Republicans Duke Cunningham, Duncan Hunter (father and son), Jerry Lewis, Dick Pombo, Conrad Burns and Blue Dogs Al Wynn, Tim Holden...

But Harris still used adjectives like "reptilian, shameless, greedy, nauseating," even "criminal" to describe the Congress 2021, pointing out that many Americans have "long ago relinquished [our] faith that most lawmakers are decent, conscientious, responsible people who are concerned first and above all with legislating in the public interest, and only then turn their attentions to their own earthly appetites." I just want to say that over the years, I've met many-- not a few, many-- members of Congress who fit the latter description. But Harris was going somewhere else with those descriptions: not to Matt Gaetz's underage sex trafficking, Tom Reed's unwanted public groping, Mad Cawthorn's extreme resume-padding, but to mediocrity.

Harris asked acquaintances he knows how many members of Congress they would define as "impressive." Although one person offered the astoundingly high 55%, someone else said 1%. There was a consensus though, that it is around 20%. Personally, I think that's high. But even if 20% is accurate that leaves 80% "who fall a bit short, or a lot short, of the Athenian ideal of the enlightened citizen servant. At the extreme, this group includes Rep. Matt Gaetz, currently under investigation for sex trafficking. But in this crowd you’ll mostly find the uninspiring middle: Perfectly bright and well-intentioned politicians whose efforts are largely ineffectual; people whose competitive streaks earned them a prestigious job but who don’t display great interest in leaving a deep mark on American civic life; people who prove that still waters don’t always run deep; and a few people whose below-the-median traits stimulate genuine wonder: 'How is he even here?'"

I'm old enough to remember back in 1970 when dumb-shit Senator Roman Hruska (R-NE) defended Nixon's nomination of far right, racist, misogynistic closet queen G. Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court by saying "Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardoza," who weren't all brilliant jurists but also Jews. Hruska, one of the more mediocre men to ever serve in the Senate, didn't impress his colleagues with his argument that mediocre citizens need a mediocre representative on the Supreme Court and Carswell was voted down to trawl men's rooms across the South to harass unsuspecting men trying to pee in private. Nevertheless, Harris wrote that "Representative democracy, it turns out, means representation for everyone. That includes whizzes and schlumps and reprobates and the dudes at the seaside Hooters 15 minutes from Gaetz’s Panhandle home of Fort Walton Beach, who might find it OK that their member, according to CNN, showed cell phone photos of nude women he supposedly slept with to other members on the House floor."

“All parts of the Bell Curve of society are well represented,” one lawmaker told me, pondering the assortment of many dolts and at least a few deviates who count as colleagues.
A senator observed that ambition and discipline count for a lot, but the greatest factor of why one politician makes it to the Senate while others remain on city council is luck: “The bottom 80 percent of this place is no different than the bottom 80 percent of any typical city council.”
Here's something to keep in mind whenever you are reading about some politician or legislative battle. Years of covering politics make me think that most people who follow politics from afar have an exaggerated perception of most elected officials. Sometimes this magnification flows from idealism. Civics classes in youth can create a lasting impression that politicians are, or should be, the solons of democratic theory. More often, these days, distorted perceptions flow from cynicism. Even corrupt politicians are supposed to be sinister in an outsized and brilliant way, like Frank Underwood in House of Cards.
What both vantage points tend to understate is the pervasive ordinariness of many people who belong to the bottom four quintiles rather than the top one.
Journalism and political science, meanwhile, tend to focus on the ways that democracy is being distorted by structural factors. Gerrymandering of congressional seats encourages partisan zealots instead of conscientious servants of the public interest. A media-saturated political culture attracts more narcissists to Washington than ever, helping explain the high number of sex scandals. There is probably something to these theories. But the more salient reality is probably that elected representatives are indeed quite representative of the electorate.
In his recent memoir, former congressman John Boehner wrote of the 2010 elections that vaulted him to the speakership: “You could be a total moron and get elected just by having an R next to your name-- and that year, by the way, we did pick up a fair number in that category.” [I didn't read the book. Did Boehner mention he helped finance many of them?]
But the phenomenon isn’t solely partisan, nor is it related narrowly to intelligence, nor is it necessarily more prevalent now than before. Any legislative body I’ve encountered, at the local, state, or national level, has included many average people who are attracted to politics because it affords an opportunity to puff up their public image, and probably their self-conception, to something above average. And it has included people who-- like other sectors of fallen humanity-- have abundant exposure to temptations of the flesh, the bottle and the purse.
...I covered the Virginia General Assembly for the Post. When the legislature was in session, the nightly scene for many lawmakers revolved around the bar at the Holiday Inn. For many politicians it was clear that one of their motivations for serving in office was to be away from home for a couple months of the year, with drinks and dinners and debauchery that was usually funded by taxpayers, contributors or corporate lobbyists. There was a famous story about a Northern Virginia senator who told his formidable spouse he was at the office working late, then got word that she was coming to get him at the Holiday Inn bar at that very moment. The not-very-formidable senator crawled out a bathroom window with seconds to spare.
The General Assembly was like many legislative bodies-- true influence resided in a concentrated group of highly capable people.
In the House there was scowling, stoical Speaker A.L. Philpott, a Democratic former segregationist from Southside Virginia whose racial views had evolved out of some combination of conviction and necessity. He knew every sentence of Virginia’s modern criminal code, since he had written or edited the whole thing. Referring to his fellow delegates, he once rasped to another Democrat, “They are sheep!”
Over in the Senate, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews reigned with a proudly patrician air. He was one of the few legislators who read every one of the thousand or so bills filed each session. Without solid evidence of bribery, but with reliable intuition, Andrews once told me, “I think a lot of people are on the take.” How else to explain the barrage of narrowly crafted easements and exemptions and subsidies that his fellow politicians were trying to slip into law?
I’ve not covered Congress as a beat reporter but I did run a publication (this one) with a primary mission to illuminate the workings of Congress. My strong sense is that the fundamental legislative dynamic of Richmond is no different in Washington: A narrow corps of political practitioners operates in a different orbit of influence than the great sea of average politicians below them.

Harris remembered Hruska as well and ended his piece by noting that mediocre people "had plenty of representation then, and still do today." Members of the House who I can personally attest are not mediocre:

  • Ted Lieu (D-CA)

  • AOC (D-NY)

  • Jamie Raskin (D-MD)

  • Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)

  • Rashida Tlaib (D-WA)

  • Cori Bush (D-MO)

  • Andy Levin (D-MI)

  • Ilhan Omar (D-MN)

  • Marie Newman (D-IL)

  • Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)

  • Matt Cartwright (D-PA)

  • Ro Khanna (D-CA)

  • Judy Chu (D-CA)

  • Jerry Nadler (D-NY)

  • Barbara Lee (D-CA)

  • Jamaal Bowman (D-NY)

  • David Cicilline (D-RI)

  • Mondaire Jones (D-NY)

  • Jim Himes (D-CT)

  • Tom Suozzi (D-NY)

No doubt Congress has others who are not mediocre. I just don't know them well enough to attest to that.

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