Congress at the Crossroads

In this Jan. 3, 2013, photo, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, leaves after a three hour photo session with members of the
In this Jan. 3, 2013, photo, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, leaves after a three hour photo session with members of the new 113th Congress that convened earlier in the day. The Republican Party seems as divided and angry as ever. Infighting has penetrated the highest levels of the House GOP leadership. Long-standing geographic tensions have increased, pitting endangered Northeastern Republicans against their colleagues from other parts of the country. Enraged tea party leaders are threatening to knock off dozens of Republicans who supported a measure that raised taxes on the nation's highest earners. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Congress is being held in contempt. That contempt comes from the American people.

A poll released last week by Public Policy Polling (PPP) reveals that contempt is deep and broad. Congress got only a 9 percent favorability rating in the PPP study. That's the good news for the institution. The bad news is that Congress was rated considerably less popular than a number of other "distressing" things such as colonoscopies, root canals and being stuck in traffic by the survey respondents.

These ratings would be funny if they weren't -- and they aren't. They are clear indicators of a public that is fed up and turned off by the manner in which Congress is conducting or not conducting its business.

This poll was taken shortly after the vote on the "so-called" fiscal cliff deal and reflected the public's dissatisfaction with the three ring circus leading up to, during and after the vote. Even though a bill was passed, the spectacle surrounding it was ugly and unnecessary.

Columnist Eugene Robinson expressed his disenchantment in a column which he began, "To say that Congress looked like a clown show this week is an insult to self-respecting clowns." Political analyst Bob Schieffer was not quite as condescending in his comments during an interview on Face the Nation but he was extremely critical nonetheless.

Schieffer began by stating, "Watching the blundering ineptitude and the vulgar partisanship of last week made me think of other days our modern politicians may have forgotten -- an era when Washington actually worked." He proceeded to cite examples such as the collaboration between senators John McCain (R- AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) on campaign reform and senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) on arms control. Shieffer concluded by observing, "The rearview mirror has a way of making things look better, but those things really happened, and we used to say Washington was a place of giants. You don't hear that much anymore."

But we should! The sorry performance of the 112th Congress brought the perception of this once-esteemed body to what is probably an all-time low. Our representatives in the 113th Congress are at a crossroads. How they comport themselves will determine how the public sees them.

We write this as citizens who know and have much respect for many current elected officials but with extreme concern for the quicksand in which they are now stuck. We write this as citizens who see politics as Robert Kennedy did as "an honorable profession." Kennedy said, "an honorable profession calls forth the chance for responsibility and the opportunity for achievement; against these measures politics is a truly exciting adventure."

Over the past decade and then some, that "adventure" has become much less worthwhile for many involved or those who would consider engaging in it. That's because the political environment has become extremely toxic for a variety of reasons including: a broken political process; more bellicose politicians; 24-hour press coverage; extremely partisan pundits; and incessant and inflammatory internet postings.

It didn't use to be that way. Politics wasn't bean bag in the past, but it and the contestants were somewhat kinder and gentler -- and so too was the citizenry.

We were reminded of this with the recent passing of Richard Ben Cramer who wrote a great book, What It Takes, about the 1988 presidential campaign. The candidates in that campaign were Democrats Joe Biden, Michael Dukakis, Richard Gephardt and Gary Hart and Republicans George Bush and Bob Dole. Cramer's book treated them all with respect and his in-depth profiles provided insights that caused us to understand and like each one of them.

Margalit Fox's obituary of Cramer for the New York Times explains the reason for this perfectly: "Mr. Cramer's book is at bottom a psychological study of towering ambition and the toll of public life. Where it succeeded most notably, in the view of many critics, was in its depiction of the candidates not as mere archetypes but as flesh-and-blood human beings."

The politician's life has never been an easy one. It is much less so today. The continuous climate of confrontation and combat has squeezed much of the humanity and dignity out of the process. As the PPL poll results attest, it has also substantially shrunk the public's view of those in office. We are in dire need of a transformation and turnaround.

Americans believe in the God of second chances. The 113th Congress has been given that chance. If it conducts the public's business with a sense of civility, equanimity and propriety, it will recapture public confidence. If this becomes déjà vu all over again, and the 113th replicates the behavior of the 112th, Congress' prestige will be driven so far underground that it will never again be resurrected.

Just a little more than a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt said, "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena..."

Like Roosevelt, we believe the credit still belongs to the "man and woman" in the arena. That arena, however, should not be one for extreme boxing or cage wrestling. It should be an honorable place, where honorable people come to practice an honorable profession thus earning the citizens' respect and proving they should be considered "giants" and not "participants in a clown show."

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