“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.”
In order to fix something, the first step is admitting it’s broken. So…is Congress broken?
A good measure of how well Congress is working is to ask the people who employ its members. That’s us. In 2013, root canals and colonoscopies scored higher ratings than Congress, and its disapproval rating today is about the same as it was then according to The Hill.
It appears, at least in this one area, there is unanimity in a nation where its citizens seem to agree on little else. In December 2020, Congressional approval was at 15%. As of July 2022 it rose to a whopping 17% according to statista.com.
Think about that for a moment. This is the one branch of government that is meant to represent “we the people”—personification of democracy in action. Ask yourself if anyone in the private sector who earned a rating like that, whether they would—or should—be hired back. Yet they are. Once elected, incumbency is the major variable that helps assure re-election.
There are many reasons for this, including name recognition, availability of government goodies like free postage, staff, and office space, easy access to free media, and most important of all, money. Lots of it. Lobbyists have invested heavily in existing members and they sure don’t want to start all over again with new members of Congress. So, thanks to the lack of term limits, and open purse strings provided by Citizens United, they don’t have to.
This is supposed to be a transactional relationship between the government and the governed. But with ratings like this, it’s clear why the Legislative Branch is called “the broken Branch.” It’s also one reason why so many of us have lost faith in government.
It’s been said and repeated that we are a nation divided and that in order for democracy to survive, we have to come together in order to work together to develop and achieve common goals. But for the nation to come together, we need better models than those currently being provided by Congress.
The first thing, and maybe in the long run, one of the most effective actions Congress can take is something straightforward, easy, and obvious and it wouldn’t cost a cent: simply change the seating arrangement in both Houses.
Currently, and since 1877, an actual aisle has separated the political parties, with members of each party sitting together on “their” side. This is one of the longest standing congressional traditions but it only serves to further divide lawmakers. And to complete this silliest of traditions, Democrats and Republicans even have separate cloakrooms. Offices too are separated, grouped together by party. But such an arrangement benefits no one and actually sets up and reinforces structural barriers to communication. These purposeful walls impede interaction and actually perpetuate division.
There’s no logical or procedural reason not to alternate seating with members of each party sitting next to each other. This simple action would provide opportunities for members to actually talk to each other and get to know one another as more than just a member of a particular party. And just imagine this: there would no longer be “their side of the aisle.” For once, we’d all be on the same side…which means there would no longer be a “side.” And who knows? Maybe even civility and comity would return. Wouldn’t that be a great model for the rest of us to follow? All of us. Together. On the same side.
In dysfunctional and frightening times like these, when our democratic experiment seems to be floundering, this idea may seem like rearranging seats on the Titanic. We are at a tipping point. We all see the iceberg. It’s time to change direction. Let’s hope it’s not past time.
Alexis de Tocqueville said, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair its faults.” We can start with the easy stuff, a first step, and maybe accomplishing this will help make all the others a bit less difficult.
Villager Marsha Shearer is the author of “Life After Trump: Seeking a More Perfect Union” amazon.com/dp/B099ZRSWBM and “America in Crisis: Essays on the Failed Presidency of Donald J. Trump” https://amzn.to/39ki7cS