By Kevin Maisto
Congress: Broken, dysfunctional, gridlocked.
Congressmen and congresswomen: Corrupt, inept, partisan.
Such are the viewpoints of many Americans toward our nation’s legislative branch – a recent Rasmussen poll found that only 7% of likely US voters would rate Congress as good or excellent. While there is certainly no shortage of material to support these opinions, one mere discussion between seasoned politicians was enough to spark my entire re-evaluation on our elected officials.
In our first morning with The Washington Center, we had the privilege of hearing from two veterans from Capitol Hill: former Senator Bob Bennett and former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.
Senator Bennett (R) was a three-term United States Senator from Utah, serving from 1993 to 2011.
Secretary Glickman (D) served the state of Kansas for eighteen years in the House of Representatives, followed by six years as the Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration.
Both gentlemen currently work closely with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a bipartisan group tasked with finding actionable solutions to the nation’s key challenges. It was this mission that resonated most in the hour and a half long discussion. However, rather than focusing on partisan politics and finding excuses for recent inactivity, both men sought to provide examples of experiences in which our members of Congress worked across the aisle to find solutions. Yes, there is partisanship. However, the passion shown by our elected officials is quite humbling and inspires me to believe in tangible solutions for the future.
I’m a self-described political junkie, and being so near to two key political players shot adrenaline through my veins. However, it wasn’t until Senator Bennett’s final story that I felt the full gravity of this experience and began to understand more of our nation’s leaders.
In October of 2008, as our nation’s financial system began to collapse, Congress was faced with creating legislation to stabilize the financial system and restart economic growth. Known as TARP, this widely unpopular bill was viewed as simply a bailout for the big banks, and quite an irresponsible spending of $700 billion. While unpopular among the American people, most in Congress understood the necessity of such legislation.
By the time the House-approved bill arrived on the Senate floor, Senate leadership had already garnered enough support to pass the legislation. With the unpopularity of the bill well-known, many facing re-election were concerned that voting in favor of TARP would damage their re-election chances. Understanding this, Democratic leadership approached Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican who was facing a tough re-election battle in just a few short weeks, and offered him the chance to vote against the bill. Having already ensured enough support, it was a win-win situation: the bill would still pass, and Senator Smith would be able to boost his favorability with his constituents.
Let me reiterate: DEMOCRATIC leadership approached a REPUBLICAN senator.
Tearing up, Senator Bennett shared how, in spite of being offered this gracious opportunity by the opposing party’s leadership, Senator Smith refused, knowing that voting for his own interests of re-election and not with his conscience and beliefs in necessary legislation would be a move that he couldn’t live with. Certainly in part to this decision, Senator Smith lost his bid for re-election to his Democratic challenger, Jeff Merkley.
In short, he placed the nation and our political system above himself and his position.
Congressmen and congresswomen, while flawed (as we all are), believe strongly in our nation. They believe strongly in democracy. While visiting their offices, all had pocket Constitutions and Declarations of Independence available for distribution. Quite simply, they are our strongest bastions of representative democracy, and as seen with Senator Smith, are unafraid of making difficult decisions for the good of this one nation.
Disclaimer, I may or may not have also shed a tear at seeing Senator Bennett tear up.