Reflections on the 116th Congress

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user Alvin Feng.

When I was 12 years old, I traveled from Connecticut to Washington, D.C. My dad cried at the Lincoln Memorial and displayed his disappointment when my brother and I didn’t share, or appreciate his reverence. But, a dad’s influence seeps in. It lingers, like the smell of his cherry pipe tobacco or his father’s Vitalis hair tonic, or the delicious mint, all tangled up next to the front door of a grandmother’s apartment.

Fifty years after that family trip, I was working in Washington, D.C. I had long before assumed the mantle of Dad’s reverence for the place and its monuments. So, I had a spasm of nostalgia when I was assigned to accompany a young photographer to Capitol Hill to cover a Congressional hearing. We entered halls of spectacular marble from the same quarry I once toured on a visit to my home state of Vermont. I felt downright prehistoric as I read the office buildings’ plaques with names like Rayburn and Dirksen. The tributes summoned up images of political conventions where the influence of these men and their political peers spread like the scents of youth, where reverence was demanded.

Congress, back then, was where the nation’s business was done. It was the space where a young 12-year-old visitor could sit in a gallery, peering down on men with silver hair combed back with their own brands of tonic, familiar faces and voices from TV, putting the nation’s needs and principle ahead of party and person. To be sure, much of their comity, their aura of selflessness was mythological, as weak as their claim to represent all Americans equally without malice.

But, back then, legislators worked hard to at least uphold the mythology. And some went further, becoming true statesmen who actually turned imagery into action, bettering the lives of toiling men and women.

How divergent, I thought, was the experience of the young photographer as we entered the Senate office buildings. Today’s Congress is a place where surly men take to the mound pitching harsh accusations to brush back their political opponents, often hitting them but never giving up a base or shaking a hand in apology. Congress is a place too lacking in high-minded principle, too imprinted with crass corruption where, like never before, a review of campaign donors can predict an entire agenda, or lack of one.

But, today, a unique group of legislators is arriving in Washington. As expected, even before the session begins, some of them are being greeted with calls of alarm from veteran politicians and a national news channel, too.

Socialists! Dreamers! Wreckers! Opportunists! Globalists! If alarmism doesn’t resonate, veterans on the attack hypocritically dismiss the newcomers as spoiled, impatient, impudent youth, lacking respect for institutions and experience.

Truth is, most of the newly-elected men and women who are being treated as interlopers didn’t buy their way into Congress like so many of their peers. No, they were elected after waging tough, well-organized, grassroots-oriented campaigns and spreading pragmatic, but progressive visions of public policy.

I didn’t have the opportunity to vote for any of the familiar winning young faces drawing the ire of the establishment. But, I know I’m among millions who are rooting for them. I know I’m not the only one out here who gets excited when one of these emerging leaders deconstructs the mythology that so many Baby Boomers and I were raised in, even as they eloquently retain the reverence of my own father and mother for what our democracy can and should be.

So, let the old men rant. Maybe they can bring back the spittoons, which were still on Congress’s floor when I visited as a youth, to catch their dribbles of paternalism.

In the end, I truly believe the impotence and arrogance of some in the established order will be exposed. I’m betting on these energetic, hopeful new leaders to solve some problems, big and small, and serve their constituents with love and organization.

Today, the young photographer who accompanied me to Congress has two children of her own. My dream is that someday she and her children will visit Washington, D.C. They will enter buildings where the work of the nation gets done. They will take their places in a gallery overlooking men and women who treat each other with respect, in a legislative chamber where the needs of the nation’s majority are not subordinated to the profits of those who corrupt the rich legacy that brought tears to my father’s eyes so many years ago.