I think both parties need to dump their leadership in both chambers of Congress in order for things to have a shot at turning around. We are in the midst of a strange situation — the Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and the Senate are abysmal, don’t have the influence or power to whip their caucuses in line, aren’t respected by junior members within their own party, can’t work together effectively with the opposition or the President, and yet they are entrenched in their respective leadership positions. It’s as if the coach of a football team was terrible at his job, couldn’t win a game, lost the respect of his players, had no chance at out-coaching the opposition, but couldn’t be fired for some reason.
The House of Representatives isn’t a legislative body; it’s a tar pit. The Senate is no better. A big part of the blame belongs to us. It is our job to toss out shitty, ineffective, inefficient members of Congress. The Senate is tougher to do that with because they have six-year-long terms and only a third or so of the Senators are up for reelection every two years. But we have the ability to make changes in the House of Representatives every two years. We could fire every single member of the House and replace them with someone new in 2014. Will we? Of course not. The voters are partly to blame.
The senior members of the House and Senate — on both sides of the aisle — are largely to blame for the day-to-day bullshit that has brought the government to the place that it has been in for the last six years or so. Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy, and Steny Hoyer should not have jobs. They are the party leaders of the worst Congress in American history. I didn’t include the Senate whips — Dick Durbin and John Cornyn — because I think those two are the only party leaders in Congress who are worth a shit, but I wouldn’t put up a fight if they lost their jobs, too.
The party leaders in the House and the Senate should have control of their respective caucuses at all times. If not, they aren’t leading. I’m stunned at how little respect many of the junior members of Congress — even freshmen in the House of Representatives! — have for the leaders of their own party. Raul Labrador, a Republican member of the House, was elected in 2010. In 2011, as a freshman Congressman, Labrador stood up in a GOP conference told John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, “I didn’t come to Washington to be part of a team.” That’s right, as the Speaker of the House of Representatives — one of the five most powerful positions in the country when there is someone useful in the job — implored his fellow Republicans to work together, a freshman Congressman from Idaho straight up told him no in front of every other House Republican. Speaker Boehner should have remembered that disrespect and in 2012, he should have CRUSHED Labrador. He should have withheld RNC money from Labrador. He should have built up a primary challenger against Labrador. He should have pulled together every powerful Republican that can breathe and walk, flown them to Idaho, and campaigned against Labrador. Instead? Nothing. Labrador was reelected last year. That’s just one example.
The Democrats are just as bad. They control the Senate and they have a Democrat in the White House. But Harry Reid is the Senate Majority Leader and the Democrat from Nevada is, hands-down, the worst Majority Leader in American history. Nobody is intimidated by him, nobody is influenced by him, nobody respects him. And why should they? Why should the White House defer to him? In 2011, Vice President Biden met with Senator Reid to help pass the two-year extension to the Bush-era tax cuts. The White House wasn’t ecstatic about the deal that they made with Republicans to extend the tax cuts, but politics require compromises. Progress requires compromise.
So, when the Democratic President sent his Vice President to settle the issue with the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, how did Harry Reid decide to help out his President and Vice President? He said this to the President and Vice President of the United States:
"You guys went and did this deal. You go sell it. Not my deal, not my problem. Not telling you I’m against it, not telling you I’m for it, not yelling at you, just saying you guys made this deal. Hope you can line up the Senate Democrats behind you because I’m not going to."
Harry Reid wasn’t taking a stand because of a strong, ideological position that he was absolutely opposed to compromising on. No, Harry Reid was acting like a fucking baby because the White House closed a deal that Harry Reid simply couldn’t do on his own. If FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, or Bush 43 were President, Harry Reid would be working in a pawn shop in Las Vegas tonight. But Harry Reid is still the Senate Majority Leader.
I know that I am ranting, but the whole subject pisses me off because the problems are so clear and the solutions are so simple. The party leadership — Majority and Minority, Democrats and Republicans — from both chambers of Congress — House and Senate — NEED TO GO.
There is one more person who deserves some blame for how shitty the 112th Congress (9% approval rating, by the way) was and the 113th Congress has been, and he’s not a member of Congress: President Barack Obama. As I mentioned above, every President since Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, would have absolutely smashed individual members of the House and Senate, specific blocs of voters, and each chamber of Congress as a whole if they had been as intransigent, disrespectful, and ineffective as these last two Congresses have been. It wouldn’t have gotten as bad with many of those Presidents because they either had a mastery of the legislative process or they used the bully pulpit of the Presidency to win the public opinion war. President Obama has done none of these things. Junior Senators and freshman House members from Obama’s own party have no problem openly criticizing the President or opposing Administration goals. That should NEVER happen. Joe Manchin should be working in a coal mine in West Virginia instead of taking shots at his own President whenever he feels like it. Manchin’s predecessor, Robert Byrd, earned the right to be independent whenever he wanted, but even after 50 years in the Senate, Byrd knew to support his President. What’s even worse is that Obama’s top Cabinet members are legendary Senators — Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Whenever a President wants something from his Democrats on the Hill, he should get it. If not, Biden, Kerry, and Hagel should be laying the "Johnson Treatment” on anyone who needs it. They have to because Obama obviously doesn’t have that weapon in his arsenal. As embarrassing as Obama’s influence with his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill has been, can you imagine how bad it would be without Joe Biden doing the dirty work with Congress over the past four years?
There’s a lot of anger in this post and I know that it is all over the place, but I am truly angry about this subject. As I said, the problems are clear and the solutions are obvious. And the past 80 years of Presidential/Congressional relations are a blueprint for what works and what doesn’t. We need new party leaders on both sides of the aisle in both chambers of Congress. And we need a President whose approach to dealing with useless Congresses and intransigent, disrespectful Congressmen is more FDR/Eisenhower/LBJ than Carter/Obama.
They have freshman orientation for incoming members of the House and Senate. I’m not sure about what it all entails, but I know that the newly-elected members head to Washington shortly after Election Day and that’s when the orientation begins. I’m sure there is also some sort of transition process where the outgoing Representative or Senator helps out with the person coming in to replace them (much like what happens with a Presidential transition). There are also plenty of support systems, from their party’s caucus to their state Congressional delegation and down to the committees that they are assigned to.
Of course, there are certain parliamentary tricks and arcane rules that take some extra time to figure out if the Representative or Senator wants to master the legislative process and excel like some of our greatest legislators such as LBJ or Robert Byrd. It’s not a requirement to know all of those tricks (and today it’s probably just easier to hire someone who can handle that), but it certainly can come in handy when trying to pass your legislation or kill someone else’s.
While a stint in the United States House of Representatives is a fairly common job that you will find on the resumes of our Presidents and Vice Presidents, it usually is not a stepping stone directly into the Presidency or Vice Presidency. In fact, if the Republican ticket featuring Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan win in November, Ryan will be the first incumbent member of the House in 80 years to take office as President or Vice President.
Only one incumbent House member has been elected President: James Garfield of Ohio in 1880. Five incumbent members of the House of Representatives have been elected Vice President: Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky (1836), Schuyler Colfax of Indiana (1868), William Almon Wheeler of New York (1876), James Schoolcraft Sherman of New York (1908), and John Nance Garner of Texas (1932). Colfax and Garner are also the only incumbent Speakers of the House to be elected President or Vice President.
Overall, 18 Presidents served in the U.S. House of Representatives at one point in their career, including James K. Polk, who remains the only Speaker of the House to serve as President. John Quincy Adams served in the House AFTER he was President. John Tyler, who served in the U.S. House early in his career, was elected to the Confederate House of Representatives shortly before his death.
Although we haven’t had an incumbent House member elected Vice President since 1932, Paul Ryan might take some comfort in the fact that, throughout our history, a whopping 24 Vice Presidents served in the House at some point in their lives (25 if you count Daniel D. Tompkins who was elected to the House but resigned before taking office in order to accept an appointment to the New York State Supreme Court). Not only that, but four of our last five Vice Presidents (Bush 41, Quayle, Gore, and Cheney) were House alumni.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives
Hardcover. 327 pp.
April 24, 2012. Free Press.
John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan who represents the western suburbs of Detroit, Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Monroe in the United States House of Representatives is the Dean of the House. In a couple of months, Congressman Dingell will celebrate his 86th birthday. If he wins his campaign in November, as he has done the last 28 times he’s been on the ballot, and serves past June 8, 2013, he will have spent more time in Congress than any American in history. Right now, only two Americans in 223 years of American History have served longer in Congress. Nobody has spent more time in the House of Representatives. Dingell joined the House on December 13, 1955, succeeding his father, John Dingell, Sr., who had died a few months earlier. Between the current Congressman Dingell and his father, somebody named John Dingell has represented Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives for almost 80 consecutive years.
If anybody is an expert on the lower chamber of Congress — the people’s chamber — it is John Dingell. If anybody can give an educated opinion on the state of America’s legislative branch, it is this aging World War II veteran who has held office in Washington, D.C. through the Administrations of 11 Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama). John Dingell’s ties to the House of Representatives even include five years as page where he watched his father work alongside legislative titans and stood transfixed on the floor of the House during the joint session of Congress where President Franklin D. Roosevelt mourned the “day which will live in infamy” and declared war on Japan.
After nearly 57 years as a member of the House of Representatives and 75 years as a keen observer of Congress’s lower chamber, John Dingell has seemingly experienced it all, but the 112th Congress — the current session, which began on January 3, 2011 and saw Republicans take control of the House after the disastrous 2010 midterm elections for House Democrats — is difficult to deal with. In Robert Draper’s new book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives (Free Press, 2012), Dingell admits that “I’m more frustrated than I’ve ever been in my career.” The Dean of the House tries to flip through the pages of political history that he has personally experienced, yet he can’t find another example of an organization or individual who had approval ratings as low as the 9% approval rating that Americans have for the 112th Congress. In fact, Dingell finally says, “I think pedophiles would do better.”
Robert Draper is a top-notch journalist for publications such as the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and National Geographic, and his previous book, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (BOOK•KINDLE), was a fascinating insider account of the Executive branch as President Bush’s two terms were coming to a close. Do Not Ask What Good We Do is just as intriguing, perhaps more so because instead of a White House with one leader and nearly everyone else working toward the same goals, the House of Representatives is full of 435 very different Americans from very different parts of the country. And while the House is controlled by a Republican Party that currently holds on to a 52-vote majority over the Democrats, the two parties themselves have major ideological differences within them.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do focuses on a handful of House members. Some of Draper’s subjects are very well-known and very influential like current Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Dingell (D-MI), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), disgraced former New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, and the courageous Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords who was nearly killed in an assassination attempt in her Congressional district at the beginning of the 112th Congress. But Draper also looks at some of the 87 freshmen who helped the Republicans take back the House in November 2010 thanks to their Tea Party credentials and relentless opposition to anything and everything that President Barack Obama has attempted to do, particularly Florida’s Allen West, Missouri’s Billy Long, Blake Farenthold of Texas, Renee Elmers of North Carolina, Raul Labrador of Idaho, and South Carolina’s “Four Horsemen” freshmen: Jeff Duncan, Tim Scott, Trey Gowdy, and Mick Mulvaney.
By introducing us to some of the personalities who are responsible for crafting and passing legislation, Draper helps us understand why John Dingell is so frustrated, why nothing is getting done, and why the approval rating of Congress is in single digits. We see Tea Party Republican freshmen whose intransigence not only provide headaches for the Democratic President, the Democratic Senate, or the Democratic House minority, but also for moderate Republicans or Congressional veterans who are never conservative enough for the newcomers who hold up bills and refuse to compromise. While there are admirable, hard-working, pragmatic legislators on both sides of the aisle, there are also Members of Congress — people that were somehow elected by a majority of Americans to represent their district in the House of Representatives — like Idaho’s Republican freshman Raul Labrador who is quoted in a Republican conference telling Speaker Boehner, “I didn’t come to Washington to be part of a team.” Or, Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, whose obsession with tacking on amendments, need to make a floor speech about something every morning, and stubborn attitude is one of the most blatant examples I’ve ever seen of government waste.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do is a fascinating book, but tremendously frustrating. The frustration doesn’t come from Robert Draper’s first-class reporting or his ability to put personalities to the faces and names we see on C-SPAN; it comes from the frightening fact that if, as many Americans believe, our system is broken and needs to be fixed, the repairs should start with the House of Representatives. The Senate is the more deliberative body of Congress — designed to represent the states equally. The House is supposed to be the people’s chamber — designed to represent us, the average American voter or taxpayer, as directly as possible. I’m scared for my country if these are the best 435 people we have to represent us. Not all of the members of the House are equally horrible, but enough of them are bad that I worry for my country. I am saddened for my country if we can’t do better than many of these men and women that we send to Congress to represent the districts that we live in. We have to be able to do better. We must do better.
Draper’s title — Do Not Ask What Good We Do — comes from one of this country’s original members of Congress, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, who wrote of Congress in 1796, “If we should finish and leave the world right side up, it will be happy. Do not ask what good we do: that is not a fair question, in these days of faction.” Thanks to Draper’s revealing account of the current House of Representatives, we can look at the 112th Congress and know not to ask what good they do, for there hasn’t been anything of note in the past two years that has made our lives better. We know that we don’t need to ask how bad they’ve been; the 9% approval rating answers that question clearly. Instead, we should ask ourselves: “Can we do better?” and “Is it January 3, 2013 yet?”.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives by Robert Draper is available now from Free Press. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Robert Draper is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and GQ. His previous book was the New York Times best-seller, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush (BOOK•KINDLE). Robert Draper is also on Twitter @draperrobert.
Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress
Paperback. 309 pp.
On March 4, 1829, John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States, skipped the inauguration of his successor and prepared for what he imagined would be a quiet and private retirement. For nearly 50 years, Adams had served his country, beginning as a secretary to his father and other American diplomats overseas as a teenager during the American Revolution before becoming perhaps the best diplomat in the history of the United States. Adams — the son of the 2nd President — occupied diplomatic posts in the Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, and Sweden by the time he was 30 years old. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1803-1808, returned to Europe as the U.S. Minister to Russia under President Madison, declined a seat on the Supreme Court when he was just 44 years old, negotiated the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812, served as the U.S. Minister to Great Britain immediately after the war, and spent 8 years as President Monroe’s Secretary of State — a role in which Adams excelled and where he helped formulate the Monroe Doctrine, a cornerstone of American foreign policy for nearly two centuries.
In 1824, Adams sought the Presidency and lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson in a four-way race that also included Henry Clay and William H. Crawford. Despite Jackson’s popular vote victory, no candidate obtained a majority of Electoral Votes, so the election was thrown into the House of Representatives for a decision on who would become the 6th President. When Henry Clay swung his support behind Adams, the brilliant but dour man from Massachusetts clinched enough votes to win the Presidency. When Adams then named Clay as his Secretary of State, Adams’s opponents claimed that there was a “Corrupt Bargain” between the new President and Clay. Andrew Jackson was the politician most angered by the results of the 1824 election and he practically began campaigning aganst Adams before JQA even took the oath of office. Adams and Jackson became vicious rivals while Jackson and his supporters made life in the White House miserable for John Quincy Adams. By the time the 1828 election rolled around, there was little doubt that Jackson would gain his revenge and oust Adams from the White House. While Adams was cordial to Jackson in the transition prior to Jackson’s inauguration, JQA refused to attend Jackson’s inauguration, just as his father had refused to attend the inauguration of his successor in 1801, Thomas Jefferson.
"After the third of March I shall consider my public career closed," President Adams wrote prior to leaving the White House. All five Presidents who had preceded Adams had quietly retired at the end of their respective Administrations. The 61-year-old Adams was the youngest former President up to that point in American History and in good health. For a man who had been in nearly constant public service since he was a teenager, retirement was an unfamiliar place for John Quincy Adams. Adams had been miserable as President — partly due to the opposition that Jackson and his supporters maintained throughout his entire four-year team, and partly due to the fact that his political temperament and intense personality was not conducive to the Executive Branch.
Leaving the White House was not an unpleasant experience for Adams. “No one knows, and few conceive, the agony of mind that I have suffered from the time that I was made by circumstances, and not by my volition, a candidate for the Presidency till I was dismissed from that station by the failure of my re-election,” Adams wrote. Yet, a man as prideful and sensitive as John Quincy Adams couldn’t help but feel a lack of validation due to his defeat in 1828. With retirement on the horizon, Adams had a foreboding sense that history would not remember him fondly — or worse, would not remember him at all.
That quickly changed, however. As Joseph Wheelan chronicles in Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress (2008, PublicAffairs), the people of the Massachusetts still understood the value of former President John Quincy Adams and some of his biggest accomplishments took place after he left the White House. In 1830, Adams was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives — the first of just two Presidents to serve in Congress following their Presidencies (Andrew Johnson was elected to the Senate after leaving the White House).
In the House, Adams became a leading opposition voice to the Jackson, Van Buren, Tyler, and Polk Administrations, and a champion of abolitionism. Upon taking his seat in Congress, Adams found a renewed vigor for the political battles that had frustrated him so much as President. In the House of Representatives, Adams mastered the parliamentary system and used his extraordinary intelligence to become a brilliant debater, mesmerizing orator, and tireless anti-slavery advocate.
Wheelan’s book examines how the former President spent eight terms in Congress using his rhetorical skills and passion for the issues to rise above partisan politics and sectional squabbles in order to fight for the causes he believed in. Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade is actually this nation’s first crusade — the ideal that our country was founded upon, the belief that all men are created equal. As the United States grew and the evils of slavery continued to poison the roots of liberty, Adams constantly fought to defend the rights brought forth in the Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution.
Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade portrays John Quincy Adams as perhaps the last living link to the Founders. Adams had a unique connection to the Founding Fathers, and not simply because he was the son of John Adams. JQA was appointed to his first diplomatic posts by George Washington and served each of the first five Presidents in some manner. Adams is one of the few Americans who knew George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln served one term in Congress with JQA shortly before Adams’s death). While JQA was not of the same generation as Washington, his father, Jefferson, and Madison, his role in the early years of the American republic cannot be ignored. If the older generation were the Founding Fathers, perhaps JQA was a Founding Son; as a teenager and young adult Adams was already representing the United States in European courts such as Amsterdam and St. Petersburg.
When Southern members of Congress attempted to silence debate on slavery by imposing a Gag Rule on the petitions of citizens to the House, Adams launched his longest and most tireless battle of his post-Presidential career. To avoid any stirring of sectional troubles, many House leaders attempted to ban petitions from citizens, and for several years, Adams continued bringing petitions to the House floor. “The right of petition…is essential to the very existence of government; it is the right of the people over the Government; it is their right, and they may not be deprived of it,” Adams thundered. One of the major components to Adams’s Congressional career is his continuous battle to protect the right-to-petition (whether Adams agreed with the petitions submitted to the Congress or not), and Wheelan expertly explains Adams’s deep-seated belief in that right, his indefatigable effort in fighting for it, and the satisfaction that Adams experienced when he was finally victorious.
Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade includes much more, as well. There is, of course, Adams’s defense of the slaves who mutinied on the Amistad while en route to bondage in Cuba. Adams took on the case of the Amistad mutineers and fought for their freedom before the Supreme Court as President Van Buren attempted to placate Southern interests by secretly handing the Amistad and its occupants back to Spain. Most fascinating is the transformation of Adams from the somewhat dour, cold personality that he had been as President into the passionate, energetic “Old Man Eloquent”, as he was nicknamed during his post-Presidential Congressional career.
Finally, Wheelan gives us insight into the former President’s focus on his work in Congress, despite physical ailments and the encroachment of old age. Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade gives us an account of John Quincy Adams’s last days as, fittingly, the 80-year-old Congressman and one of the last links to the Revolution collapses at his desk in the House of Representatives and dies two days later in the Speaker’s Room of the United States Capitol. After a lifetime of service, John Quincy Adams died at his post, and there was an outpouring of grief nationwide for a once unpopular President who had redeemed his career, validated his own self-worth, and built an entirely different legacy with a remarkable post-Presidential life.
Mr. Adams’s Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams’s Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress by Joseph Wheelan is available now from PublicAffairs. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Mr. Wheelan’s website is www.joewheelan.com.