Downcast D.C.

IMG_1544I had a quick trip to D.C. this morning, returning this afternoon, and it was a downer.  In addition to the torrential rains and bleak skies, and the bumper-to-bumper, constant-honking, angry-gesturing traffic that made what should be a 15-minute taxi ride into an hour-long ordeal, the news on the radio was all about shutdown, shutdown, shutdown.  I saw tangible evidence of our inert government  when the cab drove past the Lincoln Memorial and I saw the “closed” sign and the barriers blocking off the area around the noblest structure on the National Mall.

Everybody on the streets, from the surly drivers to the sodden pedestrians, seemed deep in gloom, and I found myself sinking deeper into the mire with each fresh blast from a car horn.  It’s hard not to be depressed about the state of our nation when petty politics causes the closure of even public areas that are supposed to remind us of our nation’s glory.

The D.C. Effect

This story about Sen. Chris Dodd — — tells a familiar story that seems to happen with distressing frequency. An individual gets elected to Congress and leaves his home state, hobnobs with lobbyists, interest groups, and other politicians, decides that the job is a pretty sweet gig and focuses intently on getting reelected, raises huge sums of money from the very groups and businesses that he is charged with regulating and supervising, and loses touch with the people who elected him in the first place. As this progression continues , the elected representative begins to view his constituents with a mix of resignation, contempt, and pity — as a necessary evil whose votes he must obtain to keep the sweet gig, but otherwise people who cannot possibly understand or appreciate the complexities and nuances of “policy” and the legislative process that he has mastered.

They talk about the existence of an “inside the Beltway” mentality, and I think there is a lot of truth to that concept. When Kish and I lived and worked in D.C., we met an extraordinary number of self-important people who were convinced that their jobs were or should be the focus of everyone’s attention and who seemed only dimly aware of the folks out in the hinterlands. The prevalence of that kind of attitude made it difficult to live there, and ultimately we decided to leave.

I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off if we required our elected representatives to spend half the year in their home districts or states — say, two weeks back home for every two weeks in D.C. During the “home” weeks, they could participate in hearings and conduct other legislative business by computer or teleconference. When the legislative day was done, they would spend time with their families, neighbors, local friends, and constituents, rather than going to fancy receptions and cocktail parties where they chatted with other “important” people and were hosted by industry groups that gave them money and flattered them endlessly.

I think there is value to staying in touch with reality by having actual physical proximity to reality. If our elected representatives actually interacted with the common man in the real world, they surely would have a better sense of priority and proportion.