Lubricating the legislative process

During the 1960s, Cokie’s father, Hale Boggs, served as the Democratic whip in the House of Representatives. For much of that time, the Republican leader was Gerald Ford, and in an interview with Cokie a few years before his death in 2006, Ford recalled the close personal relationship between the political rivals.

The two of them would regularly get in a car on Capitol Hill and head downtown for a lunchtime debate at a place like the National Press Club. Their differences were real, and their conversation spirited, recalled Ford, but then they would get back in the car and continue their friendship.

We thought of this story when Sen. Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, recently announced his retirement by denouncing the “brain dead” politics of Capitol Hill. “There is too much partisanship and not enough progress,” he says. “Too much narrow ideology and not enough problem-solving.”

Most Americans agree, and Bayh gave the New York Times a series of reasons for this paralysis: The filibuster has been “increasingly abused by both parties”; lawmakers spend “huge amounts of time” raising money and kowtowing to special interests; ideological factions, promoted by cable TV, breed a culture where “compromise is a sign of betrayal or an indication of moral lassitude.”

All good points, but none are more important than the issue raised by Ford and echoed by Bayh, whose father, Birch, served in the Senate from 1963 to 1981. Members of Congress are far less likely today to know one another, talk to one another, like one another or respect one another. “While romanticizing the Senate of yore would be a mistake, it was certainly better in my father’s time,” writes Bayh, and he tells this story to make his point: “In 1968, when my father was running for re-election, Everett Dirksen, the Republican leader, approached him on the Senate floor, put his arm around my dad’s shoulder, and asked what he could do to help. That is unimaginable today.”

It sure is, and one of the main reasons is that members of Congress are far less likely to move their families to Washington. It’s easier to commute by air these days, housing costs in the capital have skyrocketed, and many spouses have careers back home that are difficult to uproot. More seriously, many candidates are running against Washington as Gomorrah-on-the-Potomac, a sinful city that corrupts the soul. So if they win, they cannot move their families here even if they want to. They’re trapped by their own rhetoric.

The Boggs family bought a house in suburban Washington and moved here full time when Cokie was 8 (we still live in that house). Next door was the family of Ab Hermann, a prominent Republican official on Capitol Hill, and on many evenings, Hale and Ab would share a drink, a walk and a story or two. Congressional wives knew one another as well, collaborating at the PTA or running charitable organizations together. And so did their children. Cokie went to dancing school with Richard Nixon’s daughters.

Ab Hermann’s daughter, Jo Ann Emerson, is now a Republican member of Congress, and she mourns the loss of those cross-party connections: “There was much more closeness among all members of Congress, we did things socially, you hardly see any of that anymore.”

Ellen McCarthy grew up in our neighborhood while her father, Gene, served in the Senate from Minnesota. She is now a congressional staffer who briefs new members on life in the capital, and while she urges them to bring their families here, most spurn her advice because they fear “going Washington.” The result, she says, is that lawmakers “don’t spend any time with each other, they don’t get to know each other as people, and I think it’s a loss to the country.”

Ideas abound for easing that loss. Bayh suggests a monthly lunch attended only by senators from both parties. “Listening to one another,” he says, “absent the posturing and public talking points, could only promote greater understanding.”

Political scientist Norm Ornstein recommends changing the congressional schedule from Tuesday to Thursday to Monday to Friday, with one week out of four devoted to going home and seeing constituents. This would be a “major incentive” for lawmakers to move their families here, argues Ornstein. “It is much harder to demonize your colleagues if you stand next to them, watching your kids play soccer on Saturdays,” he says.

That’s true. Friendships, such as the one between Hale Boggs and Gerald Ford, lubricate legislation. Without them, the machinery of government seizes up and stops running.

Steve Roberts’ new book, “From Every End of This Earth” (HarperCollins), was published this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2010, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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