This old House has been torn down
I remember clearly the first day I went to the Capital to become a member of Congress. I purposely walked up the front steps and was greeted by a guard, who opened the door and said, “Good morning, Congressman.” What a sense of satisfaction to have finally arrived.
But then I walked across the hall and opened the door to the chamber. I had a second thought, and it was simply, “I hope I don’t screw this up.”
What froze me in thought was the sense of history that I and all the others were going to take part in. The Capitol itself was built during the Civil War, but the Congress, as such, had functioned since 1787. The rules of parliamentary procedure were not “Robert’s Rules of Order” but “Jefferson’s Manual,” which was written by Thomas Jefferson and is still used today.
Here, Franklin D. Roosevelt had announced his “Day of Infamy” speech, John F. Kennedy had promised we were going to the moon, and Nelson Mandela, freed from a South African prison, addressed a joint session of the House and Senate.
The Congress has accomplished much with the assistance of both parties. We have an interstate transportation system, thanks to Dwight Eisenhower, won a couple of world wars, halted the expansion of the Soviet Union, enabled our colleges and universities to attract foreign students from around the globe, slowly moved toward medical insurance for all, maintained an open free enterprise system, and the list goes on and on.
Then we come to today, and a Congress in disarray. I think I know how we reached this condition. I base these comments on my own experience in Congress and having served as a whip, who rounds up and counts votes for the leadership to ensure pending legislation will pass. My father told me not to “lay words on myself,” but it is relevant to know that I received, from the Democratic Caucus, awards of the best at the job from both the 101st and 102nd Congress.
You simply approach another member, say, “I am counting” so that they know their position will be reported to leadership and what they say will be recorded. If it was “yes,” no problem, and if undecided, then you found out what the congressperson’s reservation was and saw if it could be addressed. You never counted someone who told you “Dave, I will be there if you need me.” This generally meant they would vote early and bolt from their office.
When it became necessary to pass Republican President George H.W. Bush’s Freedom Support Act, which sought to stabilize Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was the Democratic floor leader and worked with the Republican Minority Leader Newt Gingrich, to ensure that both parties supported the president.
This simply illustrates for us now that in the history of the institution, members felt three loyalties: their party, their state, and their country. They realized that their duty was to see that the House of Representatives worked. Members recognized that the task was bigger than themselves and surmounting their differences was the best interest of the institution. I doubt either one of us ever threatened a fellow congressperson with a primary or rewarding of campaign funds to vote. That is being done today.
I have little sympathy today for the Republican majority who primaried out moderates to elect extremists; individuals who serve in the House and honestly believe that the mission is to destroy the functioning legislative body. They remind me of John C. Calhoun, the senator and then vice president, who advocated that states should have the independent right to nullify any law passed by Congress. I’ve heard his ghost has been seen wandering the Capitol clapping his hands.
Roll Call, the hill publication, once wrote of me – when I did something politically unwise but necessary – that I demonstrated what Edmund Burke, the Irish member of the British Parliament meant when he defined a legislator. Burke wrote, “A member owes you not just his industry, but also his judgment and he fails to give you both, then he violates his oath to you.”
The individuals sent to Congress by the far right of the Republican Party are giving us neither good judgment nor upholding their oath, which was to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States…” and provide a functioning House of Representatives.
Dave Nagle, of Cedar Falls, is a former Iowa Democratic Party state chairman and three-term U.S. congressman from Iowa. This column has been republished here from Iowa Capital Dispatch under a Creative Commons License.