“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense,”
– Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The House and Senate are out of session this week. This follows several harrowing weeks of non-stop action where both met throughout the holidays for the first time since 1970-1971 to foil the fiscal cliff. The saga featured a 9:40 pm, New Year’s Eve bargaining session at the Capitol with Vice President Biden, followed by a 1:45 am roll call vote in the Senate on New Year’s Day. The House finally adopted the Senate’s fiscal cliff package just before 11 pm on January 1.
Everyone went home, tired, haggard and battle weary. Yet they knew Congress had merely sidestepped the fiscal cliff as major scrapes over spending cuts, the debt limit and avoiding a government shutdown awaited.
So it was little surprise when two nearly contradictory press releases landed in Capitol Hill in-boxes from the desks of Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) and Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV).
Coats fretted about the next looming crisis involving the debt ceiling.
“Rather than take a break from the Capitol, Congressional leaders should immediately call lawmakers back to Washington to begin working now on a long-term deficit reduction plan to address our unsustainable $16.4 trillion debt,” said Coats. “This is no time for Congress or the president to take breaks from the fiscal crisis. Congress and the White House have a job to do and must get to work today.”
Coats may have pined to stay in Washington to crunch numbers and trade political horses. But Amodei was more than happy to abandon the Beltway in a contrail of exhaust fumes.
“After what was a long week in Washington, DC, I’m happy to be back home and spending time with normal people,” declared Amodei. “You cannot substitute getting together, face-to-face, with the Nevadans who gave you the job.”
Amodei then boasted of meetings with the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, the Elko, NV Police and Fire Departments, a breakfast with Hispanic business leaders and an appearance before the Carson City, NV Rotary Club.
It was Mark Twain who famously asserted that “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Congress is in session.” That would be the Amodei camp. But the Coats camp is something entirely different. Get back to Washington. Earn your pay. Solve this thing – so the nation and the markets don’t teeter once again on the brink. That’s part of a disturbing trend that emerged in Washington over the past several years as Congress fritters away valuable hours and then careens from crisis to crisis.
The Amodei/Coats juxtaposition is a classic study in how Capitol Hill denizens approach their work. Some lawmakers (and their constituents) argue that Congress isn’t in session enough to fix the pressing issues of the day. Others (and their constituents) assert that lawmakers are better off staying out of Washington – lest they go “native.”
So which is better? Hanging out at the Capitol, burning the midnight oil saving the nation? Or staying far away so you don’t catch “Potomac Fever?”
These questions have vexed lawmakers since the founding of the Republic. The pressures to head back home are more acute in the age of air travel. But if you sign up to be a Member of Congress, one should remember the definition of the word “Congress.” It means “coming together.” Of course, that can be a metaphor to forge compromise. But the basic gestalt of Congress also means assembling in the same place.
It’s an age-old tactic for lawmakers to run against Washington – even if the very essence of the job they’ve taken means doing lots of work here.
“We all wish we were out of Washington,” said Coats in an interview. “But what I don’t want to happen again is another cliff. We’ve got three cliffs in front of us. The last thing we need is to take this up to the edge.”
Amodei doesn’t want the nation to creep closer to the next sets of cliffs, either. But he’s not sure sticking around at the Capitol solves the problem. At least not right now.
“To somehow intimate you should be cloistered in Washington is not what I was elected for,” said Amodei. “It’s cathartic for me to go back and get a sense of the people.”
Coats fully understands the importance of escaping Dodge. But he fears Congress may be setting itself up for another last-minute crisis when the next cliff hits in February or March.
“The practice around here has been you don’t do anything until you get up against the deadline,” Coats said. “This is an abnormal process we have going on.”
The House of Representatives is back in session next week. But only for a few days. The House aims to tackle the emergency spending bill to cover the cost of Hurricane Sandy that devastated the eastern seaboard. However, the Senate doesn’t meet again until January 21. Coats remained in Washington for half of this week. He then decamped for the Hoosier State to attend the swearing-in of Indiana Gov.-elect Mike Pence (R).
“It is a lot more fun being back with people in Indiana than with my colleagues on the Senate floor,” said Coats.
The persons Coats refers to are essentially the same who Amodei characterized in his press release as “normal people.” That implies that inhabitants of the Beltway are somehow “abnormal.” Or perhaps Amodei is even suggesting that his fellow lawmakers are aberrant.
“The stereotype is that you’re going to go back there and become ‘one of those people,’” said Amodei.
The Nevada Republican said during the throes of the fiscal cliff, he experienced some pushback from one constituent when he visited a Lowe’s to purchase fertilizer.
“He was like ‘What are you doing here? You should be back there,’” Amodei said.
The Congressman said he then told the skeptical constituent that the House had passed various pieces of legislation to deal with the fiscal cliff and were waiting on the Senate.
And he had a question for his fellow Lowe’s patron.
“I asked him when was the last time you had 15 minutes to chew on your Congressman without an appointment?” said Amodei.
In some respects, this is a debate about place. Where can a lawmaker accomplish the most? Back home, listening to the public? Or in the halls of Congress, engineering legislation and policy?
It’s a conundrum. And it helps explain some of the scattered dispositions lawmakers have when trying to defend what they’re doing – and where they’re doing it – at any given moment.
It’s demonstrative of a line in Robert Pirsig’s 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense.”
For Members of Congress, someone will always contest where a lawmaker is at any given time. Half of the people want them home in the district or state, spending precious few days in Washington. Others raise hackles if Congress “isn’t meeting,” earning its keep. They wonder why lawmakers are wasting time.
It’s kind of like the third studio album from the band Oasis: Be Here Now.
Constituents want their lawmakers to “be here now.” But where the “here” is constitutes an issue of debate.