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Tue, Sept. 17

Column | Hold your applause, Congress is back

In case you haven’t heard, our lawmakers have returned from their six-week, summer sabbatical, ready to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. Among the agenda items for this legislative session: firearms, keeping the government from shutting down, trade and, at least for some Democrats, impeaching the president.

The congressional recess is necessary. Not for members of Congress, but for the rest of us. We need the break from them, even though, out of 261 work days, the House and the Senate will be in session together for just 121. Both chambers are actually scheduled to meet fewer days this year than in 2018. (By the way, senators and representatives make, on average, about $174,000 annually.)

You might be thinking this is a lot of time off for a legislative body that takes six months to come to a consensus on where to put the water cooler. But, considering a disapproval rating of about 75%, perhaps we’d appreciate them more if we saw less of them.

There might be something to this.

There was an episode of Seinfeld in which George decides his best strategy for promotion with the Yankees is to stay home from work and leave his car parked at the office.

“My presence in that office can only hurt my chances,” he said.

If only members of Congress were so self-aware.

With an election looming, there will be plenty of pulled hamstrings among lawmakers racing to the nearest TV camera to try to convince their constituents that they’re not part of the problem.

There are some dedicated, serious people in Congress, on both sides of the aisle. But in a political climate where groupthink carries the day, truly independent voices of reason are rarely heard.

“The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and defend her from her adversaries,” Sen. John McCain said on the Senate floor in July 2017.

McCain was an independent thinker but you don’t survive in politics as long as McCain did without being able to walk the very thin line between compromise and selling out your constituents.

And it might be that the current unwillingness of politicians to compromise is simply a reflection of their voters’ desires.

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, “roughly half of Americans say they prefer politicians who stick to their positions (53%), while slightly fewer say they like those who make compromises with people they disagree with (44%).”

Maybe we’re the problem. Bipartisanship sounds like a nice and right thing to support but maybe we really aren’t as interested as we say we are.

Why this is, if it is, I’m not sure. We can assume that part of the reason is that not only is all politics local, as House Speaker Tip O’Neil once said, but all politics is now personal.

“Seventy-seven percent of all voters now think Americans today are less tolerant of each other’s political opinions than they were in the past,” according to 2018 Rasmussen poll.

This certainly makes sense, at least based on many of the emails I receive.

We’re entrenched in our positions and we have the tendency to view intractable issues through a straw. And I’m not absolving myself.

But there’s a difference between holding fast to our principles and considering anyone who doesn’t agree with us wrong, intolerant and in need of muzzling.

It would be swell if Congress would set a better example.

We’re not off to a great start. I was hoping the summer hiatus might inspire a few moments of clarity, but House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) telegraphed his next move before he unpacked his flip flops.

“As the Committee continues its investigation into whether to recommend articles of impeachment, it is imperative that we are able to obtain information about ongoing presidential misconduct and abuses of power,” Nadler said about a subpoena issued to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan.

More Democrats are joining Nadler’s impeachment chorus.

“The total number of House Democrats now supporting an impeachment inquiry is 118, half of their 235-member caucus,” according to Roll Call.

No need to wonder why Congress hasn’t cracked the magical 30% approval barrier in a decade.

But I think I have the answer.

Before Republicans and Democrats deal with any of these thorny issues, they should vote themselves a longer vacation.

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