WASHINGTON — Americans needed a good buddy movie after a deranged gunman targeted Republicans practicing for a bipartisan ballgame to raise money for charities Wednesday morning.
The attack left House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., in critical condition and sent others to the hospital, including Capitol Hill police officers Crystal Griner and David Bailey, who fought off the shooter even after he wounded them.
So while Griner and Bailey recovered, Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Michael Doyle, D-Pa., managers of their respective party’s team, showed Americans a side of Congress voters rarely see on the news: partisans who disagree but are still friends.
Neither Doyle nor Barton used the violence to make a political point. Barton told PBS NewsHour, “We have an R or D by our name, but our title is United States Representative.”
On Thursday, President Donald Trump wondered if Scalise “in his own way may have brought some unity to our long-divided country.”
Can something good happen from something so wrong?
Doyle suggested a path toward civility. “When people see their leaders being uncivil toward one another, then you see the public being uncivil toward one another and toward their leaders.”
He wasn’t blaming anyone for the lone-wolf shooter’s rampage. He was acknowledging how Americans look at Congress — and what members can do to restore their image. A recent Gallup poll found that 20 percent of Americans approve of Congress, while 74 percent disapprove. And that’s up from December 2013, when less than 10 percent of voters approved of Congress.
Is jet travel to blame?
Mark Harkins, senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, blames the jet airplane. Since the 1970s, as air travel became more ubiquitous, House members have gotten to know one another less and treat one another worse.
Members of Congress often spend so little time in Washington, said Harkins, a former staffer for House Democrats, that they talk to one another like users of “an internet chatroom.”
Harkins noted that more than half of House members have been in Congress for less than eight years. Today’s congressmen and congresswomen, he said, “don’t have houses here. They don’t bring their families here, for the fear of seeming to have ‘gone Washington.’”
House Speaker Paul Ryan built his image as an anti-Washington frugal spender because he slept on a cot in his office and showered in the House gym. This is a model for many lawmakers who say their $174,000 salary cannot support two homes.
Voters may well think that’s a good thing. After all, who wants an elected representative more beholden to the machine than to the people who sent him or her to Washington?
The downside of the new order, however, is that members feel little loyalty to the institution they serve. They run for Congress while trashing Congress, just as Trump ran for president promising to “drain the swamp” that is D.C.
They visit their districts most weekends. They fly into the capital on Monday or Tuesday morning and fly home Thursday night.
Fewer days in Washington
The House working calendar has adjusted accordingly. After reviewing the congressional work schedule last year, Reuters found that members “have been spending fewer days working in Washington since the late 2000s.” In 2016, the House scheduled 111 work days. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform recommended 180 to 200 working days.
It’s no wonder then that Washington seems so dysfunctional. House members can’t get out of the Beltway fast enough.
PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff was so taken with the team of Barton and Doyle that she wondered why news coverage didn’t reflect their mutual admiration.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Doyle and Barton are trying to do this kind of thing,” said Harkins; both men have been in the House for decades. Voters sent Barton to Congress in 1984, and Doyle was first elected to the House in 1994.
“Find me two guys who have been here for less than six years” who exhibit such friendship, said Harkins. Then “you’ve got me interested.”
For his part, Doyle fingered the media. He told Woodruff, “We tend to be not the ones the media’s interested in interviewing. … Maybe the news media too could reflect a little bit more on that.”
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.