I have worked in Washington for close to 25 years, much of it on Capitol Hill, and I have seen my fair share of strange stuff. I have seen schemers and losers and liars and louts. I have seen boozers and carousers and party animals and drunks. And I have seen members of Congress convicted of crimes and sent to jail.
But I have also seen plenty of hard-working, conscientious and earnest public servants. I have seen politicians who have sacrificed special time with their families, as important as the weddings of their children, so they wouldn’t miss a vote. I have seen members wheeled in on stretchers to cast deciding votes on legislation. I have seen leaders take unbelievable grief from constituents to try to do the right thing for the country.
But my opinion is in the distinct minority.
The approval rating of Congress as an institution hovers consistently around 13 percent. This would be amusing if it weren’t dangerous. How can our legislative branch do its job effectively if nobody trusts it? How can our politicians adequately represent their constituents if the common assumption among voters is that they are all on the take?
It used to be said that the American people hated their Congress but loved their congressman. I am not sure if you can say that any more.
The success of “House of Cards” and the popularity of its leading, scheming character, Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, attests to this problem. If viewers think TV dramas about real places, such of Congress, are patently untrue or fantastical, the shows don’t last. Success depends on a connection between what is depicted in the fictional drama and what viewers believe to be more or less true.
Some of the story lines in “House of Cards” are fantasy — the murder plot is an obvious example — but to many voters, Underwood is how lawmakers really are, a realistic nightmare.
But in real life, the American people don’t want ruthless sociopaths running the country. They want something better from their government.
So what can Congress do to change how the public perceives it and the federal government at large?
First, it can fix the money game that Washington is built upon. It is stunning how much time and effort politicians spend raising money, and how, at the end of the day, those efforts are overwhelmed by the whims of a couple of billionaires. How can the average American think he or she has any voice when the campaign finance system is so fundamentally broken?
Second, Congress can return to regular order. It can have open debates in both the House and the Senate, air out disagreements in conference committees and rebuild a legislative process that has gone seriously off track. Regular order is the way things used to be done and it is the way that can and should be done again.
Third, it can treat itself with some respect. It can lead by example by requiring its members to act with basic civility. Under House rules, one member is prohibited from impugning the motives of another member inside the chamber. Maybe lawmakers, hoping to retrieve the respect of the voters who put them there, could agree to extend those rules out beyond the House floor. If lawmakers talk as though opponents must be fools or knaves, they can hardly blame the public for thinking that too.
“House of Cards” may be good TV. But it’s not great for our polity that Americans think it is true to life.
Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.