In 1918, U.S. Rep. Edwin Roberts of Nevada, who was the wartime Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, stayed in D.C. until just before the election. While he was working in the House, back in Nevada his opponents did their best to poison the atmosphere against him, portraying him as a traitor for voting against the declaration of war against Germany and against the draft. By the time Roberts arrived back in Nevada, the political climate was so toxic that in Reno’s Riverside Hotel, someone called him a coward and the result was a fistfight.
I always admired Roberts for sticking to his job, even as he knew what his opponent was up to. And whatever else it may have been, Speaker John Boehner’s re-election in the Ohio GOP primary election last month at least put a damper on one of his opponent’s criticisms.
Tea Party Republican J.D. Winteregg thought Boehner spent too much time in D.C. “I’m fed up with him,” Winteregg said. “I’m fed up with the fact that he’s never home, fed up with the fact that he’s never accessible.”
By April 4 this year, the House or the Senate had met only 41 days. Notice that was not the House and the Senate. No, the House or the Senate. And according to a Washington Post story on that date, “there are only about 75 more days left on the congressional calendar this year. The two chambers will maintain a schedule of working three full days a week for three consecutive weeks before a weeklong recess all the way until August, when lawmakers are scheduled to break for the month and return for just a few days in the fall ahead of Election Day.”
In 1879, Secretary of the Senate John Burch said that if U.S. Sen. William Sharon of California (elected from Nevada) tried to claim his salary, then he (Burch) would submit the case to the controller of the U.S. Treasury because Sharon had rarely shown up for work. That’s a procedure that should be revived for our occasional Congress.
The Post listed several items that need to be dealt with if there is not enough for Congress to do this year, but it’s unlikely members needed the reminder. They know perfectly well the things that need to be done.
When he became Democratic floor leader, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said he wanted to do something about how few days Congress worked. That goal seems to have fallen by the wayside.
In the early days of the republic, members of Congress stayed in D.C. until all the work was finished. Some Marylanders and Virginians may have been able to get home more frequently, but travel wasn’t very rapid in those days, so they actually stayed in their seats and worked. They lived in Washington boardinghouses, eating around communal tables and talking about the country’s problems even when not at the capitol.
Today, members of Congress are constantly underfoot back in the states, “staying in touch,” which has to be one of the most unnecessary functions of a Congress member. Each one has his/her ear so close to the ground that they have completely lost the ability to tell the public what it needs to hear instead of what it wants to hear. Modern means of determining public sentiment have turned most “leaders” into followers.
There have been problems about which Congress was unaware because members were so seldom in the capital. The savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, got past Congress completely. And remember the Wall Street meltdown? How many members of Congress saw that coming? But most of them likely knew the chair of their district Kiwanis Club’s newsletter committee.
Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.