House of frustration
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I'm scared for my country if these are the best 435 people we have to represent us.
Robert Draper Goes Inside The 112th Congress
Hardcover. 327 pp.
April 24, 2012. Free Press.
John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan who represents the western suburbs of Detroit, Dearborn, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Monroe in the United States House of Representatives is the Dean of the House. In a couple of months, Congressman Dingell will celebrate his 86th birthday. If he wins his campaign in November, as he has done the last 28 times he's been on the ballot, and serves past June 8, 2013, he will have spent more time in Congress than any American in history. Right now, only two Americans in 223 years of American History have served longer in Congress. Nobody has spent more time in the House of Representatives. Dingell joined the House on December 13, 1955, succeeding his father, John Dingell, Sr., who had died a few months earlier. Between the current Congressman Dingell and his father, somebody named John Dingell has represented Michigan in the U.S. House of Representatives for almost 80 consecutive years.
If anybody is an expert on the lower chamber of Congress -- the people's chamber -- it is John Dingell. If anybody can give an educated opinion on the state of America's legislative branch, it is this aging World War II veteran who has held office in Washington, D.C. through the Administrations of 11 Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama). John Dingell's ties to the House of Representatives even include five years as page where he watched his father work alongside legislative titans and stood transfixed on the floor of the House during the joint session of Congress where President Franklin D. Roosevelt mourned the "day which will live in infamy" and declared war on Japan.
After nearly 57 years as a member of the House of Representatives and 75 years as a keen observer of Congress's lower chamber, John Dingell has seemingly experienced it all, but the 112th Congress -- the current session, which began on January 3, 2011 and saw Republicans take control of the House after the disastrous 2010 midterm elections for House Democrats -- is difficult to deal. In Robert Draper's new book, Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives (Free Press, 2012), Dingell admits that "I'm more frustrated than I've ever been in my career." The Dean of the House tries to flip through the pages of political history that he has personally experienced, yet he can't find another example of an organization or individual who had approval ratings as low as the 9% approval rating that Americans have for the 112th Congress. In fact, Dingell finally says, "I think pedophiles would do better."
Robert Draper is a top-notch journalist for publications such as the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and National Geographic, and his previous book, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, was a fascinating insider account of the Executive branch as President Bush's two terms were coming to a close. Do Not Ask What Good We Do is just as intriguing, perhaps more so because instead of a White House with one leader and nearly everyone else working toward the same goals, the House of Representatives is full of 435 very different Americans from very different parts of the country. And while the House is controlled by a Republican Party that currently holds on to a 52-vote majority over the Democrats, the two parties themselves have major ideological differences within them.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do focuses on a handful of House members. Some of Draper's subjects are very well-known and very influential like current Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Dingell (D-MI), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), disgraced former New York Democrat Anthony Weiner, and the courageous Arizona Democrat Gabrielle Giffords who was nearly killed in an assassination attempt in her Congressional district at the beginning of the 112th Congress. But Draper also looks at some of the 87 freshmen who helped the Republicans take back the House in November 2010 thanks to their Tea Party credentials and relentless opposition to anything and everything that President Barack Obama has attempted to do, particularly Florida's Allen West, Missouri's Billy Long, Blake Farenthold of Texas, Renee Elmers of North Carolina, Raul Labrador of Idaho, and South Carolina's "Four Horsemen" freshmen: Jeff Duncan, Tim Scott, Trey Gowdy, and Mick Mulvaney.
By introducing us to some of the personalities who are responsible for crafting and passing legislation, Draper helps us understand why John Dingell is so frustrated, why nothing is getting done, and why the approval rating of Congress is in single digits. We see Tea Party Republican freshmen whose intransigence not only provide headaches for the Democratic President, the Democratic Senate, or the Democratic House minority, but also for moderate Republicans or Congressional veterans who are never conservative enough for the newcomers who hold up bills and refuse to compromise. While there are admirable, hard-working, pragmatic legislators on both sides of the aisle, there are also Members of Congress -- people that were somehow elected by a majority of Americans to represent their district in the House of Representatives -- like Idaho's Republican freshman Raul Labrador who is quoted in a Republican conference telling Speaker Boehner, "I didn't come to Washington to be part of a team." Or, Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, whose obsession with tacking on amendments, need to make a floor speech about something every morning, and stubborn attitude is one of the most blatant examples I've ever seen of government waste.
Do Not Ask What Good We Do is a fascinating book, but tremendously frustrating. The frustration doesn't come from Robert Draper's first-class reporting or his ability to put personalities to the faces and names we see on C-SPAN; it comes from the frightening fact that if, as many Americans believe, our system is broken and needs to be fixed, the repairs should start with the House of Representatives. The Senate is the more deliberative body of Congress -- designed to represent the states equally. The House is supposed to be the people's chamber -- designed to represent us, the average American voter or taxpayer, as directly as possible. I'm scared for my country if these are the best 435 people we have to represent us. Not all of the members of the House are equally horrible, but enough of them are bad that I worry for my country. I am saddened for my country if we can't do better than many of these men and women that we send to Congress to represent the districts that we live in. We have to be able to do better. We must do better.
Draper's title Do Not Ask What Good We Do comes from one of this country's original members of Congress, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, who wrote of Congress in 1796, "If we should finish and leave the world right side up, it will be happy. Do not ask what good we do: that is not a fair question, in these days of faction." Thanks to Draper's revealing account of the current House of Representatives, we can look at the 112th Congress and know not to ask what good they do, for there hasn't been anything of note in the past two years that has made our lives better. We know that we don't need to ask how bad they've been; the 9% approval rating answers that question clearly. Instead, we should ask ourselves: "Can we do better?" and "Is it January 3, 2013 yet?".
Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives by Robert Draper is available now from Free Press. You can order the book from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Robert Draper is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and GQ. His previous book was the New York Times best-seller, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush. Robert Draper is on Twitter @draperrobert.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.