Laird: Remember Congress before all the partisan paralysis?

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Trivia question: What do Richard Nixon, Paris Hilton and the BP oil firm have in common?

Trivia answer: Higher approval ratings than Congress.

According to a recent story in The Washington Post, the disgraced, deceased president, the scandalous heiress, and the infamous Gulf of Mexico polluters are held in higher public esteem than members of Congress. Nixon’s “approval” rating was 24 percent during Watergate, Hilton the ignominious celebrity is at 15 percent and the petroleum peddler is at 13 percent.

Meanwhile, Congress struggles to stay in double digits, languishing down near the 11 percent public approval of polygamy. And as a result, at least 10 senators and more than three dozen U.S. reps are leaving Congress, several of them at the peak of their careers and despite a high likelihood of re-election.

Maine Republican Olympia Snowe stunned constituents recently when she retired after 17 years in the Senate. Here in our state, Tacoma’s Norm Dicks, highest ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, wants to “enjoy life at a different pace.”

Two nefarious factors are driving these mass retirements from the hallowed halls of Congress. First, ideological extremists have changed compromise from an art to a felony. Second, that felony carries a mandatory sentence of undeserved public scorn that these people simply don’t need.

Friday I spoke by telephone with Brian Baird, the former six-term Congressional aisle-crosser who is entering his second year of retirement. He said the wave of recent retirements comes as no surprise: “It’s sad, really, because serving in Congress is an honor.” Baird repeated his main reason for retiring: to spend more time with his family. But he also acknowledged that any member of Congress these days is “attacked by your own base for even talking to the other side or discussing other viewpoints.”

Ultimately, Baird had to choose “between an onslaught of public derision and vitriol, much of it in blogs and at town hall meetings … or watching my sons play soccer and having dinner with my family.” An easy choice, that one.

One fault line: the filibuster

Although there’s enough blame to extend in all directions, much of it belongs to the Senate, where a toxic blend of old filibuster rules and new extremism makes progress virtually impossible.

Snowe explained in an op-ed for the Post: “One difficulty in making the Senate work the way it was intended is that America’s electorate is increasingly divided into red and blue states, with lawmakers representing just one color or the other. Before the 1994 election, 34 senators came from states that voted for a presidential nominee of the opposing party. That number has dropped to just 25 senators in 2012. The result is that there is no practical incentive for 75 percent of the senators to work across party lines.”

Another Maine Republican, Sen. Susan Collins, wrote in another op-ed for the Post that the “perpetual campaign” keeps Congress gridlocked in “hyperpartisan attacks that fill the Internet (and) reflect a politics unworthy of the American people.”

My magic wand would fall on two solutions. First, one party or the other must summon the courage to rewrite the rules of the Senate, a rather simple process that would keep the filibuster from fomenting so much partisan paralysis. Second, removing money from politics would take power away from liberal unions and conservative corporations and return it to the people, where our nation’s Founders intended that power to be.

And if you don’t agree with me, you’re a (1) leftist Muslim anchor baby who hates America or (2) a right-wing misogynistic evangelical knuckle-dragger who wants to turn America into a theocracy.

We all know the truth. Somewhere between those two extremes you’ll find sensible Americans who understand that Congress is not the real problem. The real problem is the gang of uncompromising money-grubbers who roam its halls.