The first news conference Earl Blumenauer held in Washington was a bipartisan affair, featuring the Oregon congressman alongside a fellow Democrat from Texas and Republicans from Illinois and New York. Their topic: a plea for greater civility in Congress.
“It almost seems quaint now,” Blumenauer said of that 1996 let’s-join-hands moment.
The 14-term lawmaker recently announced his decision to call it quits after 27 years on Capitol Hill, part of an exodus of more than three dozen congressional members rushing the exits rather than seeking reelection. It’s the highest number of departures in more than a decade.
Speaking from his Portland district, Blumenauer said his initial decision to run for Congress was inspired by Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who operated the chamber with a gavel in one hand and Molotov cocktail in the other.
So it’s not as though Blumenauer arrived in Washington to find lambs cuddling alongside lions.
As “an experienced, not-yet-old politician … I thought I could make a difference,” said the 75-year-old lawmaker, who spent years in state and local government before going to Washington.
Since then, however, the atmosphere has grown incalculably worse, driven in large part by a warring Republican House majority that seems to plumb new depths of surliness with each passing day.
It’s not as though he’s leaving behind a deeply beloved institution.
A recent Gallup poll found a cringe-inducing 13 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress is doing — and that survey was taken before former Speaker Kevin McCarthy sucker-elbowed a political foe and a Senate hearing on labor issues nearly devolved into a fist fight.
“That’s impressive,” Rep. Ken Buck said dryly of Gallup’s dismal rating.
The Colorado Republican is also among those opting against another term, after nearly a decade as a House lawmaker. He’s had enough, Buck said, of the name-calling and juvenile behavior.
Buck has been critical of fellow Republicans parroting the lie about a stolen 2020 election, or whitewashing the attempted government overthrow of Jan. 6 — proving it’s possible to be a staunch conservative and still live in the real world.
“There are some Trump people that got elected to Congress that are just baffling,” Buck said. “They just don’t belong in Congress. I don’t know how else to put it.”
Blumenauer, among the most liberal House members, also blames the destructive influence of cable TV and social media, which create a warped incentive structure that rewards bombast and conflict over thoughtfulness and compromise.
“What needs to happen, I think, is for us to be able to take a deep breath and focus on an agenda of inclusion and reform,” he said. “Different rhetoric and work hard to get bipartisan partners.”
Buck is less upbeat. He suggests it may take something shattering and awful to bring the country together and snap its fractious politicians out of their puerile antics and self-centered scuffling.
Hitting bottom can be the first step toward recovery. Perhaps we’ve reached that point with the current Congress, run by nihilists and narcissists who can barely perform the basic responsibilities of choosing a functional leader and keeping the government up and running.
It’s hard to see how things can get much worse, though in today’s Washington anything is possible.
Mark Z. Barabak is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.