The dead zone

Valley Voice


Half the world erupts: Gaza in ruin, the Middle East a powder keg. War continues in Ukraine. Haiti, west Africa, Central America and Europe’s Balkans could blow any minute. The United Nations holds a long agenda of grief and grievance.
And in Washington, Congress roils. In a world desperate for unified leadership, the U.S. House is a goat ranch with no fence. The Senate’s troupe of unsteady herders probes the terrain for a stable footpath. In a nation at odds with itself, Congress is our accessory to chaos.
It wasn’t always this way. For evidence, consider Ken Burns’ engaging documentary, “The Congress”. This film tells us that government once worked, its foundation an elaborate system of compromise. Released in 1988, it remains an American Primer with enduring lessons.
Burns’ film explains that Congress embraced American sensibilities and common sense. It traces more than two centuries to the beginning, to John Adams, the obligations and responsibilities of a Congress that served the people who sent members to Washington. It is about a different Congress and Washington. Those earlier years may not have been such good old days, but for the Congress and the president and most Americans they were far more productive.
What a change: A Congress today of intransigence and ignorance, of shrillness and platitudes, of misfeasance, phobia and demagoguery rising like swamp gas through the Capitol’s hallowed halls.
One of the lessons drawn from “The Congress” is that our current version is incapable of writing the better laws that others had once fashioned; indeed, it cannot conceive of them, much less debate them.
Consider what was accomplished in times when legislators and the president were vibrant and supreme: Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal, its Robber Baron-busting enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act; Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, its banking laws, gold standard, Social Security, Depression-ending public works, soil conservation and flood control programs; Truman’s Fair Deal, its provisions for farm aid, unemployment compensation, public works, a minimum wage; and Truman’s Marshall Plan, which saved postwar Europe; Eisenhower’s Interstate highway program, Nixon’s revenue sharing – none of these glorious reforms, not to mention many others, would have a chance in the disorder that is Washington today.
Every major component of Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society – the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid, the space program (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo 11, the moon!..), the Peace Corps, Consumer Protection acts including meat inspection, weights and measures, clean air and water legislation, and more –would be filibustered out and washed down today’s congressional sewer. Indeed, much of this legislation, the agencies and policies it created, is under threat today.
Burns’s film breathes irony. Time has turned it from the portrait of a great institution to the tale of a failed one. It tells us what Congress is no longer capable of doing. Even such basics as health insurance, road and bridge maintenance and improvement, and education are beyond reach. We can no longer conduct clean elections. Yesterday’s gifted Congress points to today’s lack of one.
Washington was once a place that welcomed ideas, not dogma. Then it became a place where ideas went to die. Now it is a place where ideas don’t go at all.



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