The Matter with Congress

by W. L. Stoddart | February 20, 1915

One great thing the matter with Congress is congressmen. There are other things the matter with it, but the chief trouble is the men who make it up. Back of these men, and converting them seemingly into mere manifestations of it, is the terribly ancient system of doing Congressional business which pertains in the Capitol at Washington. In a sense the system is the matter with Congress, not congressmen; but if ever liberation is to come it will be had at human hands, and the hands will be those of the slaves of the system who alone can strike off their shackles. And the chief thing the matter with congressmen is that they have not the time to think; the system won’t let them, and they won’t change the system.

Theoretically Washington is a city set apart for statesmanship. It is a noncommercial city; a city planned wisely and fairly well, with wide streets and fair avenues, with parks and playgrounds and many monuments to the earnest bad taste of the creators of it; a city located on an historic stream, with not a thing to do but to buy and sell real estate, food, clothes, and knicknacks, and to legislate. The Washington correspondents always make much of the idea that “national opinion” is formed in Washington, and the average reader of the newspapers, when he reads under a Washington date line that “it is believed here that the Administration” will do so and so, invariably feels that “they” in Washington are holding wise council and are really deliberating with common purpose about real things. In the mind’s eye the principal occupation of congressmen is considering the welfare of the nation. How else can they be amusing themselves, freed as they are from the rush and hurry of farm or city life, freed from the cares of struggling along in Podunk Corners on a salary of less than $7,500, without carfare at 20 cents a mile, than by studying and pondering, statesmanlike, the needs of the country? Few can imagine how else they can be spending the long and weary sessions between campaigns.

In the average congressman’s working day of somewhat less than ten hours, the periods for thought and study are few and the spaces between them are wide. The morning mail of a man who represents 220,000 people is likely to be large, and if the man is a candidate for the continuing favor of the voting fraction of the 220,000, the task of answering it must be handled with skill and a certain degree of personal attention. This takes time. It takes time to call up by telephone or physically journey to three or four government offices for the purpose of adjusting important district business. It takes time to sit as a member of one or two committees. It takes time to sit in the daily sessions of the House, where time more than energy is consumed in the interest of the public weal. It takes time to tow about Washington the inevitable brides and grooms, the equally inevitable delegations of suffragists, prohibitionists, and protestants in one cause or another. It takes time to prepare the few perfunctory speeches which even the average congressman must prepare during a seasonor have some one prepare for him, and this may eventually take more time. And it takes endless, awful periods to talk and discuss and lobby and intrigue for the smallest favors from the machine that controls Congress and thus governs congressmen. The few congressmen who accomplish the ordinary routine things and manage in addition to do something noteworthy outside of the rut are strong men.

For example: Mr. Oscar Underwood, the Democratic leader of the House, estimates that during the last Congress a total of 55 legislative days, or two legislative months, was consumed in the mere vocal calling of the roll, a tedious process dating from primitive parliamentary era. Converted into money, represented by economies in salaries and running expenses, this means a yearly cost to the country of $50,000enough money to run a couple of government bureaus, to pay the wages of half a dozen congressmen, or to provide three-quarters of the salary of the president of the United States. Far more wasteful in the time that could be utilized for taking thought, however, is the obsolescent viva voce roll-call. Yet we discover a representative from the state of Georgia, Mr. Frank Parks, fearing that the installation of a system of electrical voting would “flood this country with legislation, and the people can never get out from under it. The faster you vote,” he added, “the more legislation you pass.”

Most of the machinery of the Capitol at Washington is like the slow old roll-call, calculated to consume time and to prohibit study. The ventilating system, for example, is bad, though thousands of dollars have been sunk on it. This means that lungs breathe poor air, that blood is sent through the brain unpurified, and the processes of the mind impaired. Ancient habits such as the reading of a journal to which none listens are still retained. Useless and doddering political henchmen clog the doorways. Of expert clerical assistance there is little, and that little is tributary to a system of private contracting firms from whom can be bought copies of documents belonging to the public. Distribution of publications is chaotic and wasteful. Records of committees are kept or not, lost or not, published or not, as suits individual whims. Two days aheada day ahead, evenno one knows what may be the order of business; there is no program of the physical acts of Congress and of congressmen, no arrangement, no care. The National Voters’ League is attempting to run down the various forms of petty graft which exist, it claims, in the House of Representatives. “The public knows nothing about the opportunities which numerous members have of diverting into their own pockets the money value of perquisites intended to aid them in their work.”

Grown astray from the paths of what a legislature should be is our national body at Washington. The throwing of the average representative into the maelstrom of Washingtona converging point for hundreds of streams of thought and a focal center of many rays of national consciousnessis a dangerous act. It is comparable to throwing a boy of 20 into a university and, instead of giving him time and an opportunity to study, ordering him to run both the university and the outside world. No boy could do it, and no sensible person would expect him to. Similarly, hardly a congressman ever reaches his head above the strong tide of custom which grabs him almost the moment he steps into his job. The things he has to do in order merely to tread water and stay alive are too many for him. He cannot construct because he cannot meditate, dream, or digest ideas even ifwhich also is a rare casehe is capable of receiving dreams or ideas.

A year ago there was smuggled into an appropriation bill an item establishing a bureau or division of legislative reference in the Library of Congress. The item had to be smuggled in because every attempt to secure the frank and open passage of a bill providing for a legislative reference and bill-drafting division had failed. These attempts had failed because of the opposition of congressmen who thought that they, being the statesmen and legislators, should not delegate any of their work to subordinate officers. Among objectors on these grounds was a highly distinguished and educated representative from the north shore of Massachusetts. Luckily, in spite of him, the division, shorn of its bill-drafting feature, was created. It is at work, and it is being used by some of the few thoughtful congressmen. The majority, however, are enjoying that immunity from mental action, that separation from intellectual effort, and that absence of brain-filling which make life, after all, just about what it is, in Congress as well as out. 

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