Congress continues to get meaner

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE – Washington, D.C. continues to get increasingly meaner with no end in sight. The recent national election changed nothing. The players are still the same and even if they had changed, little good would have resulted.
A major change in attitude must take place. Moderates currently get “primaried” by their own parties for not being radical enough right or left. This polarization was not always the case.
Fifty years ago our nation faced huge problems – communist fears, racial tensions and our first Catholic president. Many figured the Pope would move into the Lincoln bedroom and start running the government. But Washington remained basically civil. Moderate Democrats and Republicans managed to hammer out problems despite the crazies on the fringe.
Now extremists are causing enough problems that Congress and the president are afraid to move. The causes likely are many. One of my favorite solutions is that members of Congress should get to know each other.
Senators, except a few from neighboring states, still live in Washington. But House members usually don’t anymore. The thought of congressmen living in their offices was downright weird. In fact, it wasn’t allowed until recently.
But in the recent election campaign, Congressman Martin Heinrich paid for a commercial to brag about living in Albuquerque half the time. It does demonstrate he stays close to his constituents and family. He boasts about his chore list and “boys’ Sundays.” But don’t we need him back in Washington representing us full time?
Over the years, New Mexico’s congressmen all lived in Washington. That changed with the election of Rep. Heather Wilson who had children at home. She rented a small apartment near Capitol Hill and usually flew to Albuquerque on Thursday afternoons and back to Washington on Mondays.
The U.S. House meets from Tuesday morning to Thursday noon. That’s two-and-a-half days a week. No wonder they can’t get anything done. One weekend during her 10 years in Congress, Wilson remained in Washington to attend a retreat designed to bring members of the U.S. House together. It was big news but it didn’t make much of a dent in the years of being apart four-and-a-half days a week.
New Mexico representatives such as Steve Pearce, Tom Udall, Bill Richardson and Manuel Lujan all moved up through the ranks of the U.S. House quicker than the average congressman. I often have wondered if living in Washington and interacting with other members of Congress on weekends didn’t help their careers.
Maybe we should ask our future congressional candidates to commit to living in Washington and representing us full time. They could be criticized for developing a “beltway” mentality but so far it doesn’t seem to have hurt any of our Washington full timers.
The U.S. Senate is talking about the nuclear option again. This time it doesn’t refer to Iran or that sort of thing. “Nuclear option” is what Senate Republicans called their threat to limit the filibuster power of Democrats the last time Republicans had a Senate majority.
Republicans never did anything about it but then Democrats gained a majority and when the senatorial class of 2008 was elected New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and most of the other freshman Democrat senators decided they wanted to take a crack at limiting Republican debate privileges.
Udall led the effort and thought he might be on his way to success when some of the longtime Democratic senators stepped in and noted that when Republicans regain a majority, sooner or later, they are sure to keep the same rules. So the effort died.
Now another class of new Democratic senators is ready to go to Washington with a burning ambition to stifle Republican debate. But this time something is different. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he has reached a sufficient frustration level that he is entertaining the notion of allowing the freshmen make their try. Watch for it on the first day of the new Congress.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist based in Santa Fe.