A Congressman In Trouble For Trying To Be…A Congressman

A short article in Roll Call, a small newspaper that circulates mainly among lawmakers, staffers, newspaper people and other denizens of Capitol Hill, caught our eye the other day.  With Congress headed out of town for a month-long recess, it’s relevant.

The story discussed Rep. Richard “Rick” Nolan, a Democrat whose district stretches from Minnesota’s Iron Range – a labor bastion – down to the northern Minneapolis suburbs, arguably the most-Right Wing part of the Twin Cities area and, indeed, of all of Minnesota.

It seems that other Democrats, local and national, are worried about Nolan’s chances of holding onto his U.S. House seat this November, but not for the usual reasons.

They’re worried because Nolan came to Washington, or, to be precise, returned to Washington, with what now seems to be a quaint idea: To do his job.

In other words, to think about and tackle our problems, to cast tough votes on them, to work with colleagues of both parties and, he says, “to let the chips fall where they may.”

For this attitude – a congressman who actually came to Congress to be a congressman – he’s in political trouble.

There’s a reason for Nolan’s notions: This is not his first stint on Capitol Hill.  He was a member of the famed “Watergate Class” of 1974, and served three terms, before retiring and returning to Minnesota.  That group of lawmakers shared the attitudes he has.

But these days, those attitudes are a distinct minority in Congress.

Lawmakers, of both parties, come to pontificate, not legislate.  They must blow their own horns and wax ideological, not to help the country, but to satisfy the extremes of their electorates, Democratic or Republican.

And to stay in office, they must raise millions of dollars – a chore Nolan hates and often adamantly refuses to do – or self-fund their own campaigns, as his Republican foe, a wealthy Right Wing businessman, is doing.  Or the candidates must become beholden to SuperPACs funded by secret scads of corporate campaign cash, and not to their own constituents.

It’s a very sorry state of affairs, and it’s a bipartisan problem.  For every Rick Nolan among the Democrats, who wants to legislate, there may well be a counterpart among the Republicans.  We just don’t hear about those true lawmakers, of or from either party.

And the whole scene leaves voters immensely disgusted and disillusioned.  Most stay home, especially in off-year elections like this one, yielding ever more power as a result to the ideologically committed “base voters” of both parties.  The problem spirals out of control.

There are ways to break this vicious cycle.  One is for voters to insist the people they elect work across the aisle – and to vote out of office those who don’t.  Make that clear to them as they campaign amongst you this month.  Get ironclad written-in-blood pledges, if you must.

Another is to ignore the ideological ads and the tons of corporate campaign cash and focus on bread-and-butter kitchen-table issues: Good jobs, health care, pensions.  And so on.

And a third – and this will take some doing – is to break the link between money and politics completely.   That’s a long and hard slog and the U.S. Supreme Court is tilted against us in that fight, too.   Still, we have to start.

But we can’t just sit out this fall’s balloting in a mood of cynicism and distrust.  We should strongly back lawmakers who really want to help the country.  And we must start doing something about this mire of money-fueled mudslinging and lies.  Otherwise, it won’t be just Rick Nolan who will be endangered.  It will be democracy and civil society itself.