"The institution is still humanly perfect. The problem is, the inmates in it are not. There's all manner of rascality and bad behavior going on here. I'm more frustrated than I've ever been in my career." - Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat
Dingell, who will be 86 in July, ought to know about these matters. He's serving his 29th term - longest in congressional history and he has watched the "People's House" go from bad to worse with the arrival of an army of freshmen Tea Patrtiers on Capitol hill who equate compromise with treason.
His despair is clearly inscribed in Robert Draper's new book Do Not Ask What Good We Do - which is more of a political autopsy of the congressional corpse that reveals more than enough to ruin your hopes of reasonable progress in the forseeable future.
The author is a freelance who has written for the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic. The characters who people his work are fairly well known by anyone with at least a passing interest in the political world that shapes our workaday lives - self-absorbed crusaders on the right bearing political venom and a cross. Reps. Allen West, slandering Nancy Pelosi beyond normal muck; Tea Party Paul Ryan and his budget to nowhere; John Boehner, forever chacllenged by the zombies to the right of him. Eric Cantor...You get the idea of each playing their temporary roles as cult figures until replaced by another generation with a greater vision of progressive democracy. (We can hope.)
There's also a full account of the imbecilic behavior of Anthony Weiner, with his clothes on or down to his puffed shorts . Certainly this is peekaboo stuff written with sober attention to detail about a dysfunctional House whose popularity has fallen at times to 10 pct or less.
The crowning chapter is Draper's play-by-play account of the ugly path leading to a vote in 2011 to raise the debt ceiling as the Tea Party freshmen insisted that spending be cut (except for a new bridge or road in their district) , lower taxes and threats and ultimatums to anyone open to compromise (including Boehner) to head off a govewrnment shutdown. The calamity was finally averted at the last moment, but not before egos and political careers suffered badly.
There is much here that one doesn't learn from watching the Sunday talk shows or the 20-minute network capsule news at dinnertime. Even cable TV, limited by time and commercial breaks, cannot flesh out the the behind-the-seen antics with added dimension of those who are either impeding or struggling to upgrade efforts to engage sane minds in the process. People interested in the detailed workings of Congress, which familiarly has been described as sausage-making, will enjoy the book. But you also will be left wondering whether Congress these days can even grind out a half-way decent sausage.