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American Studies on the Hill (by Pirmin Olde Weghuis)

Date:06 August 2015
Pirmin Olde Weghuis
Pirmin Olde Weghuis

Would you work for a branch of government that has a fourteen percent approval rating yet ninety-five percent of incumbents get reelected? Yes, maybe, but what if I tell you that last year voters looked more favorably on head lice than on their federal legislature? Would you still do it when Jon Stewart tells you not to worry about a bad reputation because, “When you guys suck, it’s not a failure. It’s just you living up to our extremely low expectations of you.” Perhaps I can offer some words of comfort, because in my experience a lot of Members of Congress, and their staff, are dedicated and passionate people.

Last January, supported by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and Humanity in Action, I crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Washington D.C. and the U.S. House of Representatives. For more than four months I worked as a legislative fellow in the office of Congresswoman Gr ace F. Napolitano. The office’s fame preceded it, because I have never heard so many people from all political affiliations speak so highly of a Member of Congress and her staff. Some really groundbreaking work gets done by the Congresswoman, especially on issues of mental health . This fellowship was of course a dream come true for a student of American political culture and history. A chance to go on a field trip with the knowledge acquired during my studies at the University of Groningen in my backpack.

The first few days you walk around a bit lost in the seemingly endless hallways and tunnels of the buildings on Capitol Hill. The Senate and House office buildings, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol are all connected underground. Whether you prefer the subway connection or your own feet to get around is completely up to your own discretion. However, do not be surprised when, after having watched Selma, you all of the sudden step into an elevator with Representative John Lewis. Nor if you find yourself watching the State of the Union together with Congressman Jim McDermott, or when you bump into Speaker John Boehner in the hallway during your first week in the office. It reminds you that this massive complex forms the heart of American democracy, and that it is the physical embodiment of the first of all branches government.

How then did Congress end up in a seemingly perpetual gridlock? It is difficult to say how this situation came into being, but one thing I noticed was the lack of interaction. Democrat Tom Lantos was known to reach across the aisle and work together with Republicans colleagues on specific issues. Disagreeing on almost everything else, they respected each other enough to work together on issues they agreed upon. From my experience I can tell that this ability to collaborate is lacking nowadays. It is most visible when you observe people’s behavior, because, in the Longworth Office Building restaurant, Democrats have lunch with other Democrats, and Republicans have lunch with other Republicans.

It becomes even more apparent when you take a look at the places where people are going home to. The District of Columbia is overwhelmingly Democrat whereas the surrounding suburbs in Virginia house a majority of Republicans. For example, in the 2012 District of Columbia Republican primary, “a grand total of 4,446 D.C. Republicans turned out to vote, in a city of about 600,000 residents.” The inability to communicate is reflected in this physical segregation of living spaces. However, this is not some odd particularity of the inhabitants of Washington D.C. Changing demographics, urbanization, and immigration are rearranging the political map. Rural areas vote overwhelmingly Republican, and most urban areas tend to vote Democrat. Or, when you put it in stereotypes, gun-owning, predominantly white and Protestant, rural communities are diametrically opposed to the skimmed-milk Frappuccino-drinking progressive liberal urbanites.

As a result of this frustration with Congress, Americans nowadays seem to look at the second branch, the Executive, and third branch, the Judiciary, for decisive action on issues of equal marriage, universal healthcare, and immigration reform. Personally I am a big supporter of equal marriage rights, an affordable healthcare system, and a fair and just immigration policy. People should be free to love, to live in good health, and to have equal opportunity as an immigrant. However, in my opinion these big issues should be resolved in the People’s Chamber and in the Senate, while Congress is the place where they should be debated publicly for everyone to see and judge.

The current situation raises questions, justified or not, about the doctrine of non-delegation and a lack of democratic legitimacy to Supreme Court decisions. Perhaps the most worrisome is the potentially destabilizing effect it has on the democratic process. If the executive administration changes after an election, the new President can turn around regulatory interpretation with relative ease. A lot of legislation, therefore, ends up as part of the discretionary authority of the President. Additionally, the current situation has also politicized the Supreme Court to almost unprecedented heights, and Presidential nominations of new Judges have never been so pivotal. I am extremely happy with the decisions in favor of equal marriage, nationwide Obamacare, and with President Obama’s executive action on immigration. However, it is time for Congress to step up its game, and take the authority vested in them by the Constitution, to compromise, to work together, and to achieve a freer and more equal society for all.

I would like to end on a more positive note. The months in Washington D.C. have been incredible and I am very thankful for the opportunity offered by my office, and for all the friendships and wonderful moments. It has been a transformative experience and one that I will always cherish. Working in Congress has made me ever more aware that the United States is a nation of extremes and contrasts. Some really good work gets done, and some terrible theatre is performed as well. Perhaps Alexis de Tocqueville was right when he asked us “not to seek in the United States uniformity and permanence of views, minute care of details, perfection of administrative procedures; what one finds there is the image of force, a little wild, it is true, but full of power; [the image] of life accompanied by accidents, but also by movement and efforts.”