Poisoned Political Water Breeds Acrimony, Contempt

Posted March 15, 2004 at 1:11pm

The air is poison. Tension grips even the most casual conversations, which have become an exercise in short, cryptic remarks, many times more grunted than spoken. Distrust is the order of the day. People keep looking over their shoulders to see if anyone has taken an unhealthy interest in them. The environment is hostile and does not lend itself to any degree of accomplishment.

Although the preceding description might sound like the shoot-out scene from “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” or a meeting of aliens after an invasion from outer space, you need only to spend a little time under the Capitol Dome or in one of the six office buildings spread over Capitol Hill to be consumed by its reality.

I’m not talking about post-Sept. 11 security measures that have created an environment that is very restrictive. Most people accept it as a necessary change to protect the buildings and their occupants. No real problem there.

The real danger is that the political water has been poisoned.

In conversations with both Republican and Democratic Members of Congress and their staff, the story is the same: Acrimony rules, and the number of people willing to work together is shrinking and shrinking. Even mundane issues breed contempt.

This is a dangerous path our country has started down.

Evidence of this deteriorating condition is displayed in many public ways. The Senate could not agree on passage of the fiscal 2004 appropriations bills. According to law, Sept. 30, 2003, was the deadline. After seven continuing resolutions, Christmas, New Year’s and the early break in January, Congress finally passed a consolidated appropriations bill this year.

And the current climate indicates the Senate probably will not complete the fiscal 2005 appropriations bills this year.

Campaigns have grown to be personal attacks rather than a debate over issues.

As the presidential election heats up, it is evident that the “my way or the highway” attitude is more and more predominant. During the recent heated campaigning for the Democratic nomination, one of the candidates was beating up on his colleagues because they actually attempted to work with a Republican president. A growing faction in the Republican Party is beating up on President Bush because he reached out to Democrats.

Now that it’s certain who the nominee will be, the pundits are all saying this is going to be one of the dirtiest, nastiest races in history.

The media, in an attempt to fill the voracious appetite of 24/7 news outlets, are spending hours on trivial, mundane issues that have nothing to do with good governance but everything to do with titillation and better ratings.

Whoa! Stop the presses! Unless I slept through all my American government classes in good old Farragut High School or spent 12 years in Congress doing the wrong thing, I thought government was designed to be about cooperation and compromise.

The way I was taught, people were elected with differing points of view for the express purpose of having civil debates over those contrary viewpoints and arriving at a solution that best serves the people. Everyone may have to give up a little.

That system has served this country very well for more than 200 years. However, republics have a history of decay and failure once they pass that 200-year mark. Is that starting to happen to us now?

All those serving in public office and those seeking it should recognize one very important fact: It is not about you, it’s about the country.

We are now in a period where personal agendas have taken precedence over doing the right thing for the country.

Statesmanship has virtually disappeared from the political arena. Our forefathers gave up personal wealth and endured much hardship for this country. It was not about them but rather the building of a free country.

Young men and women have died on wretched battlefields all over the world defending the right to live free. Did they like and embrace everything in the United States? Probably not, but they did feel a passion and dedication to protect what they believed was important — a society in which people of divergent beliefs and values could come together and cooperate for the common good.

Today, politicians have a responsibility to protect, build and improve this country just as George Washington and his contemporaries did in their day. The problems have not changed, only the calendar. Unfortunately, statesmen have faded away.

Who will be first to give up his pet project so critical legislation can move forward? Who will face losing an election because she is doing the right thing for the country? Who will put personal ambition aside and place the interests of the United States as No. 1? Who will be the first to reach across the political aisle, shake hands and say, “Let’s make this country work by working together”?

And who will be the first to congratulate that person and then do the same to one of his or her colleagues?

My fear is no one will answer the call, because there is nothing but personal agendas and swords in the wind on Capitol Hill.

Former Rep. Jim Ross Lightfoot (R-Iowa) served in Congress from 1985 to 1997.