David E. Price wrote the book on Congress. “The Congressional Experience,” by the political science professor turned longtime lawmaker from North Carolina, is now in its fourth edition.
He doesn’t just update his book, he references it. “I can show you a diagram in the book if you want,” the Democrat said during our interview back in March. But as the retiring 81-year-old leafed through the pages he wrote, he was interrupted by a phone call: It was Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“I have to take it,” Price said, apologetically.
Heard on the Hill was not offended, though slightly disappointed, when Price wouldn’t reveal what the conversation was about. Instead, he returned to expounding on Congress, his historical perspective on contemporary politics, and the future of liberal democracy here and abroad.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: When you were first elected to Congress, the Berlin Wall was still standing. As you leave, do you feel more or less hopeful for the future of liberalism and democracy?
A: It does kind of bookend my service, since you ask it that way. I came here just as communism was crumbling, and one of my first and most satisfying involvements was with Martin Frost’s bipartisan commission that reached out to parliaments in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Baltics. It was not clear that democracy was going to work in these places. Some are now backsliding, but these countries that emerged from Soviet rule became members of the family of parliamentary democracies. It’s never a done deal totally, but it’s well established that that’s what they aspire to be, and that most certainly includes Ukraine.
OK, but am I optimistic looking forward? I have to say I’m apprehensive. I mean, I know what the trends look like, the Freedom House trends that everyone cites. Countries that we have worked with in the House Democracy Partnership, the next generation of emerging democracies, a lot of them are in trouble. Tunisia is in trouble. Sri Lanka is in trouble. Burma is certainly in trouble. Kyrgyzstan has backslid. In other countries, democracy seems to be on a positive trajectory, like Armenia and Moldova. Overall, there’s ample reason for concern about whether democracy is or can be the wave of the future.
Ironically, what Putin has just now done may actually, in the end, improve the chances. The West is reacting. What’s going on in Poland and Hungary right now as they see this? I bet it makes a lot of people think.
Q: What about domestically? How have politics changed since your first election?
A: People think things have never been more contentious, but I cut my teeth on North Carolina politics. Jesse Helms set the pattern early on for a very negative attack mode. I was by no means the worst victim in my campaigns, but I got a flavor of it. I lost a tough election in ’94, in the Gingrich revolution, but I made a comeback and managed to stay ever since.
For most people, though, campaigns today are worse. The situation is not only more polarized, but less constrained by norms of how you conduct yourself in a democracy and less constrained in terms of the money spent. And the polarization is asymmetrical in the sense that the Republican Party has particularly gone off the rails in terms of ideological extremism.
Democrats have the Squad, we have a few members on the far end of the spectrum, but it’s just nothing like the Freedom Caucus. The content of the ideology matters too, alternating between libertarian and Trumpian.
The setting I really enjoyed as a new member was the freewheeling committee activity, introducing a bill, the classic “bill becomes a law.” You work up to hearings, you have a markup, get compromises worked out and then the committee product goes to the floor. Well, you know how that has gone. That is not the way it’s done anymore. And I’m not saying there’s not a good reason for a more centralized operation. When Nancy Pelosi became speaker, nobody predicted that we’d go back to the good old days when the committee chairs ruled the roost, and I didn’t want us to do that. There needed to be a more disciplined party operation. But there is a loss there too. Hopefully post-COVID we can strike a balance whereby we keep strong leadership but we also have robust committee operations.
Q: You’re a political scientist, and you’ve spent 17 terms here. If you had carte blanche, how would you fix Congress?
A: One thing I say in my book is that congressional reform is considerably oversold. OK, maybe there are things that we can do. We shouldn’t be voting on the debt ceiling, for example, since that’s a huge diversion, and we need to respect and pay and train our staff better. Professionalization on the staff side has deteriorated and was dealt a damaging blow in the Gingrich years. But I don’t have a magic key.
I mean, the troubles of the Congress right now are not just troubles of rules and procedures. The troubles in the Congress are political, and so the answer is simply to win an election. I’m not saying Democrats are all virtuous or anything like that. But some of the most satisfying, coherent operations I’ve seen here have been in the years where there was unified party control, and it was Democratic control. Especially given the turn the Republican Party’s taken and the threat of Donald Trump coming back, I feel very strongly we need to win these next elections.
It’s a kind of political distemper. I asked a Republican colleague the other day why they didn’t just take care of some obvious problems they had with another member, and his answer was, “Oh, the base loves it.” Give me a break. You have to guide, you have to offer some leadership. And I think it’s really, truly alarming the extent to which Republican members have not done that. I thought it would happen after the insurrection, but it didn’t.
Q: What’s your advice for the next generation of lawmakers?
A: Gosh, you make me sound like a sage. I do think the legislative branch of government is the first branch of government, so if it doesn’t work, democracy doesn’t work — and I’m talking about our country, but also parliaments all over the democratic world.
Free and fair elections are important, but what happens between elections is even more important. It can’t just be our own performance platform for a social media audience or whatever. If you’re elected to this institution, you are representing your people in a very direct way, and you need to feel some responsibility for making the institution work.
I think it’s damaging that some of our members these days think the only way to show how much they care about something is to threaten to bring the house down. OK, I believe in fighting for what you believe in and strategizing to get the most you can, but then you need to be part of the solution at the end.
Q: One of the joys about retiring is you get to tell the people what you really think. Do you want to do that?
A: My experience is once you’re retiring, everybody loves you. The decibels go down somewhat when you’re on the way out. I’ve had such nice things said by people from both parties. My heart is warmed by that, and I return the affection.
Last book you read? I have a family friend named Walter Bennett who was a lawyer for his whole career, and then he wrote this interesting novel called “The Last First Kiss.” And “Burning Down the House” by Julian Zelizer is really good.
In politics, can the ends justify the means? Yes, but not always. I used to teach ethics. There was a time in a caucus meeting when I had to make an argument about this, and I didn’t use these words, but I said in Ethics 101, you learn the difference between deontological and consequentialist ethical decisions, and there are times in politics when you make both.
Least popular opinion? That members of Congress should be less self-indulgent and take more account of the way the institution is working.
What are you proud of? Setting up the House Democracy Partnership, the parliament commission I initiated. And one appropriations victory in particular, to conclude a nine-year process of funding the world-class Environmental Protection Agency lab in North Carolina.
What’s next for you? I’m going to go back to North Carolina. I’m certainly not going to take another formal position, but I expect to do a good bit of teaching.