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September 23rd, 2017

Insight

Members of Congress, get out of town

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published July 18, 2017

Members of Congress, get out of town
Oliver Cromwell to members of Parliament: "Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?"
CRAWFORD NOTCH, N.H. - Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government. Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would, like Esau, sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your G0D for a few pieces of money. Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess?

Well, that's a bit harsh, but only a wee bit. Yet that excerpt from Oliver Cromwell's 1653 speech, in which he described lawmakers as having "contempt of all virtue" and in which he dissolved the famous Rump Parliament, is not totally inappropriate for our time, three and three-quarter centuries later.

Because of all the wretched ideas that have come out of Washington this year, one of the worst is the notion - first proposed by a president frustrated with Capitol Hill's paralysis on health care and the Democrats' success in blocking his appointments - that Congress should stay in Washington rather than disperse for its summer holiday.

There is some poetic justice in making the members of the House and Senate swelter in the capital's relentless August heat and to labor under the remorseless blanket of humidity that descends on the city. And it is well known that Congress acts only under extreme deadline pressure, which would of course be amplified by the peculiar sort of extreme climactic tyranny that only the Federal City can provide.

Besides, punishing members of Congress for their "immoral principles and wicked practices" and for having "grown intolerably odious to the whole nation"- again, Cromwell's words, but well-chosen - has a certain sadistic allure. It says to lawmakers: You didn't do the work you were called upon to do, so you don't get to go away. Repent, and tough luck if you have non-refundable tickets to a beach enclave.

I admit, it is an appealing thought. But Cromwell's indictment, and his verdict that "you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed [and] are yourselves become the greatest grievance," are the very reason members of Congress should go on vacation.


The Founders worried that members of Congress might drift far from the public, its sentiments and interests, a concern that political figures on the left as well as on the right have cited across the generations. More recently, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a devout conservative, has written that the Founders believed that "[f]reedom itself depended on an elected legislature of citizen lawmakers." Today's citizen lawmakers, if in fact that is what they are, need to be exposed to the rest of the citizenry as often, and as deeply, as possible. Another two weeks in Washington is not the prescription they need.

From a professional politician's point of view, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell - who has been in government for 42 years and is married to a woman who has been in government for nearly a dozen years, serving in the Cabinet of two presidents - had ample reason to want to keep the Senate in session.

"In order to provide more time to complete action on important legislative items and process nominees that have been stalled by a lack of cooperation from our friends across the aisle," the Kentucky lawmaker said in a statement Tuesday, "the Senate will delay the start of the August recess until the third week of August."

That is Mr. McConnell as Mr. Dutiful, with a dash of partisanship, but it is not difficult to imagine Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York issuing the exact statement were the partisan profile of Washington reversed.

But I cannot repress from my memory a remark from a member of the inner circle of the late Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, another dutiful soul who, on a visit to Disney World to give a speech in Florida, spent the entire time in a hotel room with the blinds closed. Mr. Cuomo's greatest character flaw, this associate said, was that he never took a vacation.

A study released early this year by the international market-research firm GfK showed that the city where people took the fewest days off was Washington, D.C., which gives the lie to the notion that the capital is full of slackers. (The city where people take the most vacation is Pittsburgh.) No one on Earth - certainly not this typist, who lived in the capital for nearly a quarter century but who now resides happily amid the hills and along the shores of the three rivers - argues that people in Washington have greater perspective than people in Pittsburgh.

The point is that the nation's lawmakers would be better served by spending some time in mountainside contemplation or lakeside leisure -both available here in the mountains of New Hampshire - than by spending an additional fortnight hearing mind-numbing legislative mumbo-jumbo, fighting over rules of order, fulminating at cable hosts, obsessing over presidential tweets and preparing statements seeking to explain the inexplicable to the incredulous.

Nor would it hurt members of Congress to walk the streets of their hometowns and encounter the members of the public who sent them to Washington only to see them bicker among themselves and belittle each other. Yes, they just recently had a recess. But truly they cannot be amid the people too often.

The work will always be there, and in most cases - perhaps not on health care, where additional hearings might be of value - the work can be accomplished in a fraction of the time Congress usually consumes. Here's advice from the pages of the Harvard Business Review: "If you plan ahead, create social connections on the trip, go far from your work and feel safe, 94 percent of vacations have a good [return on investment] in terms of your energy and outlook upon returning to work."

So, members of Congress: Take a swim. Take a hike. Awaken to the sunrise and gaze at the sunset. Hold a town meeting or two and keep your ears, and your mind, open. Listen, too, to Cromwell: "Go, get you out! Make haste! Ye venal slaves be gone! So! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. In the name of God, go!"

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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