Congressional job approval is at 13 percent, on par with Washington’s frigid weather. When members gather in the House Chamber Tuesday evening for President Obama’s State of the Union address, they do so knowing the public holds them in extremely low regard. Rude, self-serving, hypocritical, parochial, and incompetent is how former Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes lawmakers in his new memoir, Duty. On the Daily Show, Gates piled on, calling Congress “venal and small.” Just about everything else in Gates’s book sparked controversy, but not what he writes about Congress. Disgust with Congress is universal, crossing party lines and political allegiances.
The verdict is in, and it isn’t pretty, which is why I sought a second opinion from someone in a unique position to put into context the hyper-partisanship that is paralyzing Congress and preventing it from doing the people’s business. North Carolina Rep. David Price is a political scientist who taught at Duke University before he was elected to Congress in 1986. A Democrat, he was defeated in 1994, when Republicans led by a fiery Newt Gingrich took control of the House.
In a re-match two years later, Price won his seat back, and 18 years later, thanks to Republican redistricting, his seat is safe. “It was not done for my benefit,” he says, explaining that gerrymandering left Democrats with just 4 of North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats, even though the majority of votes for Congress in the state were Democratic. Four other states that Obama carried, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan had the same result, with Democrats “lucky to get a third of the House seats,” Price says.
White-haired and 73, Price is equally at home in Congress or a classroom. “What I did as an academic informed my work,” he says, explaining how he adopted the model of “policy entrepreneur,” latching onto a set of goals in each congressional session that he saw as do-able and working to accomplish them. “I never batted a thousand but I got some things done,” he says. He cites a program at the National Science Foundation that provides seed money for community colleges to increase their technological skills. It recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Price points to an image on his wall of an impressive looking structure that is the main research laboratory for the EPA. “It took nine years of work,” he says. The Raleigh-Durham lab is a big coup for Price, and for his district. It was an earmark, a congressional practice that was abused and led to a ban first enacted by Democrats in 2010 and reinforced by Republicans once they took power. Price defends earmarks and sought them for a range of very specific local needs, from stream restoration to boosting farmers’ markets, and of course the major EPA lab that he is so proud of.
No one wants to return to the days of the congressional barons, but the inability of Congress to perform stems in part from the decreased power of committee chairs. Winding up his book tour in Washington at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters, Gates recalled how presidents used to call committee chairs to the White House, and together they decided what needed to be done, “and those guys could deliver,” he said. Price recalls committees serving as “incubators for ideas,” and funding for medical research and the NIH routinely approved, “that was a bipartisan juggernaut.” With today’s austerity, barely 8 percent of NIH approved grants get funded.
A self-described “institutionalist,” Price is frustrated by the way what members call “regular order” has broken down, sidelining lawmakers while power is centralized in the leadership. “We were twiddling our thumbs through September and much of the summer when in past years we would have been writing and passing appropriations bills,” he says. “If we restored some semblance (of regular order), we wouldn’t be heading out of here every third week.” When the House passed a bipartisan budget earlier this month, Price felt the stirrings of hope. “Maybe we can get back to business,” he told Republican Hal Rogers, who chairs the Appropriations committee.
Price is a ranking member on Appropriations, traditionally a highly coveted assignment because it writes the bills that distribute federal money. But in today’s political climate, the committee is toxic for some members. “A lot of Republicans see it as the enemy. It is spending—and that’s enough for a lot of these guys not to be anywhere near the committee, and to see its members as compromisers,” says Price. “And on our side members wait for years (to get on Appropriations), and on the Republican side, they appoint a lot of junior members, and there’s been an exodus from the committee.”
The afternoon I chatted with Price, he had just learned that his good friend Virginia Rep. Jim Moran would not be running for reelection. A volatile guy, big-hearted and very smart, Moran is not facing any opposition, and his retirement puzzled Price. “What are you trying to do to us?” Price asked his colleague. Moran replied that if he was going to move on, this was the time to do it. With lawmakers facing flat-line budgets for the foreseeable future, even the seat on Appropriations that Moran holds is not enough of an inducement.
The appropriate question to wrap up our conversation is, why does Price stay? “I want to see this rough patch through,” he says, adding, “There is still lots I can do.” Bipartisanship might take hold once again, and if it doesn’t, for a political scientist who studies the workings of government, where else could he get such rich material on a dysfunctional Congress.