When the Democrats lost the majority they had held in the House of Representatives for four decades, I saw a gesture that would be unimaginable today. On the evening of November 29, 1994, he allowed the highest-ranking Republican in that block to preside over that body.
It was a show of love and respect for Minority Leader Bob Mitchell, who was retiring after 38 years of service in the then Democrat-controlled House. Mitchell hugged the outgoing Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, who was replaced by a Republican.
Republicans won a majority at the hands of Newt Gingrich, a veteran politician very different from Mitchell, who had always wanted consensus.
This relationship between the leaders of both the parties has become a thing of the past. This was replaced by distrust and hostility, reflected in the magnetometer that legislators must cross before entering the chamber.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, sets up metal detectors over Republican objections after the brutal January 6, 2021 attack in which Donald Trump’s mob took over Congress. Democrats also expressed concern over Republicans carrying guns.
The contrast and the forces behind it when I retired after four decades of covering Capitol Hill explain why I loved covering Congress so much, and why I’ve become so disillusioned lately.
Congress is dominated by masters of the art of making concessions who have survived the brutal manipulations of the most ambitious politicians. Covering them is like watching a blazing Broadway drama, except you chat with the lead.
In an ironic episode, I saw Gingrich rail against conservatives in 1998, who upstaged him because he opposed the deal he had sealed with President Bill Clinton. Gingrich described them as “a faction of perfectionists”, in an outspoken defense of compromise in the regime. Soon after, he announced his retirement from Congress.
Around midnight on September 11, 2001, I watched as Democrats and Republicans, in a show of solidarity, sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capitol.
With an air of victory, Pelosi picked up the gavel in 2007, when she became the first woman to preside over the chamber. He said it was a huge success “for our daughters and granddaughters”.
Eight years later, I saw emotion in the eyes of House Speaker John Boehner, an ardent Catholic, when he received Pope Francis, whom he had invited to Congress.
The next morning I saw the shock on Republican faces when Boehner announced he was leaving, tired of being harassed by a new generation of far-right conservatives grouped in the House Freedom Caucus.
Democrats and Republicans cheered when GOP No. 3 Steve Scallis was paralyzed in the chamber in 2017, three months after he was seriously injured when a man opened fire during GOP baseball practice.
I have seen many changes. Since Pelosi entered the chamber in 1987, the number of women has increased from 25 to 146. There are about 130 minority MPs, up from 38 at that time.
I also saw great unrest. With the rise of the #MeToo movement in early 2017, Democratic Senator Al Franken and other lawmakers resigned over allegations of sexual harassment.
I had an interesting encounter with a President recently in 2001. I was in a ceremonial room in the Senate where the president signs a series of documents after delivering his inaugural address. Next to me was President George W. Bush. I tried to woo her with a casual question: “So, how was it?” Bush answered what was certainly the first question he was asked as president politely, “Okay.”
Ever since I arrived in Washington in 1983, I’ve seen debates about wars, terrorism, recession, government shutdowns and taxes. Three of the four presidential impeachment trials in history have taken place. There were battles for social justice, abortion and epidemics. But I listened to lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, make dinner plans anyway. The grief over the deaths of Republican Representative Jackie Walorsky and two aides in a traffic accident this month was real on both sides.
Yet, the space to find common ground is getting smaller, the atmosphere is getting darker, and the stakes are getting higher.
Pelosi called House Republican caucus leader Kevin McCarthy an “idiot” for opposing the mandatory use of face masks in the chamber amid the coronavirus pandemic. McCarthy responded that it would be “hard to kill” if he becomes Speaker of the House. One of his spokesman said he was joking.
Moderates are less and less in both parties. People only read media related to their views and get radicalized. This gives legislators less incentive to compromise.
By the turn of the century, most of the nominees on the Supreme Court were approved without hindrance. In 2016, however, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked President Barack Obama from filling a vacancy, saying an election was just around the corner. When the same situation happened in 2020, McConnell hastened the appointment of a Trump-appointed judge, giving the Conservatives a 6-3 lead.
None of this compares to Trump’s unfounded claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, a claim rejected by dozens of courts, local officials and his own attorney general.
His lies encouraged the January 6 rebellion. I was not at the Capitol that day because of the pandemic, but I cannot forget the death, the destruction, the injuries and the hopeless feeling that democracy had been subverted.
Within hours after the crowd dispersed, more than half of House Republicans and eight senators voted against certifying Democrat Joe Biden as the winner. McCarthy initially said that Trump was partly responsible for the attack, but soon after he halted a bipartisan investigation into what happened.
Many Republicans try or try to divert attention from that rebellion, and Trump remains the party’s leading figure.
Criticism of politicians is nothing new. But current inquiries into the government and the electoral system promoted by Trump and his people coincide with warnings from officials about the growing threat of violence and even civil war.
Foley and Michelle would not recognize the country we live in today.