Watching the 111th lame duck Congress has been an amazing civics lesson. We were always told, “actions speak louder than words.” When applied to politicians, however, it is remarkable how loud those words sound. And how different those actions sometimes are.

Republicans pontificate about limiting the size of government but then vote for one of the largest stimulus plans in history. Not wanting to be outdone, Democrats sound off about helping “the forgotten man” but gear most of the stimulus dollars to those who need it the least.

How are we to explain a vote in Congress? Why do their actions so often deviate from their words?

As a graduate student I recall reading a remarkable response to this question in Esquire magazine. The article was written by one of our foremost political journalists Hendrik Hertzberg. The piece from February 1986, entitled The Education of Mr. Smith, accounted for Congressional behavior this way:

“Effectiveness means reelection above all, but it also means cultivating many “they’s”-contributors, party leaders, the press, one’s own “image.” At any given moment, on any given issue, the young politician rides a rapids of crosscutting moral eddies. He can vote the money, or he can vote his friends, or he can vote the party, or he can vote the district. Or he can vote the country, the planet, his conscience-different words for the phenomenon known to politicians, who skip the flowery language when talking among themselves, as “doing the right thing. Money, friends, party, district, the right thing – all are …frames of reference one can honor…”

Apparently “doing the right thing” depends upon whose “right” and whose “thing” you are talking about. Rarely do “they” seem to involve our “rights” and our “things.” Someone else is getting all of the advantages.

Money, we presume, has always been at the center table of power. We all learned the Golden Rule at a young age. “He with the gold, rules.” This year’s Congressional record would certainly provide ample evidence.

Having friends on Facebook pales in comparison to having friends in Washington. Gaining access inside the Beltway is nothing short of securing Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. Backslapping and logrolling is the currency of deal making inside our Congress. Often inexplicable votes can easily be explained when recognizing certain fraternal orders of Beltway friendships.

Political parties may be weak back home but they have never been stronger in our Congress. The Party trumps most everything. Party discipline has never been higher. Both Democrats and Republicans each stick together when voting around 90% of the time. The pundits tell us about today’s partisan Congress. They could not be any more right.

And what about voting for your district? Members of Congress are elected, after all, to represent us. Yet with our carefully gerrymandered districts there is little incentive to compromise or discuss issues across a mixed field of diverse players. Districts are no such thing. We truly have split our Congressional districts into red and blue neighborhoods. Congressman can say they are voting district when in actuality they are simply voting party.

Perhaps this is why our Congress is held in such low repute. The “ayes” put them in office but the “theys” seem to get all of the benefits.

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